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Home :: Archive :: 1996 :: March ::
Re: Physical Size of Elizabethans
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 7, No. 0216.  Saturday, 16 March 1996.

(1)     From:   James Schaefer <
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        Date:   Friday, 15 Mar 1996 13:19:31 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Elizabethan Stature

(2)     From:   Stephanie Hughes <
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        Date:   Friday, 15 Mar 1996 13:35:31 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0210  Q: Physical Size of Elizabethans

(3)     From:   Eric Armstrong <
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        Date:   Friday, 15 Mar 1996 13:28:39 +0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0210  Q: Physical Size of Elizabethans

(4)     From:   Helen Ostovich <
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        Date:   Friday, 15 Mar 1996 14:13:41 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0210 Q: Physical Size of Elizabethans

(5)     From:   Roger Taylor <
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        Date:   Friday, 15 Mar 1996 12:35:05 -0700 (MST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0210 Q: Physical Size of Elizabethans

(6)     From:   Michael Swanson <
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        Date:   Friday, 15 Mar 1996 18:08:33 -0500
        Subj:   Re:  Physical size of Elizabethans

(7)     From:   Jay Johnson <
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        Date:   Friday, 15 Mar 1996 18:33:23 -0700 (MST)
        Subj:   RE: SHK 7.0210  Q: Physical Size of Elizabethans

(8)     From:   Denis Knowles <
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        Date:   Friday, 15 Mar 1996 19:50:22 -0800
        Subj:   Physical Size

(9)     From:   Joe Shea <
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        Date:   Friday, 15 Mar 1996 17:45:31 -0800 (PST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0210 Q: Physical Size of Elizabethans

(10)    From:   Florence Amit <
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        Date:   Saturday, 16 Mar 1996 11:22:48 +0200
        Subj:   physical size of Elizabethans

(11)    From:   Harvey Wheeler <
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        Date:   Saturday, 16 Mar 96 06:39:12 UT
        Subj:   RE: SHK 7.0210  Q: Physical Size of Elizabethans


(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           James Schaefer <
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Date:           Friday, 15 Mar 1996 13:19:31 -0500 (EST)
Subject:        Elizabethan Stature

Michael Swanson:

I cannot directly answer your question about the stature of Elizabethans, not
with facts at least.  I could hear my biologist wife voicing a claim similar to
your student's, based on the probability of there having been minimal genetic
change in 400 years -- except that she also knows a lot about the effects of
nutrition and health care and environmental factors on human growth, all of
which, I'm sure, could have had a severely limiting effect on the developmental
physiology of at least some Elizabethans.

I have read often that one piece of indirect evidence concerning the slight
stature of earlier periods is the relatively small size of surviving suits of
armor.  Of course, it could be that only short folks went into that line of
work, like jockeys do now.

Jim Schaefer

(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Stephanie Hughes <
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Date:           Friday, 15 Mar 1996 13:35:31 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 7.0210  Q: Physical Size of Elizabethans
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0210  Q: Physical Size of Elizabethans

Michael;

I can't give you a published reference, but if you have any historical
buildings or rooms with furniture and clothing from frontier days nearby, the
evidence of the size difference is obvious. As a child I lived in Virginia,
where such evidence abounds, and I remember how astonished I was at the tiny
clothes. You should be able to find the statistics on the size of the
Mayflower, for instance, or other well-known vessels, length of the bunks,
distance from floor to ceiling, which would perhaps make the point.

Stephanie Hughes

(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Eric Armstrong <
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Date:           Friday, 15 Mar 1996 13:28:39 +0000
Subject: 7.0210  Q: Physical Size of Elizabethans
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0210  Q: Physical Size of Elizabethans

This is what I know about this...

While visiting the "shrine" of Shakespeare's house in Stratford-upon-Avon, the
historical interpreter took great care to point out the size of the small bed.
He then went on to emphatically refute the "short Elizabethan" myth, which
often arises when people see the short Elizabethan bed. The beds are short
because Elizabethan's slept sitting up, partly afraid to lie down and be
mistaken for a dead person!

Having done some historical interpretation myself, many people asked me when
working at an historic fort (dating back only to 1836) whether the shorter
doors proved how much shorter these soldiers were. Not surprisingly, the doors
are short so that the building is strong and could withstand bombardment more
easily. This concept also applied to other construction principles, especially
in houses built to last generations, (unlike our semi-disposible North American
culture). Note the very low ceilings in the other houses at
Stratford-upon-Avon: the higher your building is, the more difficult it is to
build and heat.

There is some truth in the fact that the average Elizabethan (and Victorians
too for that matter) where SLIGHTLY shorter than we are today (and most
definitely Smaller in girth) due primarily to quality of food - vitamins,
balance of proteins and grains, availability of fruits and vegetables, etc.,
etc. However, tallness is - as your student probably felt - a genetic trait
which would take thousands of years to change. [except , of course, for those
times when the aliens come and take us away, or the toxic nuclear waste gets us
and changes our DNA.]

(4)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Helen Ostovich <
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Date:           Friday, 15 Mar 1996 14:13:41 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 7.0210 Q: Physical Size of Elizabethans
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0210 Q: Physical Size of Elizabethans

Size differentials can easily be observed to anyone who goes to the Tower and
looks at the average soldier's gear.  Or try the replica of the pilgrim ship at
Plymouth where the size of the bunks indicate that no one over 5 feet could
possibly be comfortable sleeping there.

Helen Ostovich
Department of English / Editor, _REED Newsletter_
McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada  L8S 4L9

(5)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Roger Taylor <
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Date:           Friday, 15 Mar 1996 12:35:05 -0700 (MST)
Subject: 7.0210 Q: Physical Size of Elizabethans
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0210 Q: Physical Size of Elizabethans

I expect most of the evidence is largely circumstantial...based on surviving
clothes, shoes, and other things.  The problem here is that such things survive
usually because it was either too small or too large to be practically worn.

I can cite my own circumstantial evidence.  I (6'2") wandered through Jane
Austen's home at Chawton. I bumped my head numerous times on the doorways and
had to crouch down going up the stairs.  But then one might well ask...were
they all this way?  Going up the tower stairs in the center of Oxford, I felt
like a giant.

Oten cited reason for differences in sizes is diet.  We eat better now, babies
have a better nutritional start now than 400 years ago.

Lee Roger Taylor, Jr.
Associate Professor
Humanities Division
Western Wyoming Community College

(6)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Michael Swanson <
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Date:           Friday, 15 Mar 1996 18:08:33 -0500
Subject:        Re:  Physical size of Elizabethans

Thanks to all of you who responded to my query about the physical size of
Elizabethans.  Certainly the many suggestions of referring to extant
architecture, furniture, clothing, and armor are very useful, and they may even
provide a future research topic for me.  I also wanted to cite two pieces of
information found in chapter 3 of Christine Eccles's "The Rose Theatre" (1990),
which, while not footnoted directly, are apparently drawn from reliable sources
she cites in her bibliography on the chapter.  They are: 1)  "The frame of the
average Elizabethan, according to the size of burial plots for plague victims,
was 5 feet 5 3/4 inches."  2) "Inigo Jones, designing indoor theatre for a
fashionable seventeenth-century audience, allowed an 18-inch square per person,
compared to the 17 1/2 inch x 21 inch allowance at the twentieth-century
Olivier Theatre which has to seat larger and bulkier people."

Michael Swanson
Chair, Fine Arts Department
Director of Theatre
Franklin College of Indiana

(7)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Jay Johnson <
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Date:           Friday, 15 Mar 1996 18:33:23 -0700 (MST)
Subject: 7.0210  Q: Physical Size of Elizabethans
Comment:        RE: SHK 7.0210  Q: Physical Size of Elizabethans

In _Rebuilding Shakespeare's Globe_, John Orrell makes the following
observation concerning the required changes in the modern reconstruction:

        "The most profound change required by the fire regulations is the
maximum number of visitors allowed to crowd into the Globe at one time.  The
figure for the capacity of the original Globe, 3000 people, is neatly halved.
Altogether about 1500 visitors will be able to squeeze into the galleries and
yard of the reconstructed Globe to watch a performance.  This halving of the
capacity is an advantage in two ways.  First, it means that people with modern
physiques need not bother to undertake the painful labour of trying to fit
themselves into the original 18-inch space allocated to the Elizabethans.
Secondly, the doubling of the available space makes it easy to conceive how
squeezed Elizabethans were when the Globe was crowded."  (165)

Jay Johnson
Medicine Hat College

(8)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Denis Knowles <
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Date:           Friday, 15 Mar 1996 19:50:22 -0800
Subject:        Physical Size

Being a towering individual of 5'5", the height of prior generations has always
interested me.  Though I do not have the books at hand, we always seem to be in
a state of moving, I recall many indications from works prior to the 1980's
commenting on the small size of Europeans in general.  Most authors seem to
attribute this to poor nutrition in the general population and as proof mention
the size of surviving suits of armour and other artifacts.

Fortunately better historians prevailed, pointing out that the surviving
artifacts survived because they were outgrown.  Most of the full sized clothing
and armour was worn and passed down generation to generation until it was no
longer servicable at which time fibers might be re-carded into other fabric or
relegated to the rag pile, and metal forged or smelted into newer and changing
pieces.  Much to my chagrin, I am not only short today but I would likely have
been short during the bard's time as well.

A note of personal observation: I recall being quite stunned at the size
difference of students in a local community college compared to the size of
students in the private college I attended.  The wealthier students were indeed
larger on the whole, male and female.  They were also markedly harder working
individuals.  Draw whatever conclusions you wish.

Denis Knowles, AS, BFA, BS

(9)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Joe Shea <
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Date:           Friday, 15 Mar 1996 17:45:31 -0800 (PST)
Subject: 7.0210 Q: Physical Size of Elizabethans
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0210 Q: Physical Size of Elizabethans

That was certainly a stimulating post, Michael, on the size of Elizabethans.
Judging from the effects of nutritional deficits on the average Chinese or
Mexican, I suspect the Elizabethans were much less tall than they are, on
average.  There must be anthropological data from which one might project
backwards, such as a rate of growth standard following contact with Western
civilization, birth weight of babies in pre- and post-modern times, etc.  My
guess is that the average male was about 5'4", and the average female about
4'10'., and that the average adult male would have weighed about 140, and the
the female 105.

Best,
Joe Shea
Editor-in-Chief
The American Reporter

(10)---------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Florence Amit <
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Date:           Saturday, 16 Mar 1996 11:22:48 +0200
Subject:        physical size of Elizabethans

This is in reply to Michael Swanson's request for a reliable source for the
sizes of Elizabethan people: I do not think that a modern English person who
had been brought up to regard many statues on old tombs or had seen the
numerous rows of armour standing in the Tower of London and at castles would
have asked the question. One needs little more than a tape measure and a copy
book to gather one's own proof. As a tourist I have been struck by the
slightness of these old aristocrats.

Florence Amit

(11)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Harvey Wheeler <
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Date:           Saturday, 16 Mar 96 06:39:12 UT
Subject: 7.0210  Q: Physical Size of Elizabethans
Comment:        RE: SHK 7.0210  Q: Physical Size of Elizabethans

Well, there is the well-known evidence from a bit earlier based on the
ridiculously small suits of armor.  That evidence simply cannot be ignored.
 

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