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.


Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 14,479 other followers


Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

Our #Celts exhibition opens today! It brings together the incredible Iron Age, Roman and early medieval collections of the British Museum and @nationalmuseumsscotland.
Roman control of southern Britain broke down around AD 410. New leaders established Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England, and Roman towns and cities were largely abandoned. Neighbouring communities in Scotland, Ireland and Wales continued to develop their own unique identities. Monasteries in these areas stood out as European centres of art, learning and literacy, perpetuating and reinventing local traditions. Communities here spoke languages that we now call Celtic, and practiced a distinctive form of Christianity.
Striking stone crosses, such as this one found in Monifieth, Scotland, combined ancient Celtic curves with Anglo-Saxon knotwork and interlace designs to express these distinctive Celtic identities in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. This sculpture may have been a personal memorial or grave-slab.
Slab of grey sandstone with a cross on one side. From Monifieth, Angus, Scotland, c. AD 800–900. National Museums Scotland.
Find out more about #Celtic art and history and book tickets at Our #Celts exhibition opens today! It brings together stunning objects from the British and Irish Isles as well spectacular loans from across Europe.
This magnificent cauldron is one of the most important and intriguing finds from ancient Europe. It reveals connections between communities thousands of miles apart. Although it depicts objects used in central and western Europe,
it was found in a bog near Gundestrup in Denmark, beyond the northern edge of the Celtic regions. The style of the designs suggests that it was made further east, in Bulgaria or Romania. The strange animals and cross-legged pose of
the antlered figure hint at even wider influences, from as far afield as Asia. The scenes on the panels give a glimpse into a world of ancient myths, and the stories of gods and heroes whose names are now lost.
The Gundestrup cauldron was probably reserved for important rituals. It is likely that most people would have viewed it from a distance, seeing only the forbidding faces of gods and goddesses on the outer panels. The fantastical scenes on the inside would have been revealed to those allowed to experience the cauldron close up.
Gundestrup cauldron. Iron Age, c. 100 BC–AD 1. Found in Gundestrup, northern Jutland, Denmark. @nationalmuseet, #Denmark.
Find out more about #Celtic art and history and book tickets at Our major new #Celts exhibition is now open! Come on a 2,500-year journey tracing what it means to be Celtic...
The peoples first referred to as Celts lived across much of Europe north of the Alps, in villages or fortified hilltop settlements. Although not a single distinct group, they were interconnected, sharing cultural ideas across the continent. The objects they made for feasting, religious ceremonies, adornment and warfare were both stunning works of art and powerful ways to convey shared values and beliefs. Their unique abstract style set them apart from the classical world, but their technological accomplishments stand on par with the finest achievements of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
2,000 years ago valuable objects like this were cast into rivers. This magnificent shield was found in the River Thames at Battersea Bridge. It was not made for serious warfare as it is too short to provide sensible protection. Instead, it was probably made for flamboyant display. The highly polished bronze and glinting red glass would have made for a great spectacle.
The Battersea shield. Iron Age, c. 350–50 BC. Found in the River Thames, London, England.
Find out more about #Celtic art and history and book tickets at This 7th-century coin may be the earliest known depiction of a Muslim, the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik. The Umayyad dynasty were the first Muslim rulers to govern Egypt. This coin shows Abd al-Malik holding a sword and surrounded by the shahada, meaning ‘the testimony’ – a statement of faith in the Oneness of God and the acceptance of Muhammad as God’s Prophet.
Discover how Egypt’s religious and political landscape was transformed over 12 centuries in our #EgyptExhibition, opening 29 October.
#Islam #Muslim #coin #Islamic Christians adopted the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible as their Old Testament and understood many of its stories in the context of the death and resurrection of Jesus. This ivory box, known as a pyxis, shows Daniel, who was thrown into a lions’ den by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar but saved by his faith. On the other side, an angel rushes forward behind a ram, referring to the story where a ram is substituted for Abraham’s son at the last minute as a sacrifice to God.
Discover how Egypt’s religious and political landscape was transformed over 12 centuries in our #EgyptExhibition. In 4th-century Egypt many people of different faiths wore amulets, which were believed to provide protection. The menorah – a seven-branched lampstand – is one of the few ways of identifying Jewish material in Egypt. In time, it became the most common symbol of Jewish identity. Judaism never became a state religion in Egypt, but it had a thriving Jewish population from the Roman through to the Islamic periods. 
Find out more about Jews in Egypt in our forthcoming #EgyptExhibition

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 14,479 other followers

%d bloggers like this: