Book Review: “The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England” by Ian Mortimer

Have you ever read a history book and wondered what life was really like for those who lived in the past? To understand a time period and the motives of the people of the past, we have to understand the structure of their society. How they understood things like class, sex, violence, government, and religion is essential for us to understand what separates us from our ancestors. What they ate, what they wore, and where they slept also give a unique insight into the time period. It can be a difficult undertaking to figure out all of the different aspects of the past connect and to present it cohesively, yet acclaimed historian Ian Mortimer has embraced this challenge head-on to tackle one of the most complex periods of the past; the Elizabethan era. His love letter to the Elizabethan age entitled, “The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England” is a delightfully imaginative guide to the past.

There have been numerous books about the lifestyles of past eras, but what separates those books from the one that Ian Mortimer has written is his writing style and the imaginative descriptions that he included. Many writers give you the facts without the fluff. Mortimer has written this book as if you have stepped back in time and you are seeing the Elizabethan age with your own eyes. It is a treat for all of the senses. To engage the reader in such a way is not an easy feat, but Mortimer does it seamlessly.

I think we all have a vague idea of what the reign of Elizabeth I might have been like. After all, it was known as the “Golden Age”, so it must have been a time of opportunity and great providence for the people, no matter their social standing. Or maybe not. As Mortimer explains, this “Golden Age” was a varnish for a reign that was filled with its own set of trials and tribulations, very similar to what we experience today. Sure, the problems are different, but we can relate to the people of the past because they are human problems. We all deal with things like diseases, where we live, what we eat, what to wear, religion, entertainment, and education. Yet what makes each era unique is how we address these issues.

To see the Elizabethan era, which was on the precipice of the early modern age, in the midst of great progress was a joy. Obviously, this would not have been a time that modern readers would like to have stayed for an extended visit, but it was simply a fantastic guide for those who dream of the past.

I don’t usually share quotes from books in my reviews, but there was something that Mortimer said at the very end of this book that was too poignant not to share.

“History is not really about the past; it is about understanding mankind over time. Within that simple, linear story of change and survival, there are a thousand contrasts, and within each of those contrasts there is a range of experiences, and if we put our minds to it, we can relate to each one. “(pg. 325)

I picked up this particular book on a whim and I am truly glad I did. It gave me a deeper understanding of the Elizabethan age and what it meant to be Elizabethan. Although we are separated from these people by centuries, their experiences and ours are similar. We are all humans trying to get by each day the best we can. If you have ever wanted to know what the past was really like for those in the Elizabethan era, either for your own personal enjoyment or for research, I highly recommend you add, “The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England” by Ian Mortimer to your own personal collection.