Goodreads Challenge 2014 8/65 – The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England.

Shelley and I had the good fortune to visit Stratford-upon-Avon some years ago, and naturally we saw All The Things. It’s still quiet and gorgeous it was all delightful.

This was where he spent his childhood - his father was a glove maker.

This was where he spent his childhood – his father was a glove maker.

Anne Hathaway's Cottage

Anne Hathaway’s Cottage

Holy Trinity Church

Holy Trinity Church

We had even more good fortune when we got to visit the Globe Theatre in London on our last trip. There was no play on at the time (boo! hiss!) but it was still a marvellous visit. We did get to see a RSC production of Richard II at the Barbican though, which was brilliantly produced (and had the wonderful David Tennant as the lead – woohoo!!!!!).

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So the book reviewed here was a natural to get while we were at the Globe. And it was an excellent read too, though I admit my attention wandered a little at the description of clothes. But, get it and read on, Macduff, and damned be he or she that finisheth it not!

Enjoy your reading, all. I may actually write about things library soon.

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The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan EnglandThe Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Elizabethan England is presented as a golden age. It was the period of Shakespeare, the Armada and the voyages of Drake, Frobisher and Raleigh. The music of William Byrd and John Dowland graced court and church. And at the apex, ‘Good Queen Bess’, defender of English freedoms.

Hindsight of course it a wonderful thing and Ian Mortimer tried to show us what it was like to live there. Would we, living at that time, view it through such rosy-hued glass?

The first chapter teases out the changes in landscape that were still underway. Medieval towns were slowly. Some of these are technological. Hall-hoses begin to make way for multi-storied houses because the chimney offers multi-floor heating.

England is still very much a landscape, as opposed to a cityscape. By 1600, only five of the top 20 towns in England have more than 10 000 residents. Of these, London has 200 000 and the remaining four (Norwich, York, Bristol and Newcastle) have 10-12 000 each. Oxford and Cambridge have but 5000 each.

Yet the urban centres were growing. It was a much younger population, with just over 7% of the population older than 60. Social hierarchies from the medieval period continue, though the independent power of the great families is now much less. Social status is shown outwardly through clothing. The Sumptuary laws rigidly defined what type of cloth, what colour and so forth a person might wear. One reason that some builders and masons were able to grow wealthy was that they could not spend their money on the luxuries of their ‘betters’.

Religion set out the parameters in which conflict with other powers took place. Elizabeth’s re-assertion of the monarch as head of the church in England gave Spain a cassus bellum – the re-imposition of the Holy Catholic church. Of course, English Catholics were thought therefore to be agents of Spain and the Pope. As indeed some were. But even for those loyal to the Crown, it wasn’t a good time to be Catholic. Once could choose to be Catholic. One simply had to pay a fine for each Sunday that they did not attend a Church of England service. That weekly fine was 20 pounds per month. A farm labourer might expect a bit over one pound per year.

Geniuses are not usually singular products but are created by their environments. One reason that Shakespeare was such a great talent was that he wrote in a milieu of great talent. He had to compete with the likes of Johnson and Marlowe. It was not a period. As Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own points out, it was impossible for a woman to attain such levels of genius because there was simply no opportunity. Woman by and large don’t own property and can be beaten by their husbands for ‘disobedience’. They were still legally not far removed from chattel. Yet many proved capable of running their households when their husbands we incapacitated (or dead).

We are products of our time, and so the things that we take for granted in the west are integral to our makeup. Access to clean water, decent health care and goodly quantities of nutritious food are things that many on the planet still have no access to. This is a wonderfully written examination of a fascinating period. If you have particular interests you can concentrate on some chapters and skip others. But it’s really worth reading all the way through. It is no doubt an era that I’d not want to live in permanently. But should The Doctor happen by with the TARDIS, I’ll make sure that I have this book with me.

I am aware, of course, that The Doctor would be wary of stepping foot here again, lest Elizabeth divorce him. With an axe.

View all my reviews


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