Friday, July 01, 2016

Question from Michael - Nudity in Tudor England

Dear All

Can anyone tell me how nudity was seen in Tudor England. Was it a criminal offence? Were people prosecuted for it? was it socially acceptable behind closed doors?



PhD Historian said...

I do love the fun and challenging questions that come up on this site!

In order to try to answer your question, I had a quick look at the online Bibliography of British and Irish History database. From an academic perspective, the issue of nudity has been addressed only in the context of the modern era (i.e., post-1700). Even among art historians, nudity is not a viable topic until the 1700s.

And that got me to thinking ... I have some considerable experience in art history, yet I cannot say that I have ever seen a painting or sculpture of English or even Northern European origin dating to anytime before about 1650 that depicted someone totally nude. The only near-exception would be images of Christ being taken down from the cross. But even then, he is always depicted with a “modesty drape” covering his pelvis. Infants were often depicted nude, especially in religious and mythological- themed works, but infants were not considered sexual beings.

(Of course, if one moves south to Italy in the sixteenth-century, nudes in art were more common. But obviously that is an entirely different cultural context.)

I also checked the Statutes of the Realm. No act of Parliament addressed the issue of nudity, though several addressed the issue of what sorts of people could wear what types of clothing (the sumptuary laws). But the absence of an act of Parliament cannot be interpreted to mean that nudity was not a criminal offense. My suspicion is that nudity was governed by unwritten common law and perhaps even canon (church) law dating back even beyond the origins of Parliament.

And despite rubbish TV shows like The Tudors, the English were quite conservative regarding issues of sex and sexuality in the sixteenth century. This was particularly true with regard to women (yes, the ages-old double standard). So I would anticipate that the vast majority of people of the Tudor period viewed exposure of large amounts of the human body as sinful (a temptation to lust, fornication, and adultery) and a punishable offense. And even more probably, that social convention was likely so strong that nudity was a VERY rare occurrence. No one did it, so know one dared be the first to try it. It simply never crossed most people’s minds.

And obviously the weather in England, combined with the limited ability to keep the interior of houses warm, mitigated strongly against deliberate nudity even indoors. Further, there was simply no such thing as “personal privacy” in sixteenth-century England. Even in a working class household, there were always numerous people within the house. Neither could the very wealthy escape into privacy, since they were always attended by servants. So there was little opportunity to “get naked” simply for the sake of enjoying being naked.

So in sum, I am going to guess (and this is just an educated guess, nothing more) that nudity was essentially a non-issue in Tudor England. Social and religious convention was so strong, and environmental conditions so non-conducive, that the idea almost never came up, even behind closed doors. On those very rare occasions when it did come up, both indoors and out, it was probably addressed very swiftly and very firmly by simple peer pressure. Again, this is just a guess, but I suspect that any cases of deliberate public nudity that did arise and that also required official intervention were prosecuted as issues of madness and insanity, so strong was the social convention against it.

KG said...

Great question and great answer

Anonymous said...

People would have come across a certain amount of nudity in public baths, although such baths were increasingly criticized by moralists and theologians and many were closed down. There are many illustrations of medieval bathing scenes, though:

There were also connoisseurs of erotica, it seems. Pietro Aretino's "Positions" were highly sought after in Europe and later Elizabethan England. On the continent at least, there was also a thriving market for works of art with an erotic connotation. For example, Cranach's several Venuses and Baldung Grien's witches were obviously popular with well-to-do customers.

Unknown said...

What about intimate nakedness? Surely did they not strip off for sex or was it normal to leave ones clothing on?

I am not an expert at all I would of just thought maybe there would be nakedness then. I think in public though might be very bad...Although I am sure I read accounts of men at least stripping off and plunging into rivers etc., as in bathing. I however cannot vouch for how contemporary they are and maybe a fiction of the author.

Stan said...

You may like to take a look at this link that takes a look just how close The BBCs 'Tudors' were to the truth the answer may surprise you

Mary Katherine said...

PhD historian,I can think of a few total nudes in Northern European art of the period and a bit before, but most imagery is related to the Church. Artists like Rogier Van der Wyden. Lucas Cranach, Durer, and Hieronymus Bosch come to mind. Their favorite subject matters would have included Christ's crucifixion (Jesus typically only wears a crown of thorns, a loincloth, and little else) witches and witchcraft (and its punishments) and the Last Judgment and Hell itself. A lot of this religious imagery would have been better suited to survive in Central Europe than in England: the Reformation happened differently there in that cuius regio, eius religio allowed Joe Average to load up his mule, his cart, his family, and move to another town where the ruler was of the same faith: some of the "blasphemous" stuff could be sold or at least salvaged. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and his kin continued his policy later, he pillagend and plundered like a pirate and they were not much better. Valuable manuscripts were lost forever, some as valuable as the Book of Kells is today. Murals would have been painted over, especially religious ones (ask the good people of Stratford Upon Avon what William Shakespeare's father was forced to paint over in the guildhall.-It was priceless.) Altarpieces would have been burned; they even got rid of most of the contents of the shrine at Walsingham.

For all these reasons, you do not see as many nudies up on the walls in England. They were destroyed.