Travel back in time to when past was present

Written By: Nigel Nelson
Published: May 6, 2012 Last modified: May 6, 2012

The main obstacle to getting to grips with history is that we tend to see the past through the distorting prism of the present. We measure the lives and behaviour of those who came before us by superimposing our own standards and values on theirs, which obscures the way things really were. And the further back in time we go, the truer that becomes. Our own values and standards are the products of history; those who lived in the past do not have the advantage of the hindsight enjoyed by those of us living in the present.

History, to us, is one damn thing after another. Yet the relentless series of momentous events we imagine seemed very different to those who lived through them, much as great events do to us now. And for most people, other than military men and explorers, what was going on even a few miles away passed largely unnoticed.

With no mass media, their horizons rarely went further than their village, market town, or borough boundary. Life, although often short, was a long, hard slog in which nothing much of monumental note ever happened at all.

The best way to understand the past is not to look back at it – or, worse, down on it – but to try to put ourselves in it; to see the past through the eyes of those who lived there. To them, the past was the present. It means forgetting what we know now and accepting what was known then, and judging others as they would have been judged by their own contemporaries.

So it is with Elizabethan England. It may seem perverse that you could escape the gallows by proving you could read a passage from the Bible, as Ben Jonson did by claiming Benefit of Clergy, but it was at least an incentive for learning to read. We may recoil in disgust at the cruelty of cock fighting and bear baiting, yet I wonder if, in 500 years, the Grand National will still be running.

Elizabeth I’s persecution, torture and execution of Roman Catholics looks primitive through modern eyes, but set against the political backdrop of Catholic assassination plots and the constant threat of foreign invasions endorsed by the Pope in Rome and it becomes understandable by the standards of the time. Keep your head down, religiously speaking, and there was little to fear through her 44-year reign, anyway.

Also bear in mind, while weighing up the beliefs and attitudes of the past, that opinions would have varied as much then as they do now, so the views of one writer in a particular text that happens to have survived the intervening years would not necessarily have been shared by all.

It is with this approach that Ian Mortimer triumphs. Using a heady mix of historical fact, original documents and intelligent guesswork, he pieces together not just how the Elizabethans lived but how they thought. And he charts the changes which have taken place since the Middle Ages – covered in The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England – such as a considerable improvement in hotel accommodation. A national lottery and smoking made their first appearances during Elizabeth’s reign, along with the earliest warnings that tobacco is a health hazard.

There are physical differences the 21st century time traveller will notice while wandering through Elizabethan England. Look at a field of grazing animals and they seem dwarf-like; ewes of 46lb compared with 200lb today; cows weighing 350lb against 1,600lb now. There were gross pay gaps, too, but no greater than the financial inequalities which exist now; a manual labourer’s average daily wage was 4d, a master craftsman 1s, a lawyer 6s and the Archbishop of Canterbury £7 7s, his £2,682 annual pot equivalent in today’s money to Bob Diamond’s Barclays salary of £9 million.

The Elizabethan era is the beginning of modern England, far-sighted enough to create a kind of welfare state. Until a special tax was introduced in 1597 to pay for job creation schemes the poor had either been punished, banished, or cared for by the Church. This piece of legislation, says Mortimer, is not as well known as the defeat of the Spanish Armada, but is just as historically important: “From this moment on, looking after the poor is a matter of secular social responsibility, paid for by taxation. It is no longer an act of religious charity.”

Mortimer prepares us to travel in time with guidance on what to wear and where to eat (the Willoughbys of Wollaton Hall near Nottingham, if you fancy pike) and he explains the common courtesies to be observed (a 1577 manual of manners frowns on laughing at your own jokes). All you have to do is climb aboard his time machine and enjoy a fascinating journey.


About Nigel Nelson

Nigel Nelson is political editor for The People