Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Time Traveler's Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer (2012)

A quite good mix of information about Elizabethan England, written like a travel guide.  Although a few parts were a little dullish (lists of facts), most of this was solidly likable.  Any nonfiction which I enjoy reading and I learned a few new tidbits is worthwhile reading to me.  I didn't know, for example, that there were two kinds of pox:  smallpox and the great pox.  Smallpox, which we are all familiar with, was rarely a lethal killer for adults until the 1630s, when "it turned into a lethal killer."  I had always assumed that smallpox had always been a lethal killer, but something  in smallpox must have mutated to become a dreadful and feared disease.  The great pox was syphilis, which did the opposite - started out as a lethal killer ("it would kill you in a few weeks"), and then gradually became the sexually transmitted disease we know today "which people can live with for decades."  (although with the rise of the superbug, that may be changing).  

I also liked the "envoi" (a new word for me, meaning:  the usually explanatory or commendatory concluding remarks to a poem, essay, or book; especially :  a short final stanza of a ballad serving as a summary or dedication) in which Ian Mortimer espouses on the importance of history.  I particularly liked this sentiment:  

Our ancestors do survive and thrive.  We are the descendants of the survivors.  Elizabethans are not some distant, alien race but our families - they are us, in a manner of speaking - and they show us what human beings of capable of enduring.  They cope with plague, low life expectancy, child mortality, endemic violence, superstition, harsh winters and the taut rope of the law: humanity is remarkably resilient.  More than that, our ancestors overcome their adversities to build, collect, and create.  There might be a gnawing hunger in their bellies but they circumnavigate the world and sail to the Arctic, they laugh and sing, they cut topiary gardens and design banquets of sugar.  They look to the stars and chart a new course that the Earth follows round the sun.  They are afraid, and, at the same time, they are excited and in love.  

They are our families.  I'd never thought about people in the past quite like that before.  Interesting, fascinating characters, almost like actors in a play - but never family.  But that's what they are, right?  Our ancestors are our families, we are related across time and space.  We time travel through this book and others like it to visit them; but they are with us always as well, through their works of art and literature, their architecture and laws and scientific discoveries, through their music and religious changes - and physically through their genes.  They are us.  

The Time Traveler's Guide to Elizabethan EnglandThe Time Traveler's Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Overall, a strong, good piece of (pop) history framed as a travel guide, which in an interesting conceit. There were a couple of dragging sections (mostly when facts were listed) but those sections were few and far between. The Elizbethans were a fascinating bunch, but Mortimer made sure in his envoi at the end to remind us that "they are us;" that they "are not some distant, alien race but our families."  I'd never thought about people in the past quite like that before.  Interesting, fascinating characters, almost like actors in a play - but never family.  But that's what they are, right?  Our ancestors are our families, we are related across time and space.  We time travel through this book and others like it to visit them; but they are with us always as well, through their works of art and literature, their architecture and laws and scientific discoveries, through their music and religious changes - and physically through their genes.  They are us.  Any nonfiction book that's enjoyable reading, includes some new tidbits of information (I learned about not one but two poxes), and some philosophical pondering - to paraphrase that great Elizabethan William Shakespeare - this is the stuff that dreamy books are made of!


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I guess I started a post on this already, and then forgot about it.  Here is what I had started:

The earl and countess of Northumberland are served each morning with a "a loaf of bread cut into trenchers, a couple of manchets, two pints of beer, two pints of wine, to pieces of salt fish, six baked herring, and four white [pickled] herring or a dish of sprats."  That's bar-sized serving of alcohol per person to start the day with.

Everyone must have been drunk by noon back then.  (Harry Truman had a shot of whiskey every morning).

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