What were the Berwick Witch Trials?

The Berwick Witch Trials occurred in Scotland in late 1590 and early 1591. They were high profile trials against witches accused (among other things) of working magic against King James VI and other member of the royal family. Like many historical details included in SHADOW OF NIGHT, these were real events.

Why are there always so many people in Matthew and Diana’s bedroom?

In the 16th century, people had very different ideas about privacy—no matter what your social class. For upper class people like Matthew and Diana, the constant presence of servants meant that very little you did wasn’t viewed by others. Members of the royal family were even attended in the toilet! For lower classes, crowded living conditions meant that communal beds were the norm.

How widespread was literacy in England?

Many historians believe (and I am one of them) that literacy rates in 16th century England were the highest until the 20th century. There are a number of reasons for this: a good grammar school system meant that most boys and a significant number of girls learned basic literacy skills and the new technology of print was still so novel that no one had figured out how to control access to it. The combination meant more books and readers than ever before. One important warning: reading ability is not always the same as the ability to write or the ability to do arithmetic. These were seen as three distinct activities.

What about sanitation and health?  Did anyone ever get to bathe?

There are a lot of misconceptions about personal hygiene in the past. While it is true that few people had the luxury of soaking for hours in a hot tub or taking a shower, this did not mean that personal filth was the rule of the day. Cleanliness was thought to be a prerequisite for good health, and people were obsessed with good health in the period. Washing was a regular part of daily life for all who could afford it, and a regular part of weekly life for those who couldn’t. Most major cities had bathhouses (some of good repute, others of decidedly ill repute). Even if you didn’t go to the bathhouses you washed at home, all over your body. Clothes were cleaned as much as it’s possible to clean wool (the dominant clothing fibre) or silk (for the upper classes).

Did most people travel very often? What was travel like?

Like hygiene, people seem to think nobody traveled in the past. This is an overstatement. People traveled for business reasons, for religious reasons, and for better economic prospects. There was also a healthy tourism industry in the period, although this was geared mainly towards the elite. Of course, the elite traveled with servants, so people of all classes did travel.

What was the average life expectancy? 

A note about average life expectancy: when we say the average life expectancy was 40 (or whatever figure historians give), that means that there were people who lived into their 80s and people who died at birth. In fact, in the 16th century, there was high infant mortality which is what lowers average life expectancy. If you made it past birth, the next hurdle was getting out of the toddler years (when severe illness was a problem). If you made it over that hurdle, your next hurdle came if you were a boy between the years of 18-25 (when you took up your trade which put you at the risk of fatal injury, be it through military occupations or manual labor) and a girl between the years of 17-24 (when you had your first child, as there were many women who died from pregnancy complications). If you made it past that, the next hurdle was women in the 40-45 age bracket who were vulnerable (complications from late pregnancies). If you safely navigated all those difficult moments, you had a good chance of making it to 80 provided you didn’t have a heart attack, stroke, or fall victim to an epidemic. Of course, if the plague came to town, all bets were off.

How was the London of 1590 different from the London of today?

London in 1590 was limited to the “square mile” of the city proper and its near surrounding suburbs. Covent Garden was open fields. There were nothing but houses between the Inns of Court and Westminster. Remnants of the Roman wall still surrounded it. That said, it was an extremely crowded city. By 1600, we estimate that nearly 200,000 people lived in that square mile. This included people of many nationalities who spoke dozens of different languages. There were even foreign language schools and churches in the city. So it was a very cosmopolitan place.

What is Rudolph II’s story?  Why was his German so lousy?

Rudolf II was the heir to the Hapsburg family throne in Austria, and was groomed from childhood to be able to take on the honorific title of Holy Roman Emperor (a nominal head of many different Catholic principalities and political entities in central and southern Europe). As a child, he was sent to the court of his uncle, Philip II, in Spain. When he returned to Austria, Rudolf was criticized for being too Spanish: he spoke with a Spanish accent, he had Spanish manners, and Spanish attitudes.


Enjoy the beautiful sounds of a clock made in London in 1598 by the Huguenot craftsman Nicholas Vallin: