British Museum blog

Using your head

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode City Life, Urban Strife examines an apprentice’s cap from 400 years ago.

Woollen cap that would have been worn by an Elizabethan artisan or apprentice.
© Trustees of the British Museum

James Shapiro, Professor of English, Columbia University

When I think about how ubiquitous hats were in Shakespeare’s day it makes me think of going to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx and seeing everybody wearing a baseball cap or watching Mad Men and seeing so many working men wearing fedoras back in 1960.

We no longer live in a culture where everybody wears caps or hats – and hats no longer signify the same things. Shakespeare did live in such a time and he understood exactly what it meant. On stage, that moment in several of his plays when actors all throw their caps in the air would have meant something quite specific to theatre-goers. The survival of this cap speaks to things from the Elizabethan era that have almost been lost to us.

Throwing caps in the air could be a sign of celebration, it could be an expression of joy, or it could also be an expression of let’s throw the social order over.

In early modern culture, almost everybody from the highest to the lowest levels of society lived and worked in somebody else’s household in one capacity or another. An apprentice was somebody who was learning a trade and to become a master at that trade you had to undergo an apprenticeship. So in terms of what we think of as social class, the early modern ‘apprentice’ is a more fluid term than we might imagine, not the 19th century Dickensian image that it typically evokes.

Those who wore the cap in Elizabethan England were not just apprentices. There was a law, instituted in 1571, that every male aged six and above who was not a gentleman had to wear a wool cap—an effective way for the government to support the crucial wool trade. These caps had to be worn by every male on Sundays and on holidays. They didn’t have to wear them seven days a week but it was the law that you had to wear a woollen cap quite like this one.

The Elizabethan government had an investment in what people wore. These sumptuary laws would ordinarily tell you what you should not wear. In 1597, for example, Queen Elizabeth issued a proclamation ordering people of lower social orders not to wear various kinds of clothing or trim limited to those above their social station. This was a way of visibly creating, or reinforcing, social divisions. Most sumptuary laws were meant to ensure that when you walked down the street you knew who was your social superior and who your inferior.

In specifying what you should wear, instead of what you shouldn’t or couldn’t, the ‘statute cap’ is an exception to that. The cap is the only sumptuary law we know in which the government said you are going to wear this on Sundays and holidays – and obviously not everybody liked that.

In fact, Shakespeare’s own uncle flouted the law.

In October 1583 (when Shakespeare was still living in Stratford and was probably 19 years old or so) his uncle Henry, who lived nearby in Snetterfield, was fined eight pence for refusing to wear his cap to church, according to the form of the statute. When uncle Henry refused to pay up he was fined him another two pence.

Henry was a farmer and this is a time in the Midlands when enclosure was on the rise. I suspect that he was not the only farmer who deeply resented rich land owners enclosing fields and turning fields into places for sheep rather then for grain or workers to earn a living. So I don’t think his refusal to wear a cap was a fashion statement so much as a political statement that not everybody had signed onto these statute caps.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme City Life, Urban Strife

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on, ,

One Response - Comments are closed.

  1. Such an illuminating, stimulating and eye-opening series. Thank you. Being an ardent advocate of hats, I found this programme particularly gripping. Long live the hat.


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In Victorian England many people were fascinated by their past, and the ancient tribal leader Caratacus (also spelt Caractacus) was adopted as a symbol of national pride and independence. Like Boudica, Caratacus resisted the Roman invasion of Britain. Although he was eventually defeated, he earned a reputation as a noble and worthy foe. The Victorian sculptor J H Foley portrays him here standing triumphant, the embodiment of courageous English spirit. See this incredible #Movember moustache in our #Celts exhibition, until 31 January 2016.
J H Foley (1818–1874), Caractacus. Marble, 1856–1859. On loan from Guildhall Art Gallery/Mansion House, City of London. Some more #Movember inspiration! Here’s the Museum’s security team from 1902 photographed on the front steps. They include officers from the Metropolitan Police, and the London Fire Brigade (identified by their flat caps). We’re celebrating #Movember with Museum moustaches great and small. Here’s a #Movember fact: Peter the Great of Russia introduced a beard tax in 1698 and this token was given as proof of payment! Our unique new partnership with Google's Cultural Institute @googleartproject now allows you to virtually walk through the whole Museum! The British Museum is the largest space ever to be captured on indoor #StreetView, putting the unparalleled world collection at your fingertips. Come and explore!
#MuseumOfTheWorld #Google #ForEveryone Have you explored the Museum on @googleartproject yet? You'll now find over 5,000 objects in the Google Cultural Institute, including virtual exhibits inspired by #Celts and #EgyptExhibition as well as gigapixel imagery and the whole Museum on #StreetView!

Two million years of human history at your fingertips. Today we launched a unique partnership with @googleartproject, creating new ways for audiences everywhere to discover the collection.

You can now virtually walk through the whole Museum! The British Museum is the largest space ever to be captured on indoor #StreetView, putting the unparalleled world collection at your fingertips. Come and explore!

#MuseumOfTheWorld #Google #ForEveryone

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