Pass Ye Remote: A Quest for Early Modern Entertainment Through Online Learning Resources

Welcome to Elizabethan England via the digital world! We’re lucky to have a range of exciting and innovative online resources at our disposal that make it possible to explore the entertainment and cultural activities of early modern England through our computer screens. This post (in collaboration with Middling Culture) takes the form of “remote quest(ions)” that take us on a tour of early modern recreation via a range of digital platforms…

We’re all going through a tricky time, as we navigate the stresses of Coronavirus. Many an online commentator and plenty of insightful posts from historians (like this one) have alerted us to parallels with past eras, in particular with the persistence of plague throughout the medieval and early modern* periods. [* “Early modern” is a label used broadly to denote the period of (typically western, European) history from c. ~1500-~1700, marked by a variety of social, economic, and cultural changes.] Entertainment in sixteenth-century London was in many ways defined by the politics of self-isolation, as public gatherings of all forms were not only constantly regulated but periodically limited in order to halt infections; in 1581, for instance, the Privy Council ordered

that no playes or enterludes be suffred to be played w{i}thin the said Citie [of London] & lib{er}ties adioyninge com{m}aundinge them to be forborne untill thende of September or that they shall receaue further order from their L{ordships}. For yt the plague &c beinge latelie increased w{i}thin ye said Citie &c it is to be feared that by such assemblies of people the same wil{l}be spred further.

13 May 1581, Privy Council, The National Archives PC 2/13, p 453.

Here, we present some alternative ways to “suffer play” from the comfort of the computer screen. Take our “quest” (of sorts…) to discover more about sixteenth-century leisure and recreation and about the fantastic (open-access, free!) resources available to anybody interested in learning more! (These are very loosely structured and the questions are deliberately open, so that anyone who finds it useful can adapt for their own learning or teaching aims and pick and choose as they like…) And needless to say: these are by no means comprehensive, and we welcome any other suggested activities in the comments that make use of the many excellent sites not directly cited here…


Follow the journey beneath for a short trip around playhouses and other early modern entertainment offerings… Answer the questions in bold to crack the codeword clue: there’s a figure lurking there somewhere…

Begin your journey in the early sixteenth century in the north of London, where the idea of commercial playing was being developed…



One of the earliest playhouses was built by Henry Walton for John Rastell in his garden in Finsbury Fields in the 1520s. Use the wonderful Agas Map (dating from c. 1560s) provided by the Map of Early Modern London to find Finsbury Fields and its surroundings (later home to the Theatre and Curtain playhouses to its east in Shoreditch). You may also wish to check the Layers of London tools to track changes over time:
Q1) What impression do you get of this area from the map?
Q2) What is the nearest city “gate” to Finsbury?


One of the playwrights associated with the early Rastell playhouse–and an influence on later drama–was the reformist John Heywood. Listen to some of his drama performed via audio on Beyond Shakespeare here.
Q1) What do you make of the sound, rhythm, and style of these plays?

Time to find a disguise… One of the reasons we know about the Rastell playhouse and those involved in building it is thanks to a quarrel about several playing costumes that were seemingly used for commercial performance while Rastell himself was away in France. Costume is perhaps the single most precious and pricey item held by playing companies of the period…


Use the Folger LUNA website (which contains numerous open-access scans of manuscripts and early printed books) to search the Loseley collection for “costumes” held by the Office of the Revels in middle of the century…
Q1) What costumes can you read or identify in these manuscripts?
Q2) What synonym for “Venus” is used in the manuscript L.b.42? (If struggling with the palaeography, try the link to our post on the subject here).


Similar such costumes for Venus would likely have featured a few years later, when John Lyly makes the goddess a central feature of a range of his plays (see this post). Find an online clip of Lyly in performance or adaptation (perhaps try here or here).
Q1) What do you make of the theatrical style of the clips?
Q2) Consider the relationship between prose, lyric, music, movement, and dance in Lyly: what do you make of Lyly’s sounds?
Q3) How do these plays speak to concerns today?

Ben Clarke’s Venus (Credit: Nick Browning of Activpix) from Edward’s Boys production of The Woman in the Moon (interview here)
Venus (Joy Cruickshank) and Nature (Bella Heesom) (photo courtesy of Ellie Kurttz ©elliekurttz). From James Wallace’s production of The Woman in the Moon at Shakespeare’s Globe. Interview here.

Costumed like Venus and having got an understanding of the playing culture of London, you move to acquire some physical copies of what you’ve seen on stage.


Plays like Lyly’s were sold at booksellers in London, often located by their “sign.” Endymion, Galatea, and Midas were published by a woman, Joan Brome, in 1592. Her shop was located at St Paul’s, one of the hearts of the bookselling trade in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century London. Visit the Virtual Paul’s Cross website, which takes users back to a recreation of the early modern cathedral and yard.
Q1) How does sound affect the experience of moving around St Paul’s in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries?
Q2) What does Paul’s Cross and its yard tell us about the streetlife of early modern London?

Frontispiece to Lyly’s hugely popular and influential prose romance, Euphues (1587). Folger LUNA, 24630. Used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Playwrights including Lyly, Christopher Marlowe, and Stephen Gosson all grew up and were intimately connected with Canterbury–a hub for learning, religion, and culture outside of London. They would have been familiar with the layout represented in 3D visualisations of the medieval cathedral and its precincts created here, which would not have been drastically different during their lifetimes.
Q1) How does Canterbury here compare with St Paul’s and its yard? What similarities and differences do you notice and might you imagine?


…perhaps to visit the kitchen and see what you’ve got in the cupboards to make a suitable early modern snack. Plenty of inspiration here at the Cooking in the Archives site.

Okay, that was delicious, and now we’re back. Tired of performed drama, you look for something else to do with your time. You’ve heard a lot, perhaps from famous early modern clowns and actors like Tarlton, about how he and other actors are not only professional theatre performers but trained fencers! You like the sound of this and follow it up by paying a visit to The Theatre or Curtain.


Read this blog and listen to this podcast with Joseph David Martinez about Elizabethan fencing.
Q1) Can you find any examples of Elizabethan fencing on our website, elsewhere, or on YouTube?
Q2) What styles of fencing existed in early modern Europe and can you name any influential fencers of whom playwrights and audiences of the time would have heard?
Q3) Find out more about Tarlton: his skills, his reputation, and his career. What was his first name?

Tarlton on the pipe and tabor (Wikimedia Commons)


Fencing matches are recorded at the Theatre, Curtain, Bel Savage, Bull, and other locations, which are also playhouses for dramatic performance. Explore the stage on which such performances took place; use the images linked here to think about the visual dimensions of an amphitheatre playhouse (the fully interactive site for the model is currently down). Then consider a space like inn-style playhouses of the Bel Savage (known for having a perilously high stage!) and Bull or coaching inns like The George.
Q1) What might it have meant for actors, fencers, and other performers, as well as audiences, that these stages and buildings can vary so much?


The differences in the architecture and uses of these buildings (as well as the similarities) are becoming clearer thanks to fantastic discoveries made by the likes of MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) in recent years. Watch this video featuring Heather Knight and other experts, and see other videos with MOLA and collaborators like The Theatre Courtyard Gallery here:

Q1) What can archaeology tell us about playing spaces?
Q2) Henry, one-time proprietor of the Curtain playhouse (recently excavated by MOLA), entered a profit-sharing deal with James Burbage and John Brayne of the neighbouring Theatre playhouse in 1585. What was his surname?

After your travels around different venues, and given that several whole questions have passed since your archival food snack, you’re looking for some more sustenance…


Objects and material culture are a crucial way of understanding early modern “play.” We know, for instance, that visitors to playing spaces ate and drank merrily through the performance; a visitor from Europe in the 1590s, Paul Hentzner, explained of theatres and bearbaiting arenas: “In these theatres, fruits, such as apples pears and nuts, according to the season, are carried about to be sold, as well as ale and wine” (Hentzner’s Travels, ed. Walpole, 30). Visit the Portable Antiquities Scheme and use the search facility to find some drinking vessels or eating materials from the period (the broad period in the dropdown of Advanced Search is “Post-medieval”; try searching “vessel” for object type, or ie “tyg” in the general search).
Q1) How does it help our understanding of early modern leisure time to see and think about the physical items that were made and used in the period?


Explore some of the posts on the Many Headed Monster blog, perhaps beginning with Mark Hailwood’s series on food and drink.
Q1) What types of food were eaten by early modern men and women, and how did status (financial, social, etc.) affect what was available?
Q2) Can you find out (through this website or elsewhere, looking at links above) what types of food were consumed in playhouses?

You’re now looking to retire and perhaps write down some of what you’ve learned…

Pen Case. Lt. Col. G. B. Croft-Lyons Bequest. M.670-1926. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Chairs or stools or inkwells and pens and their accessories were all essential items–not just for writers penning plays and pamphlets but for many of the visitors to playhouses and inns (where plenty of “balancing” of books, “remembering” of creditlending, and other literate activity took place). Those who ran playhouses and social spaces depended on a wide literary culture (visual, textual, and numeric) and range of skills in order to navigate business in early modern towns and cities. Henslowe’s “diary” (really a memorandum book) is perhaps the best-known surviving example of such written recordkeeping. You can read more about this subject at the Middling Culture project website. Visit the V&A collections to search for a type of item from the period that interests you. (It may help to consider this post or this post as ways of “reading” and understanding material items like a chair or a “fireback”.)
Q1) Think about imaginative literature you’re familiar with from the period. In what ways does one specific example make use of this rich material culture?


… and to move around your room to keep active. Perhaps try copying this popular early modern courtly dance, the galliard:


Indeed, music was also a key part of the recreational environments (domestic and commercial) of early modern England. Trumpets, hautboys, drums, viols and lutes, and perhaps even virginals may well have been heard in various playhouses; in alehouses, taverns, and inns; and in the streets, as well as in the homes of many families up and down the land. Here, for instance, is Elizabeth Rogers’ virginal book from the 1650s, in which she has noted down many tunes for the piano-like instrument with some stunning penwork.
Q1) Find a reference to music in plays or poetry of the period. Can you find the instrument in question in the collections of the Horniman Museum or the V&A (ie, like this trumpet).
Q2) Waits (which were also known as shawms), popular with town musicians and minstrels, were an early example of what woodwind instrument still used in orchestras today?


Material objects are crucial to entertainment beyond defined playing spaces. Pageantry, for example, was an important and highly visual aspect of early modern life. Explore the Map of Early Modern London and the REED Civic London projects (particularly its blog) to find examples of pageant production and the labour and materials behind it.
Q1) Find an example of an object used in pageantry. What is its significance and how do we know about it today?
Q2) Can you find online (perhaps with one of the links on this page) a surviving example of the object?
Q3) What was the name of the people in pageants who “cleared the way” (perhaps with a fife or pipe, or with a large staff): Shakespeare’s Chorus in the final act of Henry V describes this figure going “‘fore the king […] to prepare his way.”

Time to take a Twitter break? Or perhaps a letter break. Correspondence was a key means of personal and business exchange in early modern England, and the writing of the likes of Edward Alleyn (the chief player with the Strange’s and then Admiral’s Men, later founder of Dulwich College) helps illustrate how professional details sit alongside affection and concern–especially during a spell of prolonged plague…


For instance, here is a 1593 letter from Edward Alleyn to his wife, Joan, in which he asks “my good sweett mouse” (his fond nickname for his wife) to send his regards to his family and hopes that the “sicknes” round about London (ie the plague) may escape his wife’s house. He, meanwhile, is trapped “abroad” touring as a player in Bristol with the Strange’s Men.
Q1) How does this letter help fill out our understanding of London’s relationship with the rest of the country when it comes to playing companies?
Q2) Explore other areas of the Henslowe-Alleyn site, in particular this transcription of a bearbaiting licence. What might we learn about commercial leisure and sport from Alleyn’s career?


As Alleyn’s letter intimates, when the plague visited London, players often went on tour while the playhouses were closed. REED Online offers the chance to explore some of the touring performers but also get a sense of the type of performance more broadly on offer in areas outside of London. Jonathan Willis’s REED series may help show how to contextualise some of these excerpts.
Q1) Pull up a record you find particularly interesting on the REED site. What does this tell you about early modern performance practice?
Q2) From what source is the record taken (law case, churchwardens account, etc.?)? How or why is it significant that this “dramatic” moment is recorded in this medium and what parties and motivations are involved?


Travel and cultural exchange is central–and not just within England itself. Early modern England and especially London were cosmopolitan–not least the areas around playhouses.
Q1) Visit the TIDE Keywords resource and pick a particular entry: how does this relate to performance and play in early modern England?

Time to return to 2020 to wrap up…


Time to get a better sense of early modern London and its traces today. Visit the ShalT website for a virtual “tour” of London and its playhouses.
Q1) What is the nearest London Underground station to the following playhouses:
– The Theatre
– The Bel Savage
– The Cross Keys
– The Swan
Newington Butts?


The vast majority of plays from early modern England do not survive. We may therefore want to think methodologically about what it means to have lost a vast proportion of “witnesses” to the entertainment of the period (and how those that we do still have cannot be said with certainty to be representative). The Lost Plays Database has modelled ways to recover and analyse plays that no longer survive.
Q1) Using examples from the Lost Plays Database, what questions can we ask and what forms of evidence can we explore to help understand “missing” sources and texts?


Take a tour round the Engendering the Stage website.
Q1) What opportunities and challenges are there in performing early modern gendered roles on stage today?

Well done–that’s the tour! Can you guess who the secret “guide” was, hiding in the bold text?

There’s plenty more to explore through lots of other exciting online projects, but for now maybe it’s time to relax… You could get some inspiration (or more likely some clues on what not to do) from the wonderful Intoxicating Spaces project.

Callan Davies

One thought on “Pass Ye Remote: A Quest for Early Modern Entertainment Through Online Learning Resources

  1. Pingback: Hurry Up and Wait – Keeping Yourself Sane While Stuck at Home – The Hunterverse

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