Not so foreign country

Earlier this year I read Ian Mortimer's A Time-Traveller's guide to Medieval England, an entertaining and occasionally mind-boggling guide to medieval England and its mores. His later volume A Time-Traveller's guide to Elizabethan England is equally mind-boggling, not least because the cultural and social mores have changed dramatically since the earlier book.

Religion is still vitally important in people's lives despite the vast changes wrought by the Reformation. There are more medics available than ever before, though some of the healthcare is a little odd to say the least - a doctor may prefer to sniff your urine than see you in person.

Highwaymen roam Newmarket Heath, and enjoy getting Cambridge scholars to prove their credentials by having a bit of intellectual discourse prior to being robbed. The law can be horribly unfair. It is expected (though not condoned) that masters will sleep with their maidservants; but if the maid becomes pregnant, it will (naturally!) be her fault, and she can expect to be punished. Beggars are treated like criminals, and if you take in a homeless person as an act of charity, you can expect to be punished too.

Elizabethans love their blood-sports - cock-fighting, bear and even horse baiting are popular, and they're none too kind to their fellow-man or woman either. Surprisingly despite the Reformation you're more likely to end up being burnt at the stake if you're an Anabaptist, than if you're a Catholic; and there are a range of torture devices ready to be used. It's a cruel world, but against this cruel world is a land that is very recognisably ours.

The rise of the printing press and literacy (very useful to be able to read, it may save you from a nasty punishment, as the playwright, Ben Jonson, discovered) means that books are becoming increasingly popular. Elizabethans love to read, and there's a huge thirst for self-help books. Cookery, gardening, first aid, and travel are all wildly popular.

Most people have at least some knowledge of the wider world, some, like Sir Francis Drake, have even travelled right round it. Though Drake, in Mortimer's book, is less Great British Hero, and more Great British Nutcase.

Although musicians and actors have less freedom than in the medieval world, and run a real risk of being arrested for vagrancy unless they can find a noble to support them, the arts flourish. Secular music becomes more popular as England embraces Protestantism; and the fall of the Miracle Plays provides new opportunities for the secular stage.

Mortimer presents Elizabethan England as a confident, brash society on the brink of the modern world. Some of this confidence though masks a rather different England. An England that I certainly found very familiar. Following the split with Rome, Elizabeth I was excommunicated, Ian Mortimer's description of the implications of this make it sound very similar to a fatwa being issued today. Similarly there was a sense of unease throughout the country, waiting for a possible terrorist threat to surface. Although to a certain extent this was largely alleviated following the death of Mary Queen of Scots, and the defeat of the Spanish Armada, it cast a dark shadow across what was often an incredibly positive period.

If medieval England is a foreign country, Elizabethan England is also foreign, but much more recognisable. You might not understand all the language if you were suddenly deposited in Tudor London, and you might not be too keen on the food or the healthcare, but you would soon discover that these are people who are very like us. Their aspirations, loves and hates are very similar to ours, they are, as Mortimer points out, our ancestors.


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