The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England
Ian Mortimer
Bodley Head  420pp  £20

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Ian Mortimer has taken L.P. Hartley to heart. If ‘the past is a foreign country’, where ‘they do things differently’, Mortimer’s Time Traveller books are our historical Lonely Planets. Using the innovative approach first seen in his wildly successful The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, Mortimer has turned his attention to the first Elizabethan age (1558-1603). By using telling details to evoke the world of the past, he writes history as people want to read it.

Mortimer’s basic conceit – time travel – is a very powerful one, allowing him to do a number of things that are rare in history books. He writes in the second person and the present tense – giving the text an immediacy – and yet encompasses the whole of Elizabeth I’s reign as if we are waiting by our DeLoreans ready to enter a date. He can visit places that no longer stand and make comparisons with the modern day in a way that would be jarringly anachronistic elsewhere. This does mean that he chooses to throw off the historian’s impartiality – as, for example, when he unsympathetically discusses 16th-century racism – but in other respects this is a scholarly and accessible book: Mortimer’s research is wide and deep.

He is good at challenging common misconceptions about the period, whether on life expectancy, policing, or the idea that Elizabethans were less sensitive to bad smells and more tolerant of filth. His laudable mission is to convince us that our ‘ancestors are not inferior to us; they do not lack sophistication, subtlety, innovation, wit or courage’. He sets out to show us that our triumphal idea of the reign of Gloriana doesn’t reflect the uncertainty and horror of life in Tudor England.

This book cleverly exposes the little peculiarities of 16th-century life: how people thought about time, the finer points of Elizabethan handwriting and how some words in common use would be unfamiliar or mean quite different things to today (‘nice’, for example, meant ‘exact’ or ‘accurate’). Whether giving advice on how to survive a witchcraft trial (if someone sticks a needle into a blemish of yours, ‘scream your head off as it will be presumed otherwise that it is a mark of the Devil’), which years of famine to avoid visiting, or the sort of recipes you might find in Tudor cookery books (including the unappetising-sounding cucumbers stuffed with pigs’ livers), Mortimer is entertaining and informative. He is, unsurprisingly, particularly strong when it comes to early modern illness and medicine and, in turn, you will need a strong stomach to read his descriptions of the cruelty of Elizabethan justice and leisure activities.

There are a couple of minor slips, for instance over Elizabeth’s first territorial acquisition (Elizabeth Island and Nova Albion were claimed by Drake before Gilbert’s possession of Newfoundland in 1583) and that having a black servant in the 1570s, as Elizabeth did, was early (Henrys VII and VIII had a black trumpeter called John Blanke), but these are mere quibbles. This book helps us imagine what it might be like to live in another age.

Suzannah Lipscomb is the author of A Visitor's Companion to Tudor England (Ebury, 2012)

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