‘His friend Andrew Boorde, the physician, is writing a book on beards; he is against them.’
– Hilary Mantel, Bring Up The Bodies
My treat this weekend was getting stuck into Bring Up The Bodies, Hilary Mantel’s brand-new Tudor novel. I loved Wolf Hall and, a hundred pages into the sequel, I’m similarly captivated. She knows the period inside out and the attention to detail – as well as the prose – is staggering, right down to a few little Easter eggs for the nerdier Tudor buffs among us.
When I posted on Facebook that I’d bought the book, a friend (and fellow early modernist) commented excitedly to tell me to check out page 67 for a cameo by someone we’re both quite fond of. That’s where I found the quote above, an aside referring to one of Thomas Cromwell’s many contacts, and one of my favourite figures in sixteenth-century England.
Andrew Boorde was born around 1490. As with many a smart young man in early Tudor England, he became a monk, joining the Carthusian order in 1515. However, after some early success, he ended up getting demoted in 1517 for being ‘conversant with women’. It’s worth glossing ‘conversant’ here – in sixteenth-century English, it means something rather more intimate than just having a chat. There’s a fantastic piece to be written on the many meanings of ‘conversation’ in the early modern period, but you’ll have to wait until the Ph.D is done for that, I’m afraid.
In trouble for his less-than-monastic inclinations, and fed up with – among other things – the vegetarian diet followed by the Carthusians, Boorde asked to be released from his vows. Randy and carnivorous, he set out on a life as varied and exciting as any in this period. When he refers to himself in Latin as ‘Andreas parforatus’ (Andrew Bored), he’s certainly not punning on any lack of interest in his own experiences.
With the cloister behind him, our Andrew set about training as a doctor, travelling between the universities of Europe in search of medical knowledge. This wanderlust, along with a fierce curiosity and a cheeky sense of humour, was something which would characterise Boorde in his writings. He shows up briefly (so far) in Hilary Mantel’s book as a friend of Cromwell. Like so many others, he was engaged in funnelling information to Henry VIII’s right-hand-man: he travelled to the continent on Cromwell’s orders in 1535 to gauge European opinions on the king’s divorce. Boorde’s interests, of course, were always more than straightforwardly political, even in his capacity as an ‘intelligencer’ – the Dictionary of National Biography charmingly records that, in the summer of 1535, ‘Boorde sent rhubarb seeds from Barbary to Cromwell with directions for their cultivation, noting that the plant was greatly prized in Spain’.
A trained doctor and popular medical writer of the time, I actually came to Boorde through his Fyrst boke of the Introduction of knowledge, which was published in London around 1550 but seems to have been written around eight years before, in Montpellier. It’s a fantastic piece, and you can find a version of it for free here.
The material of the Fyrst boke is worked up from Boorde’s experiences of travelling in Europe and beyond. For an Englishman of his time, he was astonishingly well-travelled (even if we don’t take his every claim at face value). The book takes the form of an idiosyncratic record of his travels on the continent and through the British and Irish Isles, offering the reader a description of the people of the countries he had visited (presented through the medium of impressively awful poetry), a crude woodcut claiming to be a representation of their dress, and some useful information for the traveller.
My interest in Boorde comes from the fact that he tried to present his readers with a few choice phrases in a great number of European and non-European languages, as well as information on the coinage and culture of the countries he described. The language he offered was simple and often practical, if occasionally more obscure:
‘Syr, can you speke any Welshe?
Ye, syr, I can speke some Welshe.
Wyfe! hath preestes wyves in Wales?
Hold thy peace! they haue no Wyves now.’
This seems part of a joke about clerical marriage which I don’t quite get, but if anyone happens to know much about Welsh clergy in the sixteenth century and has some idea why this would have been funny, then please let me know!
Boorde’s experience practising as a doctor in Glasgow and London and journeying around much of Britain is seen in the interest he has in regional dialects. It’s important to remember here that England at the time was by no means linguistically homogenous: in the late fifteenth century, William Caxton could relate a story about a group of merchants who got into a misunderstanding on the Kentish side of the Thames, asking for eggs instead of ‘eyren’. The woman of the house refused to serve them, saying that she could not understand as she spoke no French. Some sixty years later, the idea that the English might be a people united by a common language was as problematic as ever. Boorde remarked that ‘In Cornwall is two speches; the one is naughty Englyshe, and the other is Cornyshe speche’, and that ‘there be many men and women the whiche cannot speake one word of Englyshe, but all Cornyshe’. It’s a testament to the difficulties you might face in making yourself understood when travelling through England and speaking English that Boorde even provided phrases in English and Cornish, though not without taking a moment to poke fun at speakers of ‘naughty Englyshe’ with a poem beginning ‘Iche cham a Cornyshe man’.
Interestingly, from my point of view, Boorde also seems to have spent time in Ireland. What impressed me on reading this volume was the fact that he’s clearly picked up a few words of Irish; even if they’re slightly mangled, they’re more than many would have had. He gave Irish numbers (‘Hewen. dow. tre. kaar. quiek. seth. showght. howght. nygh. deh. hewnek. dowek. tredeek. kaardeek…’) and some useful phrases:
‘How do you fare? Kanys stato?
I do fare well, I thanke you. Tam agoomawh gramahogood
Syr, can you speke Iryshe? Sor, woll galow oket?’
If you’re an Irish-speaker, you’ll see he’s relatively close – his ‘Kanys stato’ is near enough to the modern ‘Conas atá tú’, and ‘Tam agoumawh gramahogood’ isn’t a world away from ‘Táim go maith, go raibh maith agat’, especially when you consider that he seems to be taking this from speech rather than from a book. Boorde has clearly spent time and effort talking to speakers of Irish and attempting to note a few words in the language, providing one of the earliest sets of phrases in English and colloquial Irish that I know of.
His travels did, however, take him further afield, and Boorde makes a stab at other languages – good French, some decent German, hilariously bad Italian (a kind of pidgin Italian that reminds me more of Terry Pratchett’s Nanny Ogg than anything else), numbers in Turkish, a smattering of Hebrew, and quite a few others. In case you, the traveller, were planning on packing the Fyrst Boke in your saddlebag, he even offered a quick guide on how to get to Jerusalem and what to bring – don’t forget to buy ‘a bygge cheste with a locke and kaye to kepe-in wyne, and water, and spices, and other necessary thynges’. Armed with that, a few phrases of the local lingo, the exchange rates and some handy stereotypes, what else could the early modern traveller need? And for the majority of readers who were unlikely to stir beyond their homes, Boorde’s book was perfect for the armchair explorer looking for a taste of the exotic, or at the very least for a few decent jokes about their Irish and Scottish neighbours.
In case you’re wondering: Boorde did, indeed, write ‘a book on beards’, but very sadly (at least for this hirsute historian), it’s been lost. What does survive is a reply to this treatise, written by one Milton Barnes, who sneeringly dismissed Boorde’s book, saying that ‘he was anymatyd to wryte his boke to thende, that great men may laugh therat’. Barnes summed up his comic opponent’s argument with the words ‘Some wyl weer berdes bycause theyr faces be pocky, maungy, sausflewme, lyporous, & dysfygured; by the whiche many clene men were infected’. What ‘sausflewme’ might mean is a mystery to me. Worse, it prompts a frisson of terror that my own visage might be sausflewme without me knowing it – you’d tell me, wouldn’t you?*
What I love about Boorde’s writing is its humour and verve, and the way it combines dodgy jokes with genuinely practical information. His Fyrst Boke manages to combine tall tales, amateur ethnography, and base doggerel in one of the most vivid travel documents of his time. It was a pleasure to have him show up in Mantel’s novel, but it made me just a little sadder that we’ll never know his thoughts on beards, even if finding his lost book might mean I’d finally have to shave.
This post draws its biographical information from the Dictionary of National Biography article on Boorde, which you can find here, though you’ll need a university or library login.
There’s an image claiming to represent Boorde here, but it does look awfully like I’d get in trouble for putting it on the site. Go have a look, though.
Thanks to the excellent Tom Charlton – who you’ll find as @Baxterianae on Twitter – I am happy to announce that we have a description of ‘sausflewme’: ‘Litle pymples or pushes, suche as of … salsefleagme budden out in the noses and faces of many persones.’ This comes courtesy of Nicholas Udall’s 1542 translation of Erasmus’ Apophthegms. So: spots, pimples, whiteheads, blackheads? Delightful.