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

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Author: Ian Mortimer / Hardcover / 432 Pages / Book is published 2012-03-01 by Bodley Head

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      23.07.2013 02:59
      Very helpful



      A vivid recreation of the social history of the Elizabethan age

      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.

      THE BOOK

      As this volume shows, 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 - as they very 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 to spend? 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 Justices of the Peace, 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, but there were no soap products available. If pieces of fish or meat were stuck to the bottom of the frying pan after cooking, they were soaked in boiling water and then thoroughly scoured with a handful of straw and potash sprinkled in the bottom of the pan. While we are on the health issue, tobacco had only recently been introduced and was being recommended as a preventive for lung disease. How times change.

      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 after they have eaten, 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 in Elizabethan England. 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, which it rarely was. Even Queen Elizabeth only bathed about half a dozen times throughout her life, and even then it was with the utmost caution.

      Gambling was generally frowned on, but there was one exception - the lottery. The government announced it was holding 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 one was held nearly twenty years later, with all the prizes being pieces of armour. A little sexist, perhaps? On the other hand maybe women were not permitted to purchase tickets, even if they wanted them.

      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.


      Dr Ian Mortimer, a historian specialising in medieval subjects, has also written 'The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England', to which this is a companion volume, and biographies of King Edward III and King Henry IV. He also writes historical fiction under the name of James Forrester.


      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.

      [Revised version of a review I originally posted on Bookbag and ciao]


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        14.02.2013 19:43
        Very helpful



        A entertaining way to learn about the Elizabethan era

        When I read Ian Mortimer's time Travellers Guide To Medieval England I found it fascinating and engagingly written. I was delighted to see that the same author had also produced a Time Travelers Guide To Elizabethan England. I decided straight away that I would want to read it. I only hesitated to buy a copy because it was still only recently published at the that point and therefore was ony available in a £20 hardback edition. In the end I decided to use up some of my Amazon vouchers so I splashed out and ordered it. I actually paid £15, but the price is currently £12.80. I am not sorry that I decided to buy it as a hardback because I am sure it is a book I will read several times. I certainly have read the author's previous books more than once. He is a historian and interestingly, he also writes historic fiction under the name of James Forrester.


        The author tries to bring the past to life by describing history in the present tense. In other words he imagines that it is possible to travel back in time and so of course you will need a travel guide to help you decide where to stay, what to eat, how to summon medical assistance and so on. This could come across as quite a childish approach but it isn't. I think the author helps you to understand the Elizabethans as people with hopes and fears just like we have, which makes understanding the decisions they make much easier. It makes them seem truly "real" even if we know that time travel is sadly not as easy as picking up a book. I have read many books on this period of time, many understandably focusing on the political events. In those books, facts such as a failed harvest and the relative lack of provision for the poor may be described in a few sentences accompanied with charts about raising grain prices etc. But I don't think I ever really understood what the horror of an agricultural famine actually meant to the people who lived through it until I read this book. People were dying in agony and I didn't realise how many of the so called vagrants tramping from place to place were children. In the days after finishing the book, the story of a real life little Elizabethan girl described in the book kept coming to my mind as I walked in the cold, wet snow. She appears in the records at 10 years old and alone, having been orphaned and then thrown out by an uncle who had initially taken her on as a servant. She was discovered on the roads, scraping an existance by begging. I wonder how long she could have survived.


        Ian Mortimer covers all aspects of domestic life, trade and travelling, and does so in quite a bit of detail. This book covers a narrower time frame than his previous Time Travelller's guide, which dealt mostly with the 14th century. This allows him to describe more of the changing fashions and fads over the years. He really does cover the entire reign. Having read the previous guide, I felt that some of the information, such as medical practice in particular, is very similar to what is included in the medieval guide. This can't be helped as the books are stand alone volumes and the information could not have been missed out on the presumption you had read it before. There were also times that I felt the author had drifted from the Time Traveller's Guide approach. There are paragraphs describing religous matters and political doings that could have come from any history book. However, this sort of background information is necessary to understand other areas of life. Just when you wonder what it has to do with your travel, the author will bring it into focus. It is advisable to know how safe it is to befriend someone who is openly Catholic for example, or what to do if you are staying in a Catholic household and there is a knock at the door in the middle of the night.. The genuine first hand account of a priest trapped in a priest hole after a raid on the house harbouring him is spine chilling. Similarly, the section on how to find a good education for your child may not feature in many real travel books but it is interesting information anyway.

        There are many notes in the rear of the book and a thorough index. The information is neatly divided into headed sections within chapters so it is easy to find the information you seek anyway. This means you could dip in and out of the book if you want to, but I read it cover to cover. I did not find every part equally interesting, but that is inevitable. I found the descriptions of interiors and furnishings less involving, especially when accompanied by lists of what specific people had in their houses. I think a few of these inventories could have been dropped wihout missing any vital information as they just got a bit repetitive.

        The book really does cover the entire country of England too. I have found some social history books to be very London or urban orientated. This one does not forget to describe life elsewhere in rural and coastal areas and for all sections of society rather than just the wealthiest. This makes it a truly comprehensive guide.


        I would, as it is an easy to read and engaging guide to Elizabethan life. It isn't intended as a guide to politics or foreign relations and nor is it a book about Elizabeth herself, although all inevitably feature to some extent. If you want to know how people actually lived, this book will tell you and you will have fun while learning a lot. I have enjoyed reading it amd hope that the author will think about writing a book to another period of time too. The paperback release date is given for April on Amazon who list the price for that as being £13.49. That is more than the current offer for the hardback. It seems expensive for a paperback, especially as my volume isn't lavishly illustrated. [There are some photos, which illustrate clothing and artwork for example.] I would wait and see what offers surface nearer to the paperback publication date.

        ISBN for hardback ISBN-13: 978-1847921147


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