The Life and Times of our Ancestors: a Journey to the Seventeenth Century 1

I am currently in the midst of the latest presentation of the online course ‘Writing and Telling your Family’s Story’, that I tutor for Pharos Tutoring and Teaching. This week we are focusing on social history: what our ancestors would have worn, the food they may have eaten, what their homes were like, how their illnesses would have been treated and so on. It is apparent that sourcing relevant social historical information becomes increasingly difficult the further back in time that you go. My own particular interest centres on the seventeenth century and my alter ego, Mistress Agnes comes from that time. In the 1600s most contemporary sources of information – letters, diaries, paintings, wills and inventories, to name but a few - are by, for and about the rich. It is much harder to recreate the lives of those lower down the social scale; people who were my and ancestors and probably yours too.

Over the years of being Mistress Agnes, I have built up a list of favourite books and websites that help us to gain an impression of what life was like in the 1600s, so I thought that I would share just a few of them.

For information about household goods, I recommend the fascinating ‘Old and Interesting’ website, which covers other time periods too. ‘Women’s Work in Rural Britain 1500-1799’ post very informative blogs about housework and other aspects of women’s daily lives. Mistress Hannah Wolley also provides hints for the seventeenth century housewife and was reprinted into the eighteenth century. Her guide is available in facsimile form Wolley, Hannah The Compleat Servant-maid: or, the young maiden’s and family’s daily companion Gale ECCO Print (9th edition 1719). See also Clark, Alice Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century (Routledge 1982).

If you are interested in when various foodstuffs were introduced see favourite books about the history of food are: Hartley, Dorothy Food in England (Piatkus 2009) and Tannahill, Reay Food in History (revised edition Penguin 1988).

For information about what your ancestors would have worn during the English Civil War, see the English Tailor.

Most illnesses would have been treated by the housewives, using herbal remedies. The text of Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, which was first published in 1652, can be downloaded here. This gives many of the herbal cures that would have been employed by our ancestors until into the twentieth century. The Surgeon’s Mate, a manual produced for East India Company ships’ surgeon in 1617, is available online, many of the surgical techniques described remained the same until the mid-nineteenth century.

Of course there was some time for leisure for our more refined seventeenth century ancestors. You can listen to some dance music of the time here.

Children’s toys were simple and usually home made, frequently from wood. Poppets or puppets (the word ‘doll’ wasn’t used until later) were sold at London’s St Bartholomew’s Fair each August, giving them the name ‘Bartholomew Babies’. Their shape made them ideal ‘chomping trees’, or teething rings.

It really is important to look beyond the names on our family tree to discover what life was like for these individuals. It is never too soon to start.

For more details see or take a look at Mistress Agnes’ book:- Coffers, Clysters, Comfrey and Coifs: the lives of our seventeenth century ancestors (Family History Partnership 2012).

About Janet Few

Janet Few is an experienced family, social and community historian who writes and lectures regularly on these subjects throughout the English speaking world. She is well known for her appearances as her alter ego ‘Mistress Agnes’ who aids Janet’s work as an historical interpreter. Janet is the manager of Swords and Spindles, a company providing living history presentations for history groups and schools. For further information see

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