In this extraordinarily interesting book, Ian Mortimer opens a door for us to a world that is in some ways eerily similar to ours 450 years later. The punishments are much worse and the likelihood of disease and lack of effective treatment are unnerving but, as today, they have a refugee problem, homelessness, the elderly who need caring for, and taxes but no income tax.
We would be annoyed by the sumptuary laws, stating what each class of person could wear, and shocked by a literacy rate of 10%. Having your ears nailed to the stocks for a misdemeanour and carrying the hole in your ears for the rest of your life would cause post-traumatic stress that we haven’t dreamed of.
When you fancy a little light relief and want to play a game of bowls or tennis, quoits or card games you will find it illegal because the state requires most men to practise archery in readiness for war. Tennis courts are the preserve of the rich, who play in private. Ordinary people play in the streets rather than build an unlicensed tennis court. When Sir Francis Drake was playing bowls and waiting for the Spanish to begin the Armada, technically any sailors playing with him should have missed the battle because they were facing the magistrates for playing illegally.
Ian Mortimer leads the reader through the English countryside to establish familiar surroundings and then in separate chapters describes the people, religion, clothes, travel, hostelries, food, hygiene and medicine, the law and entertainment. His thirty-five pages of references give an indication of how thorough his research has been.
Although he draws the information together with scholarly discipline, his prose is jovial and relaxed with the occasional modern aside. The reader is a traveller in a distant time but, without breaking the spell, Mortimer gives occasional relief. He notes the increased interest in gardens: “Pleasure gardens are quickly taken up by the owners of stately homes who hope – or fear – that Elizabeth will visit them.” Amusingly, Mortimer notes that Elizabethans rarely eat mushrooms because people are wary of the poisonous varieties: “‘Mushrumps’ are well known to Shakespeare and this contemporaries but they never regard these as food: they consider them more suitable for elves to sit under.” He notes of English cuisine, the old proverb: “God sends us meat and the devil cooks.”
Comparisons are made to help the modern reader realize the gulf between our times. Over half of the 200 men in five ships who set out with Francis Drake in 1577 to sail round the world do not return home. Mortimer comments: “Statistically speaking, sailing round the world in the sixteenth century is considerably more dangerous than going into space in the twentieth.” Travelling can be equally dangerous on land although less protracted. Beware of men, or women in this case, who try to lure you into the woods when a band of ruffians will surround you and relieve you of your possessions, your horse and even your clothes. If all has gone well on the road and presuming you arrive safely at an inn or hostelry, don’t reveal any personal information to the boy who takes your horse, to the inn keeper or the other guests. They’re listening to your conversation to find out whether you’re worth stealing from.
The origins of many modern words are noted such as Morris dancers, which comes from Moorish dancers. A tiring house comes from attiring, the dressing rooms of actors. In the tiring house is a wonderful array of costumes sold to the theatre company by servants. It is the custom of the upper class to give their worn clothes to their servants who can’t wear them because of the sumptuary laws. It would be inappropriate anyway. So they make a bob on the side by selling the clothes to the theatres.
The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England will fill your mind with the way life was lived over 400 years ago, always changing gradually as new ideas percolated through society, and laws were discarded and re-made. The old world of the aristocrats was being changed by the immigrants and the nouveau riche, some of whom were the queen’s advisors. What you thought you knew about Elizabethan England probably needs to be modified.