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The Time Traveler's Guide to Elizabethan England

Different societies see landscapes differently. You may look at Elizabethan England and see a predominantly green land, characterized by large open fields and woodlands, but an Elizabethan yeoman will describe his homeland to you in terms of cities, towns, ports, great houses, bridges, and roads. 

From the author of The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England, this popular history explores daily life in Queen Elizabeth’s England, taking us inside the homes and minds of ordinary citizens as well as luminaries of the period, including Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Sir Francis Drake. Organized as a travel guide for the time-hopping tourist, Mortimer relates in delightful (and occasionally disturbing) detail everything from the sounds and smells of sixteenth-century England to the complex and contradictory Elizabethan attitudes toward violence, class, sex, and religion.”

I read and enjoyed Ian Mortimer’s fascinating book about the 14th century. I was aware that he had written another one called The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England, but it wasn’t published in the US until just recently. I don’t think there’s much of a market for semi-serious history here, sadly. 

The first section of the book was really interesting, the idea that a person from the 16th century would describe their home a different way, the idea that the landscape (a term not invented until the late 1590’s) is only as valuable as what it can produce for people. Things have certainly changed since then, and by our standards Elizabethan England was underpopulated with lots of space. And yet it still suffered from severe overpopulation and crowding. Why is that? What Ian Mortimer basically tries to do in both this book and his previous one is view these historical periods not as things that have already passed and are just dates on the page, but as events that actually happened, people who actually lived, in everyday life. It’s a good angle, I think. It’s mentioned both in the front flap and in the publicity materials that many tend to romanticize the Elizabethan era as a time of great exploration and the beginning of the modern era. The first one is certainly true, the second one maybe, but as Mortimer shows, the time was one of great uncertainty and upheaval, where lots of barbaric practices were certainly flourishing. 

I was very disappointed that there were no color plates in The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England like in the first book. I suppose it must have something to do with the switch in publishers from Touchstone to Viking. I like reading about things, but sometimes some images really help to make things clearer, and it’s a shame. 

The writing in the introduction was dry and overwritten; I skimmed through most of it, and was afraid that the rest of the book would be like it. But it wasn’t. There was ample description, and perhaps it was very slightly overwritten, but not much, for which I was grateful. Some sections were more interesting than others. The author really does paint a picture in your head; in the first chapter he describes Stratford-upon-Avon street by street. That certainly wasn’t my favorite part though, as it was kind of boring. I most enjoyed when Elizabeth’s legal standing as queen, religion, class, law, and customs were discussed. That’s what interests me about historical periods. 

I can’t help noticing that 300, 400 years from now (assuming humans haven’t been destroyed), this book would be useless. I doubt it would be in print anyway, but even if it was, the reader then wouldn’t know anything about the 21st century, which Mortimer references in comparison to the period he is writing about. This book will only be of use for so long. 

But at the moment, it is very entertaining and informative, and I certainly learned a lot. How long I’ll retain that information is another matter. I thought the paradox of Queen Elizabeth’s situation was very interesting; she was the ruler of the whole country, feared and respected by the people, yet by law she was not allowed to hold any legal or religious office. 

I was drawn into the book with its rich and fascinating historical detail, and it well portrayed a time of many contradictions, at once progressive and totally backwards. I found the descriptions of the different classes and how sometimes the distinctions blur really interesting; I was definitely absorbed in the book. I learned a great deal about many facets of Elizabethan society, even though it’s an era that I’m not particularly interested. Mortimer manages to make it interesting. 

Disclosure: I received a review copy from Viking. 

325 pages. 

Rating: ****