Review: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England

The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer


It is very easy, especially if you’re a speculative fiction fan, to think that you’ve got a handle on medieval and Elizabethan England. After all, both are the major baselines for most fantasy (the former more than the latter, although that’s changing a bit these days) and both are wildly popular settings for historical fiction of every stripe. But it ends up being one of those things you think you know about, but realize you have never actually sat down and properly looked at. As I always say, there’s no excuse for ignorance once you’ve been alerted to it, so when I was asked if I would review The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England, I leapt at the chance.

The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England is a guide for any time traveler seeking to visit the period, as well as a history for any unfortunates without access to TARDISes or DeLoreans. Historian Ian Mortimer calmly lays out the lay of the land and politics, before moving to the more mundane concerns of the time traveler: where will you stay? What will you eat? What can you get away with? Any tourist seeking some original Shakespeare needs to know how to not seem too Catholic, what logic the ineffective medical attention of the age comes from, and how to get around. Too bad you can’t take this on your journey…

This book is actually the second in Mortimer’s Time Traveler’s Guides series; the first is The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England. (For some reason, it’s Traveller’s in the UK and Traveler’s in the US. Is it just me, or do some Americanisms just feel like we’re being contrary?) While these are the only two published books in the series, the next two installments will be The Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain and The Time Traveller’s Guide to Regency England. As the series’ website and this book’s introduction state, Mortimer’s purpose in constructing these is not merely to delight those of us who love history and speculative fiction. As Mortimer states:

The problem is that our view of history diminishes the reality of the past. We concentrate on the historic event as something that has happened and in so doing we ignore it as a moment which, at the time, is happening.

It’s a subtle shift, all this present tense, but it works wonders—it forces us to imagine Elizabethan England as a space unto itself, not a setting or a timeline. Mortimer constantly advises the time traveler on which years are good to visit and which days might be interesting, such as Elizabeth’s coronation. It also forces us to think of the Elizabethans as people we might meet, as another culture (albeit one you can’t introduce your own culture to without blowing up the universe). Mortimer emphasizes their differences, especially their barbaric love of bear-baiting and their firm belief in witchcraft, but also reminds us that this is the first English culture to think of itself as modern.

It can be slow going at first. Mortimer devotes the first four chapters to larger concepts, such as the landscape, people, religion, and character, before getting to the essentials of surviving in Elizabethan England. These first four chapters get increasingly interesting, and then you find yourself enraptured by little details like how to address someone properly and how to dress yourself. That momentum carries you right out to the end of the book, which Mortimer finishes off by highlighting what touristy things there are to do in Elizabethan London. Both books—I definitely plan on reading The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England—are constructed to be useful reference books, and I look forward to consulting this one for a piece of information in the future.

The book’s great drawback, other than the slow start, is that it lacks illustrations. A map of England would be beyond helpful, and I was quite surprised to find none was included. (Remember, I was raised on fantasy; for a long time, I thought all books should come with maps.) And the chapter “What to Wear” could definitely use a few diagrams to indicate how all the different layers are supposed to go on. You can get the gist, but The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England is meant to be your handbook—specifics would be appreciated.

Bottom line: By using the conceit of time travel to put the history in present tense, Ian Mortimer makes The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England a great resource for history fans, despite its slow start. Maps would be heartily appreciated in the next edition, though. Worth a read.

I received this book from the publisher for review.

The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England will be released on the 27th—tomorrow!

2 thoughts on “Review: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England

  1. I loved the ‘Medieval England’ book – glad to hear that the second one is good as well. Despite the absence of maps, one of the most striking things to me was Mortimer’s discussion of the perception of geography at the time… That the ‘mental map’ most people carried was completely different from ours – their perception of space was limited to what they could imagine in the circles of the physical horizon, and they wouldn’t have understood our constant awareness of the ‘birdseye’ view of our surroundings. Despite this, they had an incredible memory for landmarks and sequences of movement.

    That’s my skewed obsessive-architecture-student perspective, anyway. Great review!

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