Tuesday, February 12, 2019

"Near Used To Be Far"

Bill Bryson’s biography Shakespeare includes lots of interesting tidbits concerning that era, including some of the weird laws they had back then. 

For example, you could be fined for letting your ducks wander into the road, or for misappropriating town gravel.  For a time, there was a “Statute of Caps”, dedicated to helping a flagging industry by requiring people, under punishment of law, to wear caps rather than hats. 

What really caught my attention about the late sixteenth century, however, was the prevalent issue of “distance”, which has now, virtually, disappeared.  (Unless you’re traveling to Mars, and I’m not.)

Over the centuries, the concept of “distance” has breathtakingly altered.  We flew to Turkey.  It took less than a day.  If an Elizabethan Englishman wanted to travel to Turkey, after boating to the “Continent”, they’re looking at, you know, a year-and-a-half of straight walking.

That’s why a lot of them didn’t go.  (There were the Crusades.  But there were frequent respites for raping and pillaging.)

Even relatively short distances – by our standards – were dauntingly challenging.  Bryson reveals in Shakespeare that the distance from Stratford-on-Avon to London was 85 miles.  If you were lucky enough to own a horse, the trip took two days.  If you walked that same distance, it took four days.  (Perhaps because we have half the legs, but I would not take that to the bank.)

Emerging from that information comes the following fabricated, although factually plausible, conversation between two strangers, crossing paths on the streets of Stratford-on-Avon, one, a lifetime “Local Resident”, the other, a “Recent Arrival.”  The “Recent Arrival” wears an eye-catching hat.

LOCAL RESIDENT:  “Ho, there, stranger.  I like your hat.”

RECENT ARRIVAL:  “Thank you, sir, for that unsolicited kindness.”

“May I ask where you purchased it?

“‘Of course, sir.  It’s from ‘Ashley and Dundershot.’”

“I know all the hatteries in town.  But am unfamiliar with that name.”

“It is in London, sir.”

“You went to London for a hat?”

“Sir, I am originally from London.  I met a girl from your fine town, we subsequently married, and chose Stratford-on-Avon as our home.  The walk here was our honeymoon.”

“A four-day excursion.”

“Well, we… rested along the way.”

“So then, longer.”

“It was our honeymoon.”

“‘Nuff said, then”

More than ‘nuff.”

“Speaking plainly, sir, I wish I had a hat like yours.  Unfortunately, I am in Stratford-on-Avon.  And that hat, or its facsimile, is in London.”

“Why not travel to London?”

“Walk four days for a hat?”

“If you covet the hat, it is worth the exertion.”

“Four days.  You’d think walking four days, you would end up in France.”

“Ha-ha, sir.  Quite funny.”

“By the way, if I may ask, how much did it cost you?”

“Four shillings and tenp’nce.”

“Why that’s ‘two days work.’  Not only that, I’d have to ask for time off to walk to London – without compensation of course – that’s four days of lost pay.  Added to the price of the hat.”

“Well, I’m sure there are fine hats right here.”

“They are nothing like that hat.  Still, the equivalent of six days’ pay… Wait, no!  It’s more!

“More, you say?”

“I would also have to walk back!  That’s four more days, and its equivalent in lost pay.  No wonder, everyone stays put.  Who can afford the walk?  And the terrible distance – dear Lord!  You know, the furthest I have ever traveled is eleven miles?”

“A substantial pedal excursion.”

“An uncle in Barford died of the plague, and we trekked out for the funeral.  A grueling outing that was.  And we were walking to plague.”


“No, I’m fine.”


“Better safe than buried.  Look here, sir.  Although fretful in nature, the inherent calculus is simple:  Walk to London – hat.  Don’t walk to London – no hat.”


“What if I get lost?  Or am accosted by highwaymen?  A four-day-long walk?  Where will I take nourishment?  Where will I lay my weary head?   And even wearier feet?  (SIGHING, THEN FINISHING SIGHING)  It’s not just the distance, or the accompanying expense.  I feel safe where I am.  And unsafe where I have never been.”

“It sounds then like your mind is made up.  I bid you ‘Good day’, sir.”


“I want that hat!

He makes the necessary arrangements, and sets off on his adventure.  Nine days later – London is big, and he had trouble finding the street – the “Local Resident” returns safely back home.

Wearing the exact duplicate of the hat. 

But in his size.

The “Local Resident” struts through town, nonchalant, but trolling for compliments.  Suddenly, from behind, a voice loudly rings out,

“Take off that hat!

It is the “Town Constable.”  Apparently, in the “Local Resident’s” prolonged absence, the municipality enacted the dreaded “Statute of Caps.”

Fearing fining, imprisonment, or both, the “Local Resident” removes his formidable chapeau, storing it away till the punitive “Statute of Caps” is finally rescinded.

But by then, “fashionable hats” had stylistically moved on.

1 comment:

Hamlet said...

The clothes make the man. Hat's optional.