Tag Archives: history

‘The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England’, by Ian Mortimer – review

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

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

People tend to make an anachronistic mistake of assuming that their times are more culturally and socially superior to their previous generations’ times, whereas forty years on an evolutionary scale amounts to a million second on a twenty-four-hour clock, the amount so infinitesimal that it makes you smirk. What makes us set apart from the predecessors of our human civilization is not how they looked but how they looked at the landscapes surrounding their everyday lives, which led to the creation of the ethos of society peculiar to the different historical periods of time. This Thucydidean approach to history as a branch of social science as well as humanity strikes the chords with Ian Mortimer’s perspectives on his Elizabethan ancestors in his scintillating book, The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England.

Rich in details and splendid in descriptions that successfully and naturally resurrect the period, Mortimer’s vividly atmospheric accounts of the era transform the people and the landscapes of Elizabethan England from one-dimensional textual elements to animated figures in his engagingly vivacious narrative that strut in the mind’s theater of the reader, commanding attention in every chapter in a way that looks virtually real, evoking a phantasmagorical display of the periodical images. Mortimer is a knowledgeable and witty guide well versed in the English Renaissance with a practical sense of reality, which makes him something of Dr. Who, who pitchforks his wide-eyed volunteer reader to the subject time and then materializes when the reader is in a pickle. He shows the reader both the beauty and the beast of the Elizabethan society at its core with his wealth of knowledge drawn upon extensive research on the period and general erudition without putting a supercilious air of a highly learned man and stands in awe with the reader of the cultural and social progresses of Elizabethan England that began to define the “Englishness,” with which we tend to associate when the name “England” chimes the bell of literature, religion, and geography, all in the collective image of being “English.” Mortimore does this wonderfully with his engaging narrative skills that will not make you bored and skip a page.

Mortimer as a literary Dr. Who aims to bring the gaps of time and space between the reader and the populace of Elizabethan England to elucidate his stance on the truth about unchanging human nature wrapt in a periodical costume; in fact, history is a branch of literature made by artificers and artists with stories full of events, persons, and places that are woven into a tapestry of time, which also reflects how we have become what we are. In light of this, Mortimer is a cross between Herodotus with his entertaining narrative skills and Thucydides with his objective analysis of the historicity of society and culture. At the end of the book, the reader will find William Shakespeare, one of the most notable figures of Elizabethan England, holding up “a mirror to Mankind and shows people what they really are.” This is a cracking read packed full of interesting tidbits on the ways of life in Elizabethan England which he relates with wonderfully lucid insights into the turbulent but magnificent era that marks an indelible landmark in the history of England, and ultimately, of the world.

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about a wodewose

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Wild, wondrous, curious, alone

There sits a wodewose wistful

Like a dejected lovelorn faun

Mocked, pocked, painful, woeful

pining for the music that lovers

play like two birds that tweet.

Alas, even love looks with the eyes

Not with the heart and the mind

Wrapt in his woolly hide.

Author’s Note: I came upon this very interesting medieval fantastic creature called “wodewose” yesterday on Twitter. A wodewose is defined as ‘a wild man of the woods whose predator is interestingly Alexander the Great. He is often depicted in various medieval paintings as a woolly man trying to woo a beautiful woman to no avail, even with a fatal consequence because he is seen jabbed, clubbed, or axed by a knight on the stead. So, I take pity on this unfortunately lonely creature whose appearance barred him from falling in love. You may say I am a champion of underdogs. Then, so be it. I think sometimes, there’s a lot to think about and talk about losers.

 

‘Books and Reading in Shakespeare’s England’ – essay

“Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man,” said the Elizabethan man of letter Francis Bacon. Reading was, in fact, a social experience, a public act, in the realms of academia, ecclesia, and civil service in the early 16th century England before the Reformation era, which was still reminiscent of medieval traits in general modus viendi. Reading was an expensive activity of the literate accessible to Greek and Latin texts, and books were not so much a necessity as a luxury. So much so that going to a theater was cheaper than buying a book. This Elizabethan culture of books and reading was the topic of the delightfully informative podcast interview “Books and Reading in Shakespeare” with Stuart Kells and Jason Scott-Warren, which I came upon while I was reading a book about the culture of Elizabethan England with a mental exclamation: Geronimo!

Shakespeare used historical contents, contemporary literature, and translations of classical continental source texts to use them as his poetic imitations. The existence of Shakespeare’s library is always elusively ethereal, but the poetic dramatist was himself a walking library; carrying all of the source texts in his head and drawing on a wealth of the information, he created a polyphonic work that elegantly and wittily interwove multiple strands. With Shakespeare as an illustrative example of personalizing books to use them as source texts to create his own works, we see the Elizabethan England changing from the elitist medieval academic institution to the popular readers’ club with members from various social strata wallowing in simple pleasure of reading books to their liking. This cultural character of the era is marked by individualism; that the responsibility for your achievement is attributed to yourself was the ethos. This growing self-confidence in awareness of individualism permeated writing as well as reading by personalizing the knowledge of others to make it your own.

The increasing availability of books in English language resulting from the Reformation encouraged people to teach themselves to read, including women. A variety of subjects, ranging from recipes for meals to Scriptures, in English gave access to those who were often excluded from a feast of knowledge enjoyed by a privileged few, and now more people could share the joy of being knowledgeable and creative thanks to the democratization of reading in general as a result of the mass production of books in the vernacular language that captured the shift to a more literary culture in comparison to the continental counterparts.

In short, reading practice in Elizabethan England reflects social changes in the religious climate that permeated people’s literary interests: the Bible became the ultimate self-help book as well as philosophy and literature that made readers inquisitive and intelligent by trying to ascertain the meanings of the Gospel, which was the office of the clerics before the reformation. Now the time changed, and people read the Bible directly, using their own faculty of comprehension and imaginativeness. Consequently, the democratization of subjects and accessibility of books gave the power of knowledge to people to enter the truth of the world and the beyond. Blimey. For reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.

Lion’s heart wrapt in Sari – on Jayaben Desai

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The Unlikely Fighter: Jayaben Desai

It was one sweltering summer day of 1976 when 43-year old Jayaben Desai finally culminated over the demeaning mistreatment and delivered her tirade against her manager of the Grunswick Film Processing Laboratories in London and stormed out of his glass office that sealed her outcry of frustration and indignation that had been smothered under the daily duties of existential needs for livelihood for years. So when her manager told her to work overtime at the very last minute as usual, again and again, Desai couldn’t take it any longer. For Desai’s personal life and her right to freedom after work meant nothing to the management whose discriminating attitudes toward their southwestern Asian immigrant workers were beyond pale. No More Docile Asian Woman who, unlike her English counterparts, would acquiesce to her despotic manager’s orders. This time Desai transformed herself into a lioness unafraid of the goading. This time was hers, and hers and her fellow immigrant workers. 

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A Lion’s Heart wrapt in sari

Upon reading the article “We are the lions, Mr. Manager” in my subscribed BBC history magazine, which was about the famous Grunswick Strike in 1977 led by then-unknown former Grunswick employee, Jayaben Desai, I could not help but take pen to paper for the following reasons: (1) it was about the first remarkable calling for a solidarity for the rights of workers on the periphery of social recognition;(2) it was the first and foremost Asian women’s strike against the industrial injustice backed up by the establishments, including that which they claimed to be for the people and by the people; and (3) it manifested the deep-seated general British public’s sentiment towards their Asian immigrant neighbors who were regarded as socially and culturally inferior to theirs based on race and culture. 

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Despite Desai and her collaborators, mobilized support from politicians and trade unions was conspicuous by its absence.

What really made me incendiary about the one woman’s protest against the exploitation of the race and gender for dignity and justice was the absence of massive support from her fellow English workers. She was reminiscent of a lone frontier woman in a duel against her heartless landowner with hoots and holler from his ilk. Although supports from people with goodwill and conscience were impossible to ignore, a majority of established social organizations did not lend helping hands to Ms. Desai and her fellow hardscrabble workers sending a distressed SOS call to their English peers. Where were their so-called English contemporary counterparts who were also economically disadvantaged and socially oppressed? Was the outcry of their fellow immigrant workers only a barbarous shouting trying to threaten their jobs? 

Although Ms. Desai’s heroic legacy has left an indelible footprint in the world’s social history encompassing racialized minority workers on social radar, labor disputes concerning the exploitation of race and gender are still rampant. What’s more, it still happens in our digitalized social media-governed age all over the world, including here in the States. How to stop or ameliorate the social ill shouldn’t be treated as a stylish, popular subject to gain constituents for political party ideology. Until then, the exploited will remain invisible in the dark and dank corners of the society willfully ignored and utterly abandoned.   

Stoic mind

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That which they called Providence,
A divine scheme of God’s purposes,
Was the handiwork of Fair Fortune,
The ancient idea of lucky chances
Of adventures and misadventures,
Knocking the door of a poor man’s hut
With a pouch of lucky stars regardless
Of what the world saw for his worth,
Pacifying his ills of grief and grievances.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: The doctrine of providence that a man’s life was an intricate handiwork of God’s mysterious purposes was a tenet of Protestantism which, as a counter-cultural way of resisting medieval Catholicism, advocated zealous work ethics in an effort to combine a practical faith with an active self-reliance and independence. That riches and authority came of men’s industry and diligence, of their labor and travails, not of miracles as a result of mechanical recitations of prayers and devotions to saints was the canonical principle of the reformed church. However, the folks who were not well-off, not-too-rich, poor, and very poor never subscribed to the doctrine of providence. They still clang to the concept of luck because it accounted for any misfortune befalling them regardless of merits and efforts when others wayward seemed to prosper. By believing in luck or chance that reformists condemned, he who in travails did not have to jeopardize his self-esteem as something of a mental analgesic against the strains of his contemporary life, lest he should fall by the wayside, and thus could reconcile himself to the environment he lived. Hence this belief in luck survived the seismic protestant reformation and still thrives on in our time.