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Unfortunately, a lot of history either concentrates on famous people who, odds are, you would never have gotten to meet if you'd lived at the same time, or tries to make sense of evidence assembled about the past (newspapers, public records) in order to assemble an argument. Which doesn't help much when you just want to know how you might have gone to the bathroom in ancient Crete, where indoor plumbing was allegedly invented. Or to get a sense of what it was like to be alive then, what it was like, say, to be an ordinary person at a time when ordinary people were just starting to believe that the world was round.
Which is why Ian Mortimer, whose new book The Time Traveler's Guide to Elizabethan England just came out in the U.S., is my new favorite historian.
This is actually Mortimer's second time traveler's guide. The first, to medieval England, came out about five years ago. The impetus to write it, though, was many years ago, when Mortimer was nine or ten and visited the ruins of a 14th-century castle in Wales.
"I imagined people moving through that same space above me," he writes on his website, "where bees were now flying in the afternoon sun, and through which I could see and hear the rustling of the trees. This strange juxtaposition of the poetic absence of the past, its overgrown ruins, and its continued real presence in a place through our collective memory, fascinated me — and it continues to do so." (Mortimer is also a poet.)
When he grew up, he became an academic historian and did academic tasks, like cataloging 17th-century probate records, which gave accounts of household expenses. "So detailed are these accounts," he writes, "and so varied their contents, that it seemed to me in reading them that I could begin to recreate what these otherwise ordinary people did with their lives."
These two impulses, of imagination and solid facts, form the basis of the time traveler's guides. Those and an appreciation that most people read history because they're curious about the past. So Mortimer has organized his books like a Lonely Planet guidebook: where to stay, what to wear, how to get around. He describes what you'll see, who you'll meet, how the government is organized (and how to avoid inadvertently committing a hanging offense), how to greet different people, where to buy a time-telling ring with a tiny sundial (Humphrey Cole's shop in Elizabethan London), and why William Shakespeare was not an utter ass for leaving his wife his "second-best bed."
The amount of scholarship that must have gone into these books is staggering. How many records would Mortimer have had to rummage through for a five-page section on "Money, Work, and Wages", which encompasses currency, the process of actually making the coins, rates of inflation both in the 16th century and in modern times, and the average wages for a wide range of servants and laborers (both in busy and slow seasons and in different towns)?
Like a good guidebook, though, The Time Traveler's Guide to Elizabethan England is an entertaining read. Particularly since, the more you learn about the period, the less you might actually want to go there even if it were possible, which Mortimer freely acknowledges in his introduction. As his accounts make abundantly clear, it was dirty, it was smelly, food was not always guaranteed, the political situation was unstable despite (or sometimes because of) Queen Elizabeth's absolute power, and life could seem frighteningly unstable.
"The last few decades have seen so much change that people simply do not know what to believe or think anymore," he writes in his introduction. "They have become used to living with slow-burning crises that might, at any moment, flare up into life-threatening situations. This picture of Elizabethan England will come as a surprise to some readers. In the twenty-first century we are used to hearing a far more positive view of Elizabeth's 'sceptered isle.' . . . The problem is, our view of history diminishes the reality of the past. We concentrate on the historic event as something that has happened and in doing so we ignore it as a moment which, at the time, is happening."
Nobody in 1588, for instance, knew that the English navy would defeat the Spanish Armada. Spain could just as easily have won the battle. It might have been a complete and utter disaster.
It's easy enough to list the facts of people's lives, what Mortimer calls the "evidence." It's far less easy to reconstruct people's beliefs about how the world functioned or to make the Elizabethan world seem as complex as ours. But Mortimer does. Like the best armchair travel, his guides are better than a real visit. Not that we'll ever know.