A Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England
© 2014 Ian Mortimer
Previously Ian Mortimer has offered readers with access to a time machine a handbook for medieval England. Perhaps mystery plays based on Scripture are not your interest, however, and you’d prefer dining with a little more variety. Come then to Elizabethan England, where the secular theater is in its ascendancy, and the rising merchant marine is bringing the world’s produce to English plates. The Elizabethan era is commonly thought of as a golden age for England, between its triumph over the Spanish Armada and the appearance of luminaries like Shakespeare, Spenser, and Jonson. Mortimer warns curious travelers, however, that this is still not an age for the cautious: death by disease, crime, war, or the law are never too far away, and Elizabeth’s crown is so questioned that “Gloriana” must rule with a firm hand, using a zealous secret service keeping tabs on the population and dealing with those who would foment rebellion.
Although Mortimer breaks from his faux-guidebook style (regarding it as contrived if repeated), he still covers the whole of everyday life in England during its 16th century. Covered at length are dress and occupations, architecture, law, and the evolution of the theater and literature. Material from the previous book which is still in effect – -the feudal ordering of society, for instance — is recapped but not plumbed in full again. Mortimer is forced by Elizabeth to focus an entire chapter on religion, given that the legal union which gave her birth and rule was a religious and political controversy that led England to break from the Church, and cost many men their heads, from the noble to the base. (Mortimer still focuses on the political aspects of religion, however, with little on religious practice; it remains more of a background than a subject considered in full. I thought this was odd in a book on the medieval period, and it’s still odd.)
As much interest as there in in the lives of those gone on, and of the structures they created which we still use, I also appreciated Mortimer’s general appraisal of the age. He is strikingly empathetic of his medieval subjects, including those in an age which is not quite medieval but definitely not industrial-modern, and conveys this to the reader well. He gives the people who breathed and died in this age their full consideration — sharing their verse and graffiti, imagining the smells and sights, putting readers into their heads so that we may read the landscape as they did. To them, hills and rivers were not a Windows XP wallpaper, but places to keep the sheep that kept them alive, and the best transportation away. Mortimer’s final appraisal is that as dangerous and uncertain as their lives could be, we see in the Elizabethan age a growing self-confidence — one that saw men throw themselves into the unknown expanse of the oceans in search of new lands and possibilities, and one that allowed intellectual knowledge to definitely surpass the aura of classical learning. Despite the perils and problems of the age, it was also one of hope and ambition, one that spurred England to become the greatest maritime power yet seen.
Oh, earlier in the week Ian Mortimer did an “ask me anything” thread on reddit, inviting questions from the public. He answered questions on his sources, inspirations, etc.