Book Review: The Elizabethan World Picture by E.M.W. Tillyyard

This is a gem of a book that basically explores the Elizabethan way of viewing the world by examining popular literature and philosophies oThe Elizabethan World Picturef the period.

Quoting extensively from the likes of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Spenser and Sidney (among many others) and making reference to the Greek philosophers that influenced Elizabethan thought, particularly (pun intended) Plato, Tillyard explains the way people of the 15th and 16th centuries understood their relationship to the corporeal and spiritual world and how they established hierarchies of being from oysters through to lions; from paupers to kings. How these all existed in a complex and simple relationship, a chain of being within the cosmos. How this was all regarded as functioning within very ordered vertical and horizontal planes and within a deep religiosity, is also explored. While anyone familiar with Elizabethan literature and history will not be unfamiliar with Tillyard’s ideas, it’s the way they’re explained and how literature and plays are used to both provide and support evidence that makes this book particularly delightful.

I think the most surprising thing to come out of the text for me was Tillyard’s summation that for all we think of the Elizabethan poets and dramatists as having some special relationship to their muses, the world and imagination, what they produced was quite “ordinary”. What he means by this including the music of the spheres in a poem, or likening the queen to the sun or moon and stars, linking the macrocosm and microcosm – was rather commonplace thinking for the time. He is not diminishing the accomplishments of the poets etc but rather asking us to understand that all Elizabethans read the world in that way, so the language of Shakespeare, Milton and Marlowe etc. was speaking to like-minded people who lived and breathed the allusions rather than grasping at powerful and beautiful metaphors that prove elusive to so many now. While an obvious point, I loved reading it and have subsequently tried to read Spenser with that view of the world in mind. It really does change things and make them easier to grasp. Not as easy as I’d like, but for that to happen, I’d have to step back in time awhile. Now, where’s my Tardis….?

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Book Review: The Elizabethans by A.N Wilson

After some quite shaky moments where I wanted to hurl this book from my sight, I ended up thoroughly enjoying and learning from A.N. Wilson’s, The Elizabethans, a rigorous and highly entertaining study of England and its people throughout the long reign of Elizabeth the First.

The book commences with a statement that rapidly needed explication: that is, that we are only now, in the Twenty-First Century, seeing the end of the Elizabethan world. Startled by this observation at first, I then understood what was meant, as in the first two chapters Wilson quickly covers Elizabeth’s disastrous campaigns in Ireland and attempt to oppress and subjugate its peoples before examining the beginnings of English expansion and colonialism in the New World. Shocking the reader with some cold, hard facts about E11733162nglish geographical growth and plans for domination (I think one of the terms used was “Seeding” – but that may have been another book) it soon becomes clear that Wilson is being deliberately provocative in order to insist the reader suspend contemporary judgement and the sins of “isms” (racism, sexism, classism etc.): that we view the Elizabethan world through Elizabethan eyes, politics, religious upheavals and belief systems and that we, as far as possible, withhold judgement (and for the sake of better words, “politically correct” assumptions and thus criticisms about actions and decisions – though this is very, very hard) and instead seek to immerse ourselves in this rich, brutal, decadent, paranoid, artistic and amazing time.

While I initially struggled with some of Wilson’s assumptions (and though he is an historian, he makes many, liberally sprinkling the text with terms like “possibly” and “maybe” and words that, as one chapter is titled (borrowing a quote from Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queen), lie “twixt earnest and twixt game”, sitting somewhere between fact and writerly elaboration) – let me give you an example of one of the worst.

It happens on page 207. This is where I almost put the book down never to pick it up again. In chapter 17, when writing about Sir Philip Sidney and Ireland, Wilson discusses William of Orange and the Protestant upheavals in the Netherlands:

“English involvement in the Low Counties was something about which Queen Elizabeth nursed ambivalent feelings. In the years 1585-6 the English soldiers serving there, and the people of the Netherlands, suffered acutely from an excess display of all her worst character traits – vacillation, tight-fistedness, hysterical rages. Presumably [another one of those twixt words] the ill-fated campaigns in which thousands of Englishman, including Sir Philip Sidney, perished coincide with her menopause (my emphasis).”

Yes, you read it right. I was astounded. Elizabeth’s menopause was the reason so many men died and suffered needlessly? Good God.

After my initial shock at this blatant, frankly offensive and bold postulation, I found myself reconsidering how to read and respond to the book. The information is wonderful, the scope wide and fascinating and the characters that people this landscape so interesting. Sure, Wilson peppers the history with his observations and witticisms and, frankly, obvious adoration for as well as somewhat misogynistic attitude towards Queen Elizabeth, but it was like being in the presence of a really, really knowledgeable professor at university who discourses freely around a subject about which he knows a great deal and isn’t afraid to offer his own opinion and interpretation of people and events. I imagined him pausing or raising an eyebrow, daring a response with a twinkle in his eye (yeah, I know, I am now twixting). In other words, I felt he was challenging us to think, pushing us to move outside known historical squares and ruminate on what might have been… even menopause, I guess…

Instead of continuing to be offended or concerned, I chose to sit back and go along for the ride, enjoying the gossip, his asides, the facts, the summations and learning more about Elizabeth, Dudley, Dee, Essex, Burghley, Hawkins, Walsingham, Marlowe, Jonson, Sidney, Harrington, Lyly, Campion, Raleigh, Burbage and so many more than I might have from a more, shall we say, circumspect book or author (and I have read and enjoyed many).

The times are beautifully evoked – from the narrow dirty streets of London, the sermons at St Paul’s, the lawlessness of Bankside and the Stews, the piracy and profligacy – and not just of Drake, Raleigh et. al., to the dreadful conditions of the poor who suffered more than any others through plagues and failed harvests and the ravages of constant threat of invasion and wars offshore. The religious schism of the times, the ideological fracturing that occurred and the people that both fell into and profited from the cracks that followed are beautifully and imaginatively rendered.

By the time I finished, I found I really, really liked this book. Furthermore, I liked Wilson and his historical chutzpah – comments about women and menopause and the attribution of blame (as well as other problematic and taxing statements) aside. That he concludes the book by referring to Elizabeth as a distinguished monarch (even with all her flaws and faults) who the British can thank for the country (or, I guess, curse) they live in now reveals the esteem in which he holds this woman of history, but it’s not an esteem that is without qualification or, as I said, awareness of her very real failings. Wilson wears his little British heart on his leather-padded elbow sleeve and I admire him for it.

Wilson is the sort of bloke I wish I’d had as my history lecturer – and I had some marvellous ones. If you want to take a confronting, rollicking and always interesting ride through Elizabethan times, then this is the book for you.

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Book Review: Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England

Having read Ian Mortimer’s wonderful Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, I sort of knew what to expect when I began reading The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England and was so looking forward to immersing myself in Elizabethan times as if I was a tourist with an extremely knowledgeable, obliging and sympathetic tour guide for company. For this is the magic of Mortimer’s work – he places the contemporary reader in the landscape and culture of a bygone era, ensuring we’re rubbing shoulders with people of all classes, and talks us through what we’ll find both familiar and strange and in doing this brings the past to life.

Beautifully written, this wonderful book invites us into a time that we sort of know through literature and film but in many ways we do not. Mortimer is at pains to overturn or at least challenge many of thThe Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan Englande shibboleths that accompany this period – such as those around cleanliness: personal and household. Of the brutality of the times, he doesn’t hold back, and descriptions of executions, fights, brawls and their victims litter the book in much the way severed heads did the Tower or London Bridge. Gird your stomach before reading.

A violent era where it really wasn’t safe to wander towns or cities at night and if you chose to move along the highways you should do so with guards, it was also a period where culture boomed – particularly music, poetry and theatre. Elizabeth, a proud, haughty queen who firmly established Protestantism as the faith of her land and had to cope with assassination plots, as well as disgruntles Catholics, foreign rulers, wars and Puritans, was also a great patron of the arts and it’s because of the context she created that it flourished.

While bear-baiting, cock-fighting and other amusements are, to the modern reader, an anathema and would have us calling the RSPCA, and taverns, ale-houses and other places you could get “cupshotten” (drunk) and often find a whore or two, dotted the landscape, especially of London, there were also places and spaces (such as the courtyards of inns and nobles’ establishments) where poetry and plays were performed much to the crowds’ delight.

The last chapter devoted to “entertainment” reminds us that it was during these times that William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe wrote their plays as well as Ben Johnson, Phillip Sidney and Edmund Spenser their gorgeous poesy (and more besides). Despite plague and petitions that sought to shut down the playhouses of Southwark and London, they grew in number and size, some entertaining around 2000 people a day each.

Popular entertainment also diverted the masses from the problems that beset them in this period such as famine, numerous outbreaks of plague and lack of work. Homelessness is not peculiar to the modern world and in Elizabethan times it exploded as more and more land was fenced to cater to sheep and the new market of wool and tenant farmers were ruthlessly thrown out without any regard for their welfare by greedy landholders. Laws were passed that made succouring or offering a roof to a vagrant illegal and so these destitute souls, who moved to the towns and cities seeking work, resorted to stealing just to feed themselves and their children and were more often caught and given a grim sentence. What the book tells us briefly, is that Poor Laws were later introduced that ensured villages and towns took responsibility for their homeless and thus the Poor House (which morphed into the notorious Workhouse) was born.

Mortimer doesn’t hold back when discussing the legal system in Elizabethan times, a system that required and had a great deal of policing at all levels but, as he also makes clear, not much justice.  Brutal and quick or painful and slow were the most common forms of rough justice and those administering it were not above some torture too. The only way of avoiding it was by bribery and as corruption was rife, it might be the only way to save your skin.

Social hierarchy was strict and generally adhered to – from nobles, to gentry to the rising middle class and merchants to yeomen and peasants. Mortimer also points out that due to the invention of printing in the last century, literacy was on the rise and many people could read, even if it was just to be able to quote a passage from the Bible and thus claim “Benefit of the Clergy” if they were caught committing a crime! This reduced if not abolished the sentence.

Of course, if you want wealth, a rounded education and even the prospect of change this is still very much the time to be a man (preferably a noble or the gentry), women are still chattels and objects of exchange, despite Elizabeth being on the throne. Being a woman and reading this book makes you glad you’re time-travelling and not, as interesting as the era is, confined to it.

The book also discusses food, clothes, accommodation (the latter two, while improving over the course of Elizabeth’s reign often being flea and louse-ridden, again depending on class), bathing, washing, modes of address, the landscape, travel and manages to answer most questions about the era – even how women dealt with menstruating and both sexes with going to the toilet!

This was also a period of great discovery and travels, Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake being among the illustrious explorers and Mortimer tells some wonderful anecdotes about these men and others.

There’s a reason this period is called “Elizabethan” and that’s because the monarch cast her spell over the country in ways other kings did not. “Gloriana”, the “Virgin Queen”, Queen Elizabeth managed to rule Britannia with an iron fist, imposing her will and ways beyond mere religion. Her mercurial personality, low tolerance for fools, disloyalty and “popery” and her patronage of those she felt deserved it, served to confuse suitors, advisors and enemies alike and allowed her to maintain sole power for such a long and rich period.

A fabulous trip, Mortimer’s book is a great read for lovers of history, those curious about times gone by and, of course, for time-travellers. This is the literary person’s Tardis and I look forward to another journey with Dr Who – I mean, Mortimer – soon.

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