HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW: ‘Woodsmoke and Sage: The Five Senses 1485-1603: How the Tudors Experienced the World’ by Amy Licence

Traditionally history is cerebral: what did they believe, what did they think, what did they know?

Woodsmoke and Sage is not a traditional book.

Using the five senses, historian Amy Licence presents a new perspective on the material culture of the past, exploring the Tudors’ relationship with the fabric of their existence, from the clothes on their backs, the roofs over their heads and the food on their tables, to the wider questions of how they interpreted and presented themselves, and what they believed about life, death and beyond. Take a journey back 500 years and experience the sixteenth century the way it was lived, through sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.

Purchase on Amazon here

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It can be easy to feel a bit jaded when it comes to books on the Tudor period. They are abundant, and those of us who write for the newer generation are constantly having to come up with new ways to present the subject and find new information and sources to change old narratives. While some authors succeed and some do not, Amy Licence has yet again produced a masterstroke of Tudor writing.

Woodsmoke and Sage is an entirely new concept in the world of Tudor books, a book broken down into five parts, covering the five senses and how they were experienced in Tudor England.  This new book shows what we have in common with the (predominately) 16th century, and what has changed remarkably.

Naturally, sight is first, covering the enormous variations of daily life, from the way cloth and clothing were enjoyed and used to convey status, to the way people wrote and painted portraits of one another. Buildings and possessions are well covered, along with the way people presented themselves in public. The second section, the section I was most interested in, covers smell, something often lost when reading or watching something about Tudor England, covering from the smells of perfumes to the opposite end of pleasantries.

Sound was a sense I confess I didn’t think too much of, but apart from music and the sound of daily life, there are new things to consider such as the way news was shared. Taste is a natural feast, covering food and drink, and a handy section of which foods were considered dangerous at the time. Finally, touch covers a great deal, covering healthcare, disease, and childbirth. Another incredibly important issue was agricultural life and the weather, and the section also covers sports in the period and the realities of poverty and violence. I don’t want to share any tidbits of Licence’s research, that’s for you to enjoy for yourselves.

Woodsmoke and Sage is a bible of helpful instructions for a reader or writer. It can be read as a story, or used as a reference guide for particular subjects when needed. You can hop between sections without losing any of the book’s momentum, whether you are looking for the feel of the king’s coat, the noises wives would hear while they worked, or what salad may poison you. I personally found lots of little details new to me, despite years of research. Thomas Cromwell had plenty of perfume bottles and had plenty of handwashing facilities available, but what he was using in the bottles and basins can only be speculated, and this book offers me likely suggestions for future use (thanks!).

Woodsmoke and Sage (or Living Like a Tudor: Woodsmoke and Sage: A Sensory Journey Through Tudor England in the USA) is both interesting and engaging regardless of a reader’s knowledge of the period. I can say without a doubt that this book is going to be extremely precious to me in years to come. 

no free book or money changed hands in return for this review

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