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A History of English Prose Fiction by Tuckerman

And aboute either legge twentie or fourtie belles


The amusements of the rural population partook of the character of material prosperity and material enjoyment which were so prominent in Elizabeth's reign. There is no sign of the prevailing improvement in the condition of men more suggestive than the effervescence of spirits which broke loose on every holiday and at every festival. On the first day of May "the juvenile part of both sexes are wont to rise a little after midnight, and walk to some neighboring wood, accompany'd with music and the blowing of horns, where they break down branches from the trees and adorn them with nosegays and crowns of flowers. When this done, they return with their booty homewards about the rising of the sun, and make their doors and windows to triumph in the flowery spoil."[44] "But their cheefest jewell they bring from thence is their Maie poole whiche they bringe home with great veneration, as thus: They have twentie or fourtie yoke of oxen, every oxe havyng a sweete nosegaie of flowers, tyed on the tippe of his hornes, and these oxen drawe home this Maie poole."[45] Games, dances, rude dramatic performances succeeded each other for hours, interspersed with feasting and drinking. An extravagant fancy sought expression in the excitement, of grotesque actions and brilliant costumes. The Morris dancers executed their curious movements, clad in "gilt leather and silver paper, and sometimes in coats of white spangled fustian,"[46] or in "greene, yellow, or some other light wanton collour," bedecked with "scarfs, ribbons and laces hanged all over with golde ringes, precious stones and other jewells," and "aboute either legge twentie or fourtie belles."[47] Robin Hood's Day, Christmas, Twelfth Night, Harvest Home, Sheepshearing, were all celebrated in turn with a liveliness of spirit, a vigor of imagination, and a noisy enjoyment of the good things of life which showed that Merry England had at last succeeded to the gloom of the Middle Ages.

The prevailing prosperity and activity were naturally even more apparent in London than in the rural districts. The city was growing rapidly, filling up with warehouses and shops, with palaces and dwellings. The people in general were attracted to it by the growing trade and industry, and by the theatres, taverns, bear-gardens, and other places of amusement, the number of which was constantly increasing. The nobility and gentry sought the splendor of Elizabeth's court to spend their leisure and their wealth. The middle or commercial classes of the city, like the corresponding agricultural classes in the country, were enjoying the fruits of their industry and attaining a respectable position of their own. The houses and furniture belonging to them struck a foreigner with astonishment and pleasure[48]; "The neate cleanlinesse, the exquisite finenesse, the plesaunte and delightfull furniture in every point for household wonderfully rejoyced mee; their chambers and parlours, strawed over with sweet herbes, refreshed mee; their nosegayes finelye intermingled wyth sondry sortes of fragraunte floures in their bed-chambers and privie roomes, with comfortable smell cheered me up and entierlye delighted all my senses." The profusion of expenditure, and the love of show resulting from the sudden increase of wealth, affected even the apprentices of the city. The Lord Mayor and Common Council, in 1582, found it necessary to direct apprentices; "to wear no hat with any silk in or about the same. To wear no ruffles, cuffs, loose collar, nor other thing than a ruff at the collar, and that only a yard and a half long. To wear no doublets * * * enriched with any manner of silver or silke. * * * To wear no sword, dagger, nor other weapon but a knife; nor a ring, jewel of gold, nor silver, nor silke in any part of his apparel."[49]


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