By Nathen Amin
The Tudor Tales by Dave Tonge is a recent release by the History Press that is a welcome addition to an admittedly bulging sixteenth century genre. This however is a book with a twist – part-fact, part-fiction. Essentially Tudor Tales is a book of two halves, and that’s not necessarily a problem. In fact, it’s part of its charm.
Tonge is a notable storyteller and has been operating as such since 1999, utilising his degree in English History and a penchant for re-enactment by taking his show on the road and entertaining scores of adults and children across the country. His public speaking work has now been transferred to book format, and it crosses over well.
The book itself is a handy size, capable of being carried around with ease in a pocket. The cover is a wonderful red affair with gold typeface and is impeccably smooth. Physically, this is as beautiful a book as it’s possible to get. The blurb on the back of the book declares that ‘the common sort were no different from us’ whilst the book promises ‘a sometimes coarse but often comic telling of the everyday ups and downs in Tudor life’. This is exactly what we get.
The book is separated into 8 chapters with a total of 33 tales; each chapter has a different theme covering such matters as silver-tongued tricksters, lusty knaves, naughty wives and horny monks. The overriding argument seems to be that the Tudors as a people weren’t that different from us – essentially different era but similar problems.
Tonge begins each tale with some academic background on the theme he is covering, introducing real-life scenarios from the sixteenth century supported by sourced information from court records and the cheap print. The research is detailed and produces some interesting insights into Tudor life amongst the general populace, particularly in matters of the male/female relationship.
For example a woman named Margaret Cock appeared in court charged with slander for accusing Lionel Wade of being an ‘old whoremasterly knave’ whilst the parson Robert Serton was brought before the church courts of Norwich accused of going to a lady’s house on daily basis under the premise of buying eggs but instead approaching her servants ‘to fetch a kiss from them and did by these lewd practices endeavour to abuse them’. There was also the accusation levelled at one Benjamin Wright by Martha Cambridge in a consistory court that he was ‘a saucy knave and a cunning knave who did come drunk or drunker into her house with his bobble hanging from his breeches like a horse’.
Where Tonge’s book differs from traditional work of the period is in the second part of each entry. After introducing the topic with some historical background Tonge recounts his ‘tale’, adapted from the spoken word tradition which he now embodies and used for the entertainment of the reader. Tonge notes in his introduction that many of the tales were printed as simple anecdotes and jests in the sixteenth century but once they were picked up by the storytellers, they were padded out for further entertainment. Here we are introduced to clever wives and devious monks, troublesome youths and shrewd villagers. Each tale ends with the protagonist or antagonist receiving their comeuppance with an underlining moral conveyed.
Tudor Tales is an entertaining read, part fact, part fiction, but all interesting. My only grievance about Tonge’s book, if in fact it can be considered a grievance, is that the tales themselves almost yearn to be read aloud and acted with enthusiasm. The words almost jump off the page and you can find yourself mentally picturing a storyteller recounting the tale to an enthused audience. I have yet to see Mr Tonge in action but if his book is anything to go by, I’m sure it would be an amusing and pleasurable experience.
DAVE TONGE is a professional storyteller who travels the whole of England telling his entertaining versions of Medieval and Tudor folk tales. He works at schools, museums and heritage sites as well as literary, folk and story-telling festivals. The old tales allow him to draw on his historical knowledge and material gleaned from his MA and PhD research.
Prior to becoming a storyteller Dave studied sixteenth and seventeenth-century court records focusing on popular culture and social control, and he often uses the records alongside folk tales performances. He lives in Norwich and runs a very popular attracts an audience from all over East Anglia.