Interview: Dr. Ian Mortimer, Author and Historian

About a month ago, I was really annoyed. I’m a huge fan of “everyday life” English history books. I have a special shelf in my office just for those types of books.

You might notice two things about the above picture:

  1. Two books here are by Ian Mortimer. I’m a big fan.
  2. I’m missing a book about life in Restoration Britain. And that’s why I was annoyed last month. Because I couldn’t find a book about everyday life during the Restoration period.

A couple weeks ago, I found one and it made me so, so happy because it’s the newest in Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveller Guide series! The hardcover edition comes out in the UK on April 6, 2017 and in the US on April 11.

Author and historian Ian Mortimer was kind enough to take some time and answer some questions about his new book, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain, and the Restoration era.

 

The Restoration sometimes refers to just the reign of Charles II and sometimes it references years beyond that. What period of time is covered in your book?

Good question. Yes, sometimes it is the 1660s, sometimes it is the period from 1660 through to the end of Charles’s reign, sometimes the end of his brother’s reign, sometimes longer. ‘Restoration Drama’ is a term used to describe plays of the 1690s and early 1700s, so really it is a matter of choice. I point out in the book that we still have the Restoration monarchy, so in a manner of speaking the Restoration has not yet ended. I chose the period 1660-1700 because forty years is about the right length of time for a Time Traveller’s Guide. You need to show that change was taking place in order to describe the time properly but too much change muddies the waters and confuses the reader.

 

Your other travel guides cover the popular Elizabethan and Medieval eras. The Restoration era sometimes gets forgotten. Why do you think that is?

The medieval is all about us – a structural and cultural bedrock of about 800 years is hardly going to be obscured by technological developments subsequently. Most churches are medieval, most of our language had formed by end of the medieval period, institutions like parliament are medieval, most of our recorded history is termed ‘medieval’. As for Elizabethan England, Elizabeth I is an iconic ruler – especially for women who search in great frustration for the evidence of female agency in the pre-industrial past – and thus her period has a special standing in respect of her queenship. We also have a welter of images of the personalities who shaped England’s ‘Golden Age’ (as propagandists in the past and nationalists sometimes have termed it), and those images are alluring and fascinating. The Restoration by comparison is complicated. It was immoral in some respects, so the Victorians downplayed it. It was also the fall-back position after the failure of a Republic – so the 20th century left-wing preferred to ignore it. And, socially, Pepys’ Diary (1660-1669) has been allowed to dominate the period. In short, the reason the popular imagination does not champion the social history of the stretch from 1670 to the Industrial Revolution is largely ignorance. It is the problem of a night sky seeming starless when there is too much light coming from other things.

 

Obviously, these types of books require a lot of research. Did you find anything that surprised you? If so, what?

Many things. Although I have a PhD in medical history in the period, I was previously unaware how fervently leading physicians advocated human bone recipes – powdered skulls, for example. I did not appreciate how London was so much more dominant, compared to the other leading towns, in this period compared to others – it was 420% the size of the next ten largest towns compared to about 220% in 1600 and just 160% today. But the point I was most surprised by was a technical thing. Women were allowed to claim Benefit of the Clergy on the same basis as men from 1691. I had previously presumed that, because women could not be priests, they could not claim this right. However knowledgeable you think you are of a period, there will always be a little detail that surprises you when writing a book such as this. I call it the Houdini factor – you maybe a strong man able to escape from any situation but you can’t avoid being brought low by the stranger who comes out of nowhere and punches you in the stomach without warning.

 

What sources did you make use of while researching this book?

I cannot answer this question. A Time Traveller’s Guide is not ‘researched’ in the way I guess you think it is. It cannot be, because it is not based on sources like a normal history book but the questions the readers want answered. You have to formulate the question and then search your knowledge for answers. Where did I get my knowledge? From many places – printed books, scholarly journals, contemporary diaries, inventories, art works, court records, houses, maps, deeds, museums, discussions with friends, my own academic work… Suffice to say that my PhD, which investigated the medical strategies of dying people in the 17th century, was based on a study of over 18,000 probate accounts and their related documents. Such texts give a good feeling for how people spent their money at the time – not just on medicine – as well as how the law worked. A great deal of that understanding must have passed indirectly into my mental picture of the period. Part of the problem of writing this book is when I have in mind a question and I know the answer – but cannot remember where I found the detail and thus cannot reference it. That is when the wild goose chases start.

 

The history time traveller is back from their journeys in Elizabethan and Medieval England. What’s something from the Restoration era that they might not be prepared for unless they read your new book?

How fast day-to-day knowledge is changing. As fast as, if not faster than, in the modern world. In so many ways the period is the tipping point from a medieval mentality to a modern one. As I put it in the book, the last death sentence for witchcraft in England is handed down in 1685 – and just two years later Newton publishes Principia Mathematica – the work which proves to be the fundamental basis of modern science. Or, to choose a different example, if you were worried about your house burning down in 1660, you prayed to God to spare you. By 1700 you paid for insurance, and the insurance company provided a fire brigade.

 

What other eras in English history would you like to write a time travel guide for next?

The next period I am doing is a long Regency, 1790-1830. I’d love to do other periods but I am not qualified. I could do late Norman but I am not sure it would be sufficiently different from the 14th century. Victorian would be problematic for other reasons – although I’m not ruling that out. Roman, Dark-Age, and Saxon all require special skills that I do not possess, as do foreign countries, which have the added complication of my not knowing the archival background to the generation of their records. No one should try to write the history of a region or country without first acquiring a thorough knowledge of how all the primary sources were created – that, to my mind, is what distinguishes the professional from the amateur more than any single other factor. As for other special subjects, I’d love to produce a TTG to the Wild West but I’d need at least two specialists to get together with me to work on that one. Although I own the international trademarks – so they could not do such a book themselves – intellectual property alone does not make me an expert in the history of the US frontier 1850-1880.

 

Time travel within British history has just been invented but you can only use it once. Where/when do you go and why?

One of my specialist subjects is the fake death of Edward II and its repercussions – a subject which has forced me to hone my methodological skills in that period beyond the norm. Therefore I’d visit the court of Edward III in the early to mid-1330s. I would like to know precisely how Edward managed to deal with the problem – first of not knowing where his father was, or even if he was alive, and then of finding that he was being protected in Italy by an Italian network answering to the French pope.

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Jillianne Hamilton is a history enthusiast, author, graphic designer, paper crafter and artist living on Canada's beautiful east coast.

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