Publication date: 6/27/2013
Archived documents make a history of sixteenth century England an authoritative read, but diaries, letters and books from the past don’t have to become a brittle academic exercise with scholarly endnotes. Why not make history relevant to modern readers?
Historian Ian Mortimer has made relevance his mission. His first book was a fresh take on history, an entertaining and edifying time traveler’s guide through medieval England. Now, Mortimer captures the sights, sounds and smells of Shakespeare’s London, market towns and country parishes in his upcoming book The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England.
The book takes readers through the landscape—the ports, great houses, bridges and roads leading to London—and culminates with a look at entertainment—royal processions, taverns, games and Shakespearean theater. In between the time traveler experiences the terrain as a local.
“If you come this way on a fine day, you will see washerwomen laying out clothes, bed linen and tablecloths on the grass to dry. But it is not to see the washerwomen that you should come this way: rather it is to admire the palaces. If you turn off and follow the track that will later become Haymarket, this leads you down to the tall medieval cross at Charing Cross. From here you will see the sparkling Thames straight ahead and, along its bank to your right, the royal palaces of Whitehall and Westminster.”
In the populous and cosmopolitan city of Elizabeth’s reign, the time traveler can visit London Bridge, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower and a crowded Cheapside on market days. Mortimer writes that a nearby tavern, the Mermaid, is a drinking haunt of London playwrights including William Shakespeare.
A chapter on the differences between the modern and the Elizabethan clarifies concerns and misunderstandings a visitor encounters “in a strange country.” Accept the fact that you will not find the answers to these questions in any traditional book on history. An English dictionary won’t help, because a sixteenth century bookseller in Paternoster Row knows there is no such thing.
Tone of voice will usually give away the meaning of expletives. “Zounds!” will be recognizable to the modern ear. “Fie!” is an exclamation of disgust or outrage, while “Faith!” is an exclamation of emphatic agreement.
Jakes refers to the toilet and when someone accuses you of being cup-shotten, you might be spending too much time in the tavern. According to Mortimer, many words still in use in modern English have changed meaning in between centuries. Consider the words nice, cute, mean, several and romantic. In Elizabethan England those words respectively refer to exact, sharp, humble, separate and heroic.
“Think of the whole English language as a vast river into which rivulets of foreign words and people’s witticisms and new experiences flow constantly, the water turning over and altering all the while. Its continual flow and alteration make it a living language—it is a river, not a stagnant pool of archaic words—and any markers placed in this flow are bound to be swept aside.”
Mortimer’s history is vivid for its quotidian detail. In a list of essential writing materials, he suggests a penknife to trim your goose quill along with an inkhorn and ready-made ink available at the scrivener’s shop. Mortimer even produces a recipe for making your own ink.
“To do this you will need a quart of wine, five ounces of oak galls, three ounces of copperas and two ounces of gum Arabic. To make it last, add bay salt. To make it really black, add ground lampblack. If the ink is too thick, water it down with vinegar.”
His writing is deep, too. Mortimer makes profound inferences about poverty, gender, health and justice issues in a hierarchal society “religiously charged, inherently violent and far from democratic.”
The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer is a highly worthwhile read, a satisfying and relevant history of sixteenth century England.
Category: Nonfiction, History