Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer

Reviewed by Josh Drake

Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England
by Ian Mortimer
Paperback: 352 pages, October 25, 2011, ISBN-13: 978-1439112908

Ever wanted to know what it would be like living in Elizabethan England? And why not? What an epic time of discovery, of superlative drama, and of military glory. You may glimpse Gloriana herself or experience the thrill of defeating the Spanish Armada. Well, as L. P. Hartley tells us, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” If you want to fit in, to know the dos and don’ts, and to understand the cultural oddities, you’ll need a copy of Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveller’s Guide. In it, he paints a living, breathing picture of the sickness and the suffering, the power and the glory that was Elizabethan England, and tells you everything you’ll need to know to survive in their world. When you arrive, you’ll find that your “ancestors are not inferior to [you]; they do not lack sophistication, subtlety, innovation, wit or courage”. You may find, however, that they have some rather insalubrious attitudes towards private cleanliness and the language will take some getting used to. Best also to keep your head down with regards to religious issues, and don’t whatever you do consult a local physician. 

If you find yourself as a poor labourer, you will have to work from sunrise to sundown for a paltry 4d a day – the price incidentally of a single chicken. You will earn enough to feed yourself and maybe a wife, but if you want clothes and a warm safe place to stay don’t even bother considering children unless you have a plot of land to grow your own food. Luckily, a recent government provision states that each new house must be provided with 4 acres of land. The definition of an acre by the way differs from region to region, so choose where you buy your acres wisely. Also take care to arrive on a good year. During some years you may find bumper crops and cheap prices, other years, when the crops fail, only widespread famine and extortionate living costs. This is still an age of insecurity. Life Expectancy also changes rapidly during Elizabeth’s reign, from 28 in the early 1560s to 41 in the early 1580s, so this should also be taken into account. On the whole though, it is a dreary, back-breaking existence as a pauper. If famine doesn’t get you, plague, smallpox, or syphilis will, so best to find yourself a good tavern and join the locals in downing upwards of 1 gallon of cheap beer a day. 

Much better then to arrive as an established member of the aristocracy, or as a wealthy merchant. Perhaps you can afford to build yourself a sumptuous Tudor stately home like Hardwick Hall, Longleat, or Wollatan hall where you can throw lavish banquets. Although, try and worm your way out of a visit by the Queen during one of her progresses, as it will cost you dearly. Windows and chimneys are becoming cheaper and more prevalent, so you won’t have to deal with freezing winds or acrid smoke. Instead of grunting and sweating under a weary life, you will have money enough and time to clothe yourself in the latest garb and spend your days composing verse, playing music, and dancing at court. But spend some time first getting familiar with which item of clothing goes where, what goes under what, and precisely how conspicuous your ruff should be. Be careful to get it right because fashions change quickly. Be equally wary of incurring the wrath of puritanical Philip Stubbes, for he will anatomise any abuse you have made against modesty and godliness: “By wearing apparel more gorgeous, sumptuous and precious than our state, calling, or condition of life requireth, we are puffed up into pride and induced to think of ourselves more than we ought, being but vile earth and miserable sinner.” Although do take Stubbes’ advice when it comes to football, a far more violent and anarchic game than it is today: “As concerning football, I protest unto you that it may rather be called a friendly kind of fight than a play or recreation – a bloody and murdering practise than a fellowly sport or pastime”

Instead of dire poverty or upper-class excess, you may decide you would like to join a naval expedition, after all this is the great age of discovery. Perhaps you have romantic notions of joining Francis Drake in his circumnavigation of the globe, or perhaps you want to help Walter Raleigh found a new American colony. I would urge you to reconsider. But, if you are determined, then I must steel you against the privations of a sea voyage: your captain will likely have very little certainty as to his current location, you will have a maximum of 5’ 8” headspace below deck, less space to sleep and no hammock. Your food allowance will include a generous amount of bread or buscuit, cheese, butter, and fish, but expect the meat to go rancid before long and rations to dwindle quickly on a long voyage. Put all thoughts of fresh fruit out of your mind, and best not to contemplate the onboard ablution facilities and sanitation arrangements for too long. Above all, hope against hope that you are not called upon to furl the sails fifty feet up the mast as an oncoming storm gets worryingly close and the ship begins to pitch dangerously.

In general, it is good practice not to break the law, as you’re liable to be hanged, pilloried, or have an ear or two cut off. Equally importantly, I advise you to develop a predilection for eels and custard tarts as this seems to constitute the bulk of people’s diets. Lastly, don’t go for pleasure walks in the countryside or bother to stop and admire the beauty of a landscape, people will just think you are weird. 

Don’t get your hopes too down though; this is an exciting time to be alive; this is the age that “discovered the essence of modernity”. If nothing else, go to the Globe and pay a penny to stand in the rain and watch some of the greatest plays ever performed. 

Overall, Mortimer’s book gives a more discerning appraisal of the Elizabethan period (1558-1603) than the conventional, facile label of a ‘golden age’ implies. Mortimer mainly explores social history via witty and fascinating insights into people’s everyday lives, with major historical events thrown in only as reference points. What is amazing is how fluently he shifts between the various social classes without losing a vivid sense of life, be it of a peasant or a courtier. 

About the reviewer: Josh Drake is an Edinburgh University biology graduate from South Africa. He reviews books on history and popular science. Find out more at: https://joshuadrakeblog.wordpress.com