The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer

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The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer

Category: History
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A social history that vividly evokes the reality of how it would have been for people of all walks of life to live in the England of Queen Elizabeth
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 420 Date: March 2013
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978009954207

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For many of us, the Elizabethan age which comprised almost half of the Tudor era seems bathed in sunlight, the gilded era of Queen Elizabeth's 'sceptred isle'. It was the period in which Gloriana presided over Sir Francis Drake's circumnavigation of the globe, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and the literary epoch of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Spenser and Sidney.

But a few great events in our national history only tell a very small part of 'our island story' for that almost half-century. What was ordinary life like for everyone during the age? It was still a time of enormous, almost unimaginable contrasts between the wealthy and the poor. People could still be burnt alive if they were convicted of heresy, while heads of traitors were exhibited over the great Stone Gate in London to rot and to act as a deterrent to others, and the Catholics could be persecuted for their faith. As for the poor, they could still starve to death in the streets – and often did.

If you had been alive in the sixteenth century, how did you greet people, what clothes would you wear, what food and drink would you consume and how much could you expect to pay for it? Which gold and silver coins were in circulation, and as there were no banks, what would you do if you needed to borrow money? Could you run up credit with local shopkeepers? What were the cities, towns and countryside like, and what were the most striking features of the latter? This is the book that tells you all this and much more.

The rights of women are nowadays largely taken for granted, but even in the age of Good Queen Bess their status was very different. Women could become licensed surgeons or churchwardens, although these were quite onerous posts and hardly any of them are recorded as having sought such employment. They could not vote in parliamentary or mayoral elections, become JPs, lawyers, mayors or aldermen (or should it be alderpersons). They could travel, pray, write and go about their affairs just as freely as men, as long as they were not married.

As you would expect, standards of hygiene were very different. It was widely recognised that rotten fish and meat were injurious to health. After meals, knives were wiped clean on napkins and put back in their sheaths, while spoons and other cutlery were taken to the scullery or kitchen and washed with the pewter plates and cooking dishes. Only hot water was used for washing up, no soap products, and if pieces of fish or meat were stuck to the bottom of the frying pan, they were soaked in boiling water and then scoured with a handful of straw and potash sprinkled in the bottom of the pan. Two colour illustrations in one of the plates sections printed side by side offer an interesting contrast. In the first, the wealthy are seen at a banquet in which dancing will follow the meal, while in the second, ordinary people are sitting down to a meal in which the cooking, food preservation and eating all take place in a single hall.

Baths were very rare. Most people believed that water cold infect them through the pores of their skin and the crevices of their body, and they would not immerse themselves completely unless they were convinced that the water was pure. Even Queen Elizabeth only bathed about half a dozen times throughout her life, and even then with the utmost caution.

Gambling was generally frowned on, but there was one exception – the lottery. The government announced one in 1567, when 4,000 tickets were offered at 10s (50p) each, with the draws taking place at the west door of St Paul's Cathedral; several months after the final date of sale tickets. Despite the cash prizes, the price was considered too high and it was deemed a failure. Another lottery was held nearly twenty years later, with all the prizes being pieces of armour. A little sexist, perhaps? Or maybe women were not permitted to purchase tickets, even if they wanted them.

Mortimer has provided an astonishing recreation of the social picture of Elizabethan England. His style is very conversational and approachable as he takes us on a journey through the landscape and mores of the age. He has vividly conveyed the atmosphere of the times, and evoked what it must have been like to live at such a time. Maybe it comes as no surprise to read that the nobility and the wealthy had all the creature comforts they could ask for, while for those lower down the social scale it was a very different matter.

In his conclusion at the end of the last chapter, he tells us that in his view history is not really about the past, but it is about understanding mankind over time, and that studying the past is merely an academic exercise unless we see it in relation to ourselves – an interesting thought.

For more on this period we can recommend Elizabeth's Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen by Tracy Borman

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Booklists.jpg The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer is in the Top Ten History Books of 2013.


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