Ask a Librarian: Summertime in Elizabethan England

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Q: I know about Queen Elizabeth I’s summer progresses, but how did ordinary people spend their summers in Shakespeare’s time?

A: For most Elizabethans, summer presented little opportunity for a vacation from regular work routines. There were still farms to tend, boots to cobble, and chickens to pluck. But all was not drudgery. Hearthside amusements such as cards and dice, which occupied people during dark winter evenings, gave way to fishing, archery, swimming, and lawn bowling. On May Day, people danced around a Maypole festooned with ribbons and flowers. On Midsummer Eve, they made merry around big bonfires.

The Cotswold Games, which probably originated in the late 16th century, pitted sportsmen in competitions involving wrestling, leaping, cudgel-playing, sword-and-buckler, pitching the bar, and tossing the sledgehammer. Coursing, or greyhound racing, was also popular. In The Merry Wives of Windsor (I.i.89), Slender tweaks Page about a bad day at Cotswold, asking, “How does your fallow greyhound, sir? I heard say he was outrun on Cotsall.”

Children took advantage of longer daylight hours to ride on Wild Mares (see-saws), spin tops, or play games such as Leap Frog, Hide-and-Seek, or Prisoners’ Base. Another favorite, Blind Man’s Bluff—then called Hoodman Blind—even found its way into Hamlet’s closet scene with his mother: “What devil was’t that thus hath cozen’d you at hoodman-blind?” he asks (III.iv.86). But apparently even Shakespeare couldn’t find a metaphorical use for Hot Cockles. In this game, the player identified as ‘It’ is blindfolded and struck by the other players until he’s able to guess the identity of his assailants.

—Georgianna Ziegler, Louis B. Thalheimer Associate Librarian and Head of Reference

This feature was originally published in the Summer 2007 issue of Folger Magazine.