The latest guidebook to England’s past from the renowned historian.
Social historian Mortimer (Human Race: Ten Centuries of Change on Earth, 2015, etc.) is on to a good thing. His previous, similarly structured books, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England (2009) and The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England (2013), charmed readers, and this latest will do the same. As usual, great men and events make only a fleeting appearance because the author is more concerned with everyday lives: in this case, the lives of Britons of all classes between 1660 and 1700. London aside, demographics were dismal. Britain’s population rose steadily from the 1400s until the present day, except during the Restoration, when it declined. Europe was passing through the Little Ice Age; crops often failed, and food prices rose. Britain endured its last famine in the 1690s. All historians stress that their era brought revolutionary changes, and Mortimer is no exception. England executed its last witch in 1685, and Isaac Newton’s Principia, the book marking the dawn of the scientific age, appeared in 1687. Innovations of the time included insurance, journalism, statistics, and modern (as opposed to merchant) banking. Personal checks also made their first appearance. Aware that historical dietary and hygienic habits retain a special fascination, Mortimer does not disappoint. The healthiest food remained meat. Privies were a low priority; a chronic complaint from great houses and even royal palaces was people “leaving their excrements in every corner, in chimneys, studies, coal houses, cellars.” In the century since the author’s Elizabethan Guide, London’s population had quadrupled to over 400,000, but there were still no sewers or running water. Garbage removal remained in the hands of private entrepreneurs, although a heavy rain worked better.
Readers will finish this third in a delightful series of bottom-up histories hoping Mortimer has his sights set on Georgian England.