'The Time Traveler’s Guide to Restoration Britain' takes us there
Historian and archivist Ian Mortimer has magicked us back to a historical period starting approximately 350 years ago.
There is a word for what the historian and archivist Ian Mortimer does for a living, and it is a lovely one: re-enchantment. Though at times it has a whiff of alchemy – something, say, that would have had him burned at the stake 350 years ago – what his work really involves is long hours in dim and dusty archives sourcing the goods. Then comes the imagining, his particular wizardry: getting the raw material of a long-ago time and place into a cinematic narrative. In the case of The Time Traveler’s Guide to Restoration Britain, Mortimer has magicked us back to a historical period starting approximately 350 years ago. So, right, sorry ... burn him.
History comes in many shapes and forms, moved and crafted by the availability of knowledge, by ideology, and shifting modes of inquiry, by angles of approach, by a desire for distance or intimacy. Mortimer is of the latter camp; not the first in the history of history, but a peerless purveyor of its ilk. The "Guide" in the book’s title is not to be taken lightly: “This book will tell you how to live, day by day, in the late seventeenth century”; 1660 to 1700 to be precise, from the return of the monarchy, to the first flush of the British Empire. “You will learn what to wear and what to eat and drink, which places are the best to stay in, what money can buy you, and how to get around.” It is the up-close-and-personal school of history – aka presentism – in which you are the center of the story.
Mortimer is a welcoming writer, then, in addition to being light of heart and ready for a romp, which by no means precludes serious scholarship and impeccable honesty to his source material. Though I wouldn’t exactly, or even remotely for that matter, label Mortimer a Gramscian, he is a natural gumshoe in discovering how the progression and accumulation of infinite traces make up our way of being in the world. He has done the digging, and now he wants to show-and-tell. He is also like the geographer who agrees that it is worthwhile to know that Tallahassee is the capital of Florida, but of greater interest and value is why.
(Here a quick digression. Mortimer has written two other books in this vein: "The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England" and "The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England." "Medieval" was a smash hit, and, in the wisdom of if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it, he used its template in "Elizabethan" and now in "Restoration." That said, the books are very different creatures by dint of – from the like-it-or-not, 21st-century perspective we bring to the proceedings – the crazywild particulars and the immensely varied worldview those periods expressed. It is highly recommended that you read all three, and in order, to get the full Monty of infinite traces. The only problem is that the books go down like bonbons, and the 1,200 pages may rupture your imagination.)
Back to Mortimer's interest in the "why" of it all. Typically a change, and often enough a great one, delimits epochal periods. The Restoration’s name comes from the return of Charles II from France to the British throne after the flare out of the Commonwealth, the radical adventure that became abominable in its latter Puritanical extremism and was overthrown. This was colossal not just in the return of the monarchy, but as Mortimer points out, in the return to law and order (think Taliban), the caps placed on monarchal authority (think Declaration of Breda), and the coming out of hiding of traditions and pleasures the Commonwealth had abolished.
But look here, Mortimer draws our attention; much else was in flux, even more momentous. The four decades under scrutiny harbored the curiosity and wonder that spawned the rise of science, spectacular divisions in religious practice and toleration, deep probes into political philosophy, and a newfound fecundity on the art front. Christopher Wren will make an entrance, just in time for the Great Fire of 1666 that smolders and shudders for months, burning 436 acres of London and 13,000 of its dwellings. Henry Purcell is pounding away on the pianoforte. John Locke and Thomas Hobbes twist philosophy to the roots. Johns Dryden and Milton are writing, and Isaac Newton is composing his "Principia." Thomas Tompion is revolutionizing clock making, and Grinling Gibbons is doing the same for woodcarving.
Once the historical moment is set and the cosmic rearrangements in science, medicine, and education have been addressed, Mortimer is ready to get down to his favorite part of the project: the granular level. It is tempting to simply list all the ways the man and woman on the street or rural cart path observed and participated in the world: their biases and superstitions, their characters and thought processes, their modes of locomotion, nights in the theater and in the inns, the gap – and it was a big one – between haves and have-nots, what they smoked and how they kept clean, what they wore, what colors, the price of dyes. It is beautiful to watch as Mortimer unspools these everyday life ways; it is like picking apart a rainbow. Leave it to the master to explain cockfights and bearbaiting, the Little Ice Age and “Long Frost,” the emissions of urban aromas, the clack of iron-shod wheels on cobblestones, the sense of landscape, the postal service, the Earl of Bedford’s larder, and crimes against nature.
Always in attendance is Mortimer’s Dictum: things are usually relative, so get familiar with the surrounding circumstances. Add to that a Whitmanesque hug of inclusiveness to your ancestors, which works very well for the English/British, and for much of Europe: “As you look further and further back in time, your nation’s history increasingly becomes your family history. Go back to the eleventh century and every person then living in your country who has a descendant alive now is your ancestor.”