Living in the Past

Do you enjoy the works of Philippa Gregory and Alice Weir? Do you find yourself dreaming of living in the times they and other writers bring so vividly to life? Do you want to know more about what the characters you love wore and ate; how they worked and played; where they lived and how they died?

My all-time favorite book to answer these questions (if you are interested in daily life in England in the Middle Ages) is The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century by Ian Mortimer (a historian who also wrote The Time Traveler's Guide to Elizabethan England: a Handbook for Visitors to the Sixteenth Century).  In a lively, entertaining style, he introduces you to the landscape you would inhabit if you were transported back in time, the people you would meet, what you would wear, what you would eat, and even what sort of sanitary arrangements you could expect. He covers every facet of life, from spending time in prison to preparing meals, which range from a humble cotter's pottage to a banquet for the rich. I particularly relished the descriptions of gardens, but Mortimer covers such a wide range of topics that there is something for everyone in his book.

If you wanted to venture to the court of Elizabeth I, you would find What Life Was Like in the Realm of Elizabeth: England from 1533 to 1603 by the Editors of Time-Life Books an excellent resource. It is lavishly illustrated, making up for the fact that it is a little less detailed than Mortimer's books, which have only a few colored plates. Although What Life Was Like focuses on the Elizabethan court, and so by necessity on the noble classes, there is information of life in the country, lower orders, and a good historical overview.

Coming a bit closer to our time, we have a pair of excellent books by Liza Picard, a lawyer tuned amateur historian. The titles, Restoration London: From Poverty to Pets, From Medicine to Magic, From Slang to Sex, From Wallpaper to Women’s Rights and Dr. Johnson’s London: Coffee-Houses and Climbing Boys, Medicine, Toothpaste and Gin, Poverty and Press-Gangs, Freakshows and Female Education, give an idea of the scope of these books. Her focus is London, and she goes into such depth and wealth of details that the city comes to life in these two important eras and readers are left with a vivid impression of daily life in the vast megalopolis. Her varied contemporary sources--which include diaries, almanacs, advice books and the Register of Patents--show a cross section of life from the humblest to the most exalted.

And, if you are interested in costume, a wonderful site to visit is Dressing Cecily where you can help Lady Cecily dress for a visit to court. You can also try your hand at dressing Tudor and Victorian ladies and gentlemen at Tudors and Victorians: Dressing Up.
- Mary Elizabeth Allen