1500s: The Elizabethan Ruff, Manicured Beards and Arum Starch #2
13/10/06 /13:36 Category: Timeline
Part 2: Starching Your Beard, Slovenly Solicitors and the Elizabethan Mr Angry.
Beard starching. Never done it? The Elizabeth era was the prime time for men to display their creativity in beard shaping, a somewhat neglected manicure amongst the gentlemen of today. A man wishing to sculpt his beard into a suitably fashionable and attractive shape had to take into account a number of considerations. Firstly there were the Elizabethan class dictates, so that where he lived and what profession he held played an important role in how his beard might be manipulated. Such important social signals were not to be overlooked. That decided, he was then free to enter the constantly changing fashion race of sculpting his beard into different angles, shapes, cuts, coils and contortions.
‘having starched their beards most curiously...’
To ensure such facial architecture would remain in place, men would stiffen their beards with starch. Now, there is a persistent rumour that it was specifically Arum starch that was used for this. The source of this is usually Cecil Prime, who refers to a preface by Thomas Nashe in Robert Greene’s Menaphon of 1589. The actual sentence is this:
‘Sufficeth them to bodge up a blank verse with ifs and ands, and otherwhile, for recreation after their candle-stuff, having starched their beards most curiously, to make a peripatetical path into the inner parts of the City, and spend two or three hours in turning over French dowdy, where they attract more infection in one minute than they can do eloquence all days of their life by conversing with any authors of like argument’.
A life of reckless debauchery
Robert Green was, along with Marlowe, one of the most established playwrights and dramatist of the time, and was known for writing very popular love tales (the Elizabethan equivalent of Mills and Boon romance) and for living a life of reckless debauchery and continual criticism of others around him – so much so that even he confessed that he was ‘unable to keep a friend’. There was a notable contrast between his life and the dreamy, happy romantic world of his writings, but he was acknowledged as a genuinely talented writer and his works were undeniably popular. Menaphon in particular was the most accomplished of his ‘romance’ novels.
Thomas Nashe, on the other hand, was relatively unknown at the time but was part of a contemporary circle of London-based writers known as the University Wits (a group of which both Greene and Marlowe were members). A Cambridge graduate, he has been described as a ‘journalist born out of time ... with a brilliant and picturesque style’. He wrote with a fierce satire of the figures and society around him. His preface to Greene’s Menaphon gave him his big break and he used it to put down Greene’s critics and ridicule other writers of the contemporary scene. In the quotation above, he is actually referring to lawyers who leave the legal profession to become writers, saying that they will kill even the best writing stone dead. He then goes on to say how they starch their beards before heading into town to sleep with prostitutes and return with venereal diseases. This gives a good idea of Nash’s style, both in his writing and his approach to life. Some have said that this was a coded reference to the young Shakespeare (particularly as Greene himself had given Shakespeare a hard time on occasion). However, we know little of Shakespeare’s early life and there is no evidence of him having worked as a lawyer previous to his life as a playwright.
Despite the wealth of information about and by Nashe, he does not explicitly state anywhere that it was specifically Arum that was used as a beard stiffener. We can only assume that it was, given its popularity and penetration into the lives of Elizabethans at that time and their fascination with exploring the limits of its stiffening properties.
As an aside, such was the zeitgeist of Arum’s starch-stiffening fame that at one time, according to Boyce, a relative of Arum (alpinium) was used in Scandinavia specifically to stiffen clerical collars. As a result, he says, it can often still be found growing around old church sites.
The Elizabethan 'Mr Angry'.
We have already read (in the last post) that objections were raised about the use of Arum starch in ruffs because of its affect on the laundry maids' hands. Some took a dislike to ruffs themselves because they believed that such items were the direct work of the devil. A now infamous pamphlet was distributed at the time by a puritan Christian called Philip Stubbes. It makes for amusing reading; he was the original ‘Mr Angry’ of every local newspaper letters page. In his pamphlet he gives his views on everything that annoys him, with ruffs singled out for special treatment. ‘The devil, in the fullness of his malice invested these ruffes’ he said, before going on the describe this new-fangled substance they call starch (another invention of the devil): ‘The one anchor piller wherby his kingdome of great ruffes is underpropped, is a certaine kinde of liquide matter which they call Starch, wherin the devill hath willed them to wash and dive his ruffes wel, which when they be dry, wil then stand stiffe and inflexible about their necks’. That was just the preamble. Ruffs (amongst many other things) really did get Mr Stubbes worked up into quite a stiff lather: ‘Ruffs that go flip-flap in the wind, and lie on men’s shoulders like the dish-clout of a slut’. And so it went on.
Oh Arum – in trouble again. The devil’s plant, indeed. Philip Stubbes need not have worried. By the end of the Elizabethan era and the new reign of James I, the use of Arum – along with the giant ruffs it had once supported – shrunk and diminished into the realms of history. Laundry maids across the country sighed with relief and Arum was largely forgotten.
Read more on the iPad book here: http://tinyurl.com/wildarumipad
Above photograph by Fergus Drennan. More of his Arum food photographs can be seen in the book and his work with wild foods can be viewed at fergustheforager.co.uk