“The Time Traveller’s Guide To Restoration Britain” by Ian Mortimer (2017)

Leave a comment

“As you lie down on your feather bed on your first night in Restoration Britain, you will notice the quiet.”

The older I get, the more I wish I’d studied history beyond its compulsory years at school. At the time, I wasn’t that fussed, but now it’s easily one of my favourite topics to read up about. I’m not especially talking about the history of warfare, and I’m definitely not talking about the history of trade – one of the few subjects in the world I can’t get interested in is the textiles industry – but more about what life was actually like back then. Ian Mortimer is the king of this subject. This is a history book with a difference.

Mortimer has in previous books covered Medieval and Elizabethan England, and now turns his attention to Britain during the years 1660-1700: the Restoration. The Commonwealth is over, Cromwell is dead, the monarchy has been restored, and the theatres have been reopened. It is a time of great social, cultural and scientific change, with great leaps abound thanks to figures like Isaac Newton, Christopher Wren, Henry Purcell, John Milton and Robert Hooke. It also sees some enormous shifts in the landscape, as the Great Fire of London in 1666 destroys much of the old London and it is rebuilt from the ashes. But unlike most history books, there is little focus here on these great figures and what they did – this is a guide to ordinary life.

Think of this book, like his others, as a guidebook for history. This isn’t a potted history of the political landscape, but a very real guide to the era. If you were to wake up tomorrow and found yourself in the late 1600s, you’d hope to have this book alongside you. This book focuses on the ordinary people, and teaches you how to blend in: what should you wear, do, think, say, eat, play? Thanks to this also being the era of the first great diarists in figures like John Evelyn, Celia Fiennes and, of course, Samuel Pepys, the detail we have is rich and varied.

Mortimer captures with impressive ease the world from the ground up. This is a cold time in history – the Little Ice Age is in full effect, and Frost Fairs are held on the frozen Thames – and we see how clothing changes to reflect that. We see what people eat, and how, with cutlery, particularly forks, going from unusual to commonplace over the period. We get a sense of how much things cost, and how banking becomes a legitimate career path. We find out what people do for entertainment, what illnesses they get struck down by, and how they get from place to place – and, indeed, how far people can generally travel. It’s packed with interesting facts, one of the most surprising for me being that the iron has just been invented, but the mangle, clothes horse and even the ironing board are still in the future. From the peasants eking out a living to the lords and royals with enormous houses and lands, everyone is covered. Using historical records from death certificates to diaries, Mortimer builds up a living, breathing past, where we come face to face with our ancestors and fellow humans, not just statistics of a bygone era.

This is Mortimer’s gift, really. For the third time he brings history alive. It’s all well and good looking at these people as another species, but we are only here because these people were there first. Suddenly the mistreatment of women, the love of blood sports, and the high infant mortality levels become something else entirely when we realise that these were humans, just like us. We might think of this era as one of powdered wigs, new discoveries like chocolate, tobacco and champagne, and a scientific revolution, but it’s more complex than that. Women are still considered their husbands’ property, it’s possible to die of toothache, tensions between religious factions are as high as ever, and heads of executed criminals still sit on spikes on London Bridge.

If you really want to experience history, this is a book for you. It’s incredibly fascinating, richly-described, and in many places downright gory (Samuel Pepys’ bladder surgery will stay with me for some time), and well worth a read. My only advice is that if you are planning a trip into the past any time soon, I’d skip this century. It’s all about to get quite a bit better.

“The Time Traveller’s Guide To Elizabethan England” by Ian Mortimer (2012)

2 Comments

And on your right, the Globe Theatre...

And on your right, the Globe Theatre…

“It is a normal morning in London, on Friday 16 July 1591.”

Why limit your travels to space when you can travel in time? That’s what I always think and it’s an attitude shard by many others, although they tend to be fictional. In 2013, I read and reviewed Ian Mortimer’s travel book, The Time Traveller’s Guide To Medieval England, which as you can infer from the title, is a travel guide for anyone who finds themselves in the 1300s. This time, he’s applying the same idea to the latter half of the 1500s, when Queen Elizabeth I ruled the country, theatre was booming and the British were beginning their quest to conquer the globe.

As before, this book mostly ignores lists of facts and figures (although there are some included) to focus instead on the actual day-to-day life of those living in the sixteenth century. Mortimer explains that this is the best way to bring history to life, and he’s absolutely right. The premise is that you have found yourself in Elizabethan England and this is your guidebook on what to wear, what to eat, what diseases you might catch, how to greet people and how not to get conned by the local criminals.

The book is split into different sections that focus on different aspects of society, such as the landscape, the diet, travel, entertainment and religion. Like all good history books, it isn’t afraid to show you the negative side of things. This indeed may have been a Golden Age in the fields of architecture, drama and exploration, but nonetheless there is still much poverty, social inequality, racism and religious hatred. It emphasises that things are not easy and it isn’t all Shakespeare plays and jaunts down the Thames, but rather that many people are starving because their crops have failed, the death sentence is still very much a real thing, and that the Catholics and Protestants remain at each others throats for much of the reign, leading to trouble for anyone who finds themselves on the wrong side of the fence.

It also dispels many of the myths of the time, such as the belief that no one minded the smells of latrines in the towns, or that bathing wasn’t actually unacceptable or strange, merely difficult to do and time-consuming. The Elizabethans believed that disease could be spread by smell, so did their best to keep themselves clean, and while they did sometimes have to shit in a fireplace, they weren’t necessarily happy about it.

All aspects of the time are included, from what sort of accomodation you could expect from an inn (and at what price), how much the general population knew about the wider world, and what life was like on board ship. We even get to meet some of the greats of the time, such as William Cecil, Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe and, of course, William Shakespeare himself. Refreshingly, there isn’t a huge amount about him and absolutely no speculation about whether he was the real author of his plays or not. He is presented as himself and the focus is on his plays and sonnets, noting that even in his lifetime, he was accepted as highly talented and very famous.

The chapter on religion is somewhat tedious, but that’s merely because it’s not something that interests me very much, but if you were to find yourself in this era, you’d absolutely need to know about it. These are dangerous times and you can now even be fined for not attending church. Nonetheless, the book is full of incredible facts, including something that has never been mentioned to me in any previous history lesson: a white slave trade was formed during this time that ran for centuries.

If you’re planning a trip to Elizabethan England any time soon, this book is definitely worth taking along with you. And if you aren’t, it’s still a great read. It’s important to remember that the people being discussed herein are not aliens, but your family. For you to be here now, they have to have been there then. That knowledge really brings this book to life, and might make you realise how good we now have it. England under Elizabeth changed everything, and this is a brilliant introduction to the whys and hows that led to us here today.

“The Time Traveller’s Guide To Medieval England” by Ian Mortimer (2009)

2 Comments

Lonely Planet, eat your heart out.

Lonely Planet, eat your heart out.

“It is the cathedral that you will see first.”

While travel or travel writing may be something I never really got into, I have recently found myself to be something of a history geek. This is partly due to a strong interest in the Royal Family, the kids TV show Horrible Histories (which was one of the best shows of the last ten years) and my friend Claire, who has taken the Tudor period and made it her own, demolishing any book, show or film about the time.

Following her lead, I have decided to find a time period that I can become obsessed with myself, and so that quest begins here. So, fuel up the DeLorean, calibrate the TARDIS, or get spinning that Time Turner. We’re off to the 1300s.

Unlike other history books, The Time Traveller’s Guide doesn’t focus too much on figures and statistics. Mortimer takes the brilliant option of making us believe that the medieval people are alive. He argues, quite rightly, that once we start thinking about history as happening rather than having happened, it comes alive in a very different way. These are actual people. I’ve always had that issue with history. We lump people together and refer to millions as “the Romans” or “the Stuarts” and make generalisations about them, forgetting that they are, or were, us. That’s particularly true given that for you to be here today, your ancestors were there at the time. Once you start looking at people in history as individuals, it becomes much more personal.

The book is written like a travel guide. Mortimer doesn’t waste time in explaining how you’ve ended up in medieval England, he just explains what to do while you’re there. Cities and towns come alive as he describes what you would see, hear and smell, what the people look like, and what they may be thinking. He explains about the landscape and the people (who are mostly young, and few and far between once out of the towns), explains how to greet strangers, how to tell the time, and how to use the money. He gives suggestions on where to stay and how to travel safely, as well as what to wear and how to avoid the iron fist of the law. And, when you’ve settled in, there’s also a chapter on how to amuse yourself with bawdy taverns and falconry.

Mortimer does well to dispel many myths about the medieval era, removing the idea that people are dirty and all poor. Certainly, the Great Plague is rife throughout this century, and there are some workers who don’t feel it necessary to clean themselves, but there are also houseproud women who scrub their houses and linen daily. In medieval times, it is believed that bad smells spread disease, and body odour is linked to being a sinner, so it becomes vitally important to be clean, particularly in the small communities where everyone knows everyone else.

The book looks at everyone from the servants and villeins, to the kings and noblemen of the land. Even among the peasantry, there is much variation, from the poorest farmers to rich merchants who sell imported spices and silks. Everyone gets a look in here, and the way things were done is sometimes shocking and surprising. Yes, waste both animal and human is dumped into the local river, but people also wash their hands before and after every meal, and everyone drinks ale and wine. This seems excessive, but remember that the water is filthy – a weak ale makes a good substitute!

This is a great book for anyone planning a jaunt into the 1300s and should save you from any faux pas you may commit while there. Just keep your eyes on the king, go to church every Sunday, and keep your face clean, lest you be mistaken for a leper or worse, a criminal, which may mean you’re strung up in the street as an example to everyone else.

Clever, interesting and a really good way of bringing history to life.