My junior high school library had a series of books called Everyday Life in [fill in the historical period]. They had line drawings of period clothing, architectural drawings of buildings (common houses as well as castles), and details about food, games, school, etc. I suspect they were written in the 1920s or 1930s; they have that look in my memory. And I loved them. I read them in series–and then started at the beginning and read them again.* And again. I’d have probably read them through a fourth time if the librarian hadn’t introduced me to The Hobbit.** I’ve retained a fondness for books about every day in times past ever since.
In The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England , Ian Mortimer gives readers a closer view of a historical period with which many feel they have some familiarity. Using the format he developed for his popular Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England, Mortimer tells readers what they could expect to find if they visited Elizabethan England: what they would eat, where they would live, how they would travel. Like modern travel guides, he discusses language, currency, units of measurement, and polite behavior.
If the physical details of everyday life were all that Mortimer considered, The Time Traveler’s Guide would be no more than another “daily life in” account of Elizabethan England. The really extraordinary aspect of the book is the way he uses those details to illuminate ideas central to the Elizabethan world view, from the intersection of science, religion and magic to a new sense of history to ideas about the land itself.
Mortimer’s interpretation of Elizabethan England is richer and darker than the familiar “golden age” of poetry, drama, seafaring and expansion. Comparing Elizabeth’s England not only with the present but also with its medieval roots, he presents the period as one of uncertainty, contradiction, and change. Elizabeth’s Anglican compromise was under attack from both Catholics and more radical Protestants. A growing population and poor harvests overburdened medieval structures for dealing with the poor. Violence is pervasive, from official acts of torture to alehouse knifings.
The past is a different country; Ian Mortimer is a reliable guide.
* Why yes, I was a little history nerd. Why do you ask?
**And a whole new world of nerditude.
The heart of this review appeared previously in Shelf Awareness for Readers.