Paperback review: The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England, By Ian Mortimer

'Horrible Histories' for adults, in a good way

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The Independent Culture

It's often frustrating, when reading a history book, to be given so little information about how people actually lived: you'll be told that the Duke of Norfolk went to Westminster, but not how he got there, what he ate on the journey or what he did if he wanted to go to the toilet on the way.

Ian Mortimer's splendidly entertaining book puts that right – this guidebook to Elizabethan England includes all the essential details that a time-travelling visitor would need to know. You're told about table manners (don't share food if you have putrefied teeth), what to drink (a gallon of beer a day) and eat (roast and boiled meat, pike, cucumbers stuffed with pigs' livers; hardly any vegetables, but plenty of custard tarts; or, if you're poor, acorn bread), and where to relieve yourself (in a jakes above a stream). If you are a Roman Catholic, keep your head down. Don't play bowls unless you earn more than £100 a year – it's illegal. Don't play football at all because you'll probably be maimed or killed. If you are a woman, you won't need any knickers, just a strip of linen to tie around you at the appropriate time of the month. It's like Horrible Histories for grown-ups, and I mean that as a compliment. A strong sense of a nation emerges, of individuals who, for the first time, are conscious of themselves as a people, with a sense of patriotism and history, and of the future: proud, xenophobic, violent, sexist, witty, energetic, adventurous and able to endure pain, poverty, plague and premature death, and still write beautiful music, poetry and drama. It's strange to reflect that this world was only five long lifetimes ago.