Picard, Liza. Elizabeth’s London: Everyday Life in Elizabethan London.

London: St. Martin, 2003.

Awhile back, I read Picard’s volume on the everyday material and social life of London during the Victorian era — a period about which I know a good deal myself — and was very taken with it. Rather than simply providing lists of people and things, or giving explanations out of context, she instead takes you on a tour of the time and the place, describing what you see around you. And, while there’s a good deal of quiet humor, she manages it all without being cutesy.

The reign of Elizabeth I was something of a turning point in English history, with the emergence of Britain as a major player, not only in Europe but on the newly discovered world’s stage. She unified the country after the generations of internecine “Wars of the Roses” and the English Reformation. All this was especially visible in London, which now was becoming a “world city.”

The author approaches things in topical chapters (almost the only way to handle it properly), beginning with the infrastructure of the city itself: The Thames, the main streets and principle buildings, the gardens and open spaces. Then she considers the people: Health and medicine, the place of foreigners (better known to us than native Londoners in certain ways, thanks to the government keeping careful tabs on them), clothing, education and recreation, the parish system (very important to record-keeping), crime and the law, and the equivocal place of religion in society.

Picard relies heavily on John Stow’s Survey of London (1598) and somewhat less so on William Harrison’s Description of England (1577), because these are still the classic first-hand accounts for the period. She also goes to many recent secondary sources for various details in which she’s not expert, but much of what she has to say comes from Elizabethan letters and diaries and livery company records and government legislation and reports. And she handles the synthesis with a deft touch. I would strongly recommend any (in fact, all) of this series to anyone interested in “ground-level” English history.

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Published in: on 9 January 2014 at 9:12 am  Leave a Comment  
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