I was verbally abused by a Tudor pedlar at the weekend. That is not a sentence I ever expected to write but I write it now in a fit of pique. This is a tale of a surreal Sunday gone wrong which is too bizarre not to tell. Allow me to explain.
When you get to a certain age you start to spend your weekends in unexpected ways. Gone are the nights out and double vodkas, replaced with nights in and discounted M&S Prosecco. Clubs are replaced with pubs because who doesn’t love a good sit down and somewhere where you can actually hear each other speak? When did everywhere get so loud? Part of the onset of the quarter-life crisis entails day trips to historic buildings at the weekend. As such, some friends and I recently went to a Tudor manor in the south of England.
It happened to be a re-enactment day set in 1588. There were a hundred or so Tudor-loving, am-dram types all togged up in the appropriate gear and roaming the grounds. There were tiny babies in bonnets, National Guard soldiers wielding pikes and milk maids churning butter. You could take a tour and speak to these people, finding out more about what their lives and jobs entailed.
The day was filled with audience participation. The worst kind of participation. I emitted ‘do not approach me’ from every pore whilst also trying to maintain an air of ‘I’m totally fine with this’ and so, of course, like a killer animal senses fear these Tudor enthusiasts sensed my unease.
Our first encounter was with a man wearing what looked like a giant felt thimble on his head. He made a beeline for me and offered to find me a husband. In 1588 this is obviously my main concern, as without one I’ll be destitute. He asked me my star sign and told me I was melancholic (accurate) and should look for an Aries. Useful information.
The second interaction of the day came at lunchtime. We were in the great hall watching the high table being served when a Jester began entertaining the crowd. While laughing at the misfortune of a friend of mine who had been plucked from the audience to perform in a short play, I was plucked myself. The drama told of the legend a knight who had murdered nine maids. I played maid number ten. We were made to gallop around the room holding a toy wooden horse for what seemed like days. I was asked, in verse, to disrobe. Having maintained possession of my smock I then pushed the dastardly knight off the side of a galleon and watched him drown. It was all jolly good fun. I naively hoped that the worst was now over and I could pass the afternoon in an ale and mead fug, safe from further intrusion. After all, how could it possibly get any worse than ritual humiliation at lunchtime? Well, good ladies and gentle sirs, read on.
Wandering past the archery area we came across an elderly man flanked by two ladies. This was, as I was about to discover, extremely unfortunate timing. The old man, who was apparently playing the part of lecherous vagrant, called me over from a distance. He had a wicker basket on his back, a painted-on graze on his cheek and the gummy sneer of the witch from Snow White. First, he told me I was a slut for wearing skinny jeans. This was all part of the light teasing of the day, where the Tudors pretended to be appalled by modern dress. I’d already seen one lady wearing shorts being told off for her ‘unseemly legs’. I laughed along.
Next he told me I shouldn’t fold my arms because that would give me rounded shoulders. Then he said, wagging his finger an inch from my nose, ‘didn’t your mother ever tell you not to fold your arms?’ I replied ‘didn’t your mother ever tell you it’s rude to point?’ He didn’t like that. He told me I should respect my elders and next said that rounded shoulders would make me a bad lay, that men would have to flip me, ‘stiff as a board’, over in bed and that as sex was all I was good for, I’d rendered myself useless. The sexual innuendo was detailed and continued for several minutes.
At this point the atmosphere changed. The women with him became stony faced. All I could say was ‘Jesus Christ, that was a bit much’. I walked away with my friends, slightly stunned. I now wish I’d told him to do one, or at least said ‘a pox upon thee’, and reported him to the people running the event. As per, though, I let him speak to me like this without saying anything at all.
As time passed and his words stuck with me for the next few days, it dawned on me quite how bad the incident had been. Unprovoked, he picked me out of a crowd and preceded to insult my appearance. The insults were universally of a sexual nature. It crossed the line from teasing banter to something much more sinister within a matter of minutes. Faux-Tudor or not, what gave him the right?
This modern man in 1588 dress got me thinking. Throughout the day I’d had many polite ‘m’lady’s from people who hadn’t gone full Tudor and had retained some modern sensibilities, but this one unpleasant confrontation was an eye-opening glimpse into quite how godawful life must have been for women five hundred years ago. Back in the day they were decidedly second-class citizens with little power over their own destinies. We saw them in the dairy, the kitchen, the sewing room and the nursery but not at the alchemist’s or the apothecary. If you were a woman born to anything less than the nobility you may well have ended up poverty-sticken without a husband to support you. You would also have been seriously “Bridget-Jonesed” in every social situation. Nobody liked, or trusted, a spinster. If the oppression of women was the historical lesson of the day then this amateur dramatist Tudor pedlar, who had clearly gone method, took it upon himself to teach it pretty damn well.
And yet. This kind of thing isn’t relegated to the past. It was a modern man, albeit one in Tudor garb, who was harassing me. It turned out he wasn’t really playing a part. The historical context gave this misogynist the perfect opportunity to spend the day roaming around being rude to women. I’m sure it’s his favourite day of the year. It’s better than Christmas, the chance to ‘pretend’ to sexually harass people. This particular instance of verbal abuse is just one of many which occur in the modern world. And when I say ‘many’ I really mean every single woman I know has been subjected to it and I have twice in the past week alone. I’ve been wondering, in a half-sarcastic half-serious way, whether five hundred years of progress has made much of a difference.
I came away from this not-so-idyllic day at a country manor wishing that I had said something to defend myself. At the time I was stunned to silence and also hesitated, wondering whether it is ever OK to be rude to someone much older than you. Of course it’s OK if they are insulting you. Old age is not a licence to be a twat and get away with it. This bit of Sunday afternoon harassment stiffened my resolve to respond in kind to those who feel the need to belittle me. The difference five hundred years of progress has made is that women now don’t have to submit to and accept awful behaviour, we have the economic independence to give as good as we get.
The moral of this strange tale, if there is one, is to stand up for yourself even if it’s mildly embarrassing. Groped in a queue? Say something. Leered at through a van window? Say something. Verbally abused by a historical recreationist? Give him hell. You are not in the wrong, they are. Be brave or, as Lady Macbeth would say, ‘screw your courage to the sticking place’.
And screw you, you pervy Tudor creep.