If you were visiting a strange land for the first time, you'd probably be in the market for a guide book to give you a steer on where to visit, what to eat, how to get around and where to sleep without getting fleeced. Historian Ian Mortimer did just that with his previous book – except that the foreign country was the past, and his guide a virtual tour of the 14th century. The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England brought to life the hope, fears, religious beliefs, architecture, clothing choices and dining options of 14th-century folk. It was brilliantly entertaining and uniquely informative.
Mortimer has returned to his time machine to give us The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England. We travel to a time full of discovery, adventure and learning, presided over by "without doubt the most powerful Englishwoman in history". But to accept the received wisdom we have about Elizabeth I's reign being a golden age, all Raleigh, Romeo and Juliet and ruby-encrusted gowns, is, he explains, to be ignorant of what it was like to live between 1558 and 1603. So "when we hear the word 'Armada', we think of an English victory... Yet at the moment of attack, everything was up in the air... Our view of the event as a thing of the past restricts our understanding of contemporary doubts, hopes and reality". It was very much a time of doubt.
After the upheavals of her father's, brother's and sister's reigns, Elizabeth's England was broke, religiously unstable and littered with starving subjects. But though, inevitably, Elizabeth looms large, the man in the street and gentlewoman in her solar are just as important: whether you want to know how they keep their teeth clean ("try picking your teeth with a toothpick made of a piece of quill or wood"), what men carry in lieu of today's mobile phone and wallet (a comb, a sharp knife "for eating and other day-to-day tasks", and a purse for coins), and what state the economy's in: "there are increases in long-term inflation in the 16th century". In the 1550s, prices are approximately 50 per cent higher than they were 10 years earlier.
Elizabethan England is often described here by way of comparison with the medieval period. This is a conscious decision on Mortimer's part and a sensible approach, if one that takes a bit of the fun out of his smart concept and edges it a little nearer to "straight" history. But what history!
With Shakespeare on hand to give us extra insight into how Elizabethans saw themselves (and what they – often, to our eyes inexplicably – found funny), and a society playing out its growing sense of self-awareness as it tiptoes towards the modern age, the stage is set for a fresh and funny book that wears its learning lightly. After all, despite the plagues and the burnings, the prejudice and the hair-raising medical care, "Elizabethans are not some distant, alien race, but our families - they are us". Who doesn't love to read about themselves?
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