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The Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain
By Ian Mortimer
Pegasus Books, 2017

British historian Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveler’s series attempts the novel task of preparing twenty-first century readers for time travel back into the past so they know what to wear, how to travel, and how to live in an unfamiliar world. Highlighting both the startling similarities and the shocking differences between now and then, he proves that time travel, should we possess the technology, would actually be a complex and risky endeavor. Indeed, the epitaph with which Mortimer commences his introduction to his latest volume, The Time Traveler’s Guide to Restoration Britain, is one of the character Satan’s most famous lines from John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1668)—“The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a hell of Heaven”—which should serve as a earnest warning to readers. Although this period in Britain’s history represents great renewal and promise, should one actually visit the last decades of the seventeenth century, one would do well to “make a Heaven of Hell” and keep one’s modern opinions to oneself.

The period of Mortimer’s study is called the Restoration because it marks the return of Charles II from exile to resume his place at the head of both church and government after over a decade living in exile. The years prior to this great event reached back to the tumultuous 1640s, when Parliamentary forces challenged the crown and engaged in two major wars with the Royalists, concluded when Charles I was captured, tried, and executed in front of the Banqueting House at Whitehall on January 3, 1649. The king’s wife, Henrietta Maria of France, and children had already left the country in 1646, and the future Charles II spent more than a decade living in exile in Europe. Back in England the former head of the Parliamentary army, Oliver Cromwell, ruled as Lord High Protector of England for most of the 1650s. After his death, his son, Richard, succeeded him, but the government soon began to unravel. Shortly thereafter, negotiations between Parliament and the future king commenced, and, once Charles signed the Declaration of Breda (his agreement to pardon many crimes of the Civil War and Interregnum periods), he returned to the land of his birth to resume governing an unstable and wounded nation.

The Time Traveler’s Guide to Restoration Britain covers only 40 years of history, providing Mortimer an opportunity to dig a little deeper into some aspects of Restoration life than he did in his previous works on medieval and Elizabethan Britain because, as he points out, in earlier times political and cultural change was rather sluggish. At the Restoration the entire nation seemed to be making up for lost time, pressing ahead into the future in what, according to Mortimer, was a remarkable period of political, scientific, and cultural change. “It is a time when the last dying notes of the medieval world are drowned out by the rising trumpet fanfare of modernity,” he writes, “and the rationalism that you take for granted comes to be the dominant way of thinking.”

While nascent modernity is the theme throughout Mortimer’s study, there are still enough remnants of the repressive Interregnum to keep modern readers mesmerized by practices and beliefs that would cause a real time traveler confusion if not panic. Mortimer nonetheless proves an adept guide, relying not only on facts in an age where people were beginning to think statistically, but also on the many first person accounts available as more and more people are were beginning to keep personal diaries.

These intimate recollections of the late seventeenth century provide the flavor that Mortimer’s work requires, for it is far easier to imagine yourself a time traveler if you can hear voices from the time period in question rather than just a collection of sterile facts. The most famous diarist of them all, Samuel Pepys, is a major player in every chapter, and because he wrote his diary in code, he is shockingly frank about everything from his extramarital escapades to the amount of money he spends on his carriage. There are many other voices in the text, from another well-known diarist, John Evelyn (far more restrained than Pepys), to the widow Celia Fiennes, whose adventurous spirit provides Mortimer with a great deal of information and commentary about travel.

In keeping with his tour guide persona, Mortimer charts the lay of the land, reminding us that even if you are a native of Britain, the late seventeenth century presents a markedly different terrain from what we know today. London in 1660 was a hodgepodge of medieval and Elizabethan architecture, “a decaying mass of antiquity, adaptation and dilapidation, collapsing beneath the weight of its age” in a crowded and dangerous city incapable of housing its growing population. This introduction to the capital inevitably describes the most catastrophic event London experienced in this period, the Great Fire of 1666, which transformed this crumbling cityscape when the former structures were replaced with ones that not only complied with standards of greater safety, but also helped to establish new aesthetic rules:

An act is established four different categories of house, all of which must be built in brick or in stones, with roofs of tile or slate. The smallest category, two storeys with an attic and a cellar, is intended for alleys and lanes; each storey is required to be 9ft high . . . The third type comprises four-storey houses ‘fronting all high and lanes of note’, the storeys from the ground up being 10ft, 10½ft, 9ft and 8½ft high. All the houses along one street are meant to have the same height of roofline and be contiguous.

While new buildings are built along the same general city layout, the government opened up new areas for builders to accommodate the growing population. In 1660 there are 59,000 people in the poorer parishes east of London, but by the end of the century that number had grown to 92,000, demanding the development of the city’s suburbs. While Londoners were unprepared for the burning of their city, their post-crisis response revealed their great adaptability as, concerned about future catastrophe, they founded fire brigades, as did their Scottish counterparts in Edinburgh, who also occupied outdated structures (usually 6-7 stories high, but some as high as 13) especially vulnerable to fire.

Mortimer describes a class system not entirely unfamiliar to the modern reader and modeled largely on novelist Daniel Defoe’s categorization of the British subject into seven different “sorts”—the great, the rich, the middle sort, the working trades, the country people, the poor, and the miserable. This, according to Mortimer, is the century in which social status becomes a national obsession, with particular attention paid to the “social hierarchies that reflect political influence, ancestry and connections,” yet it is also a period in which intelligence and determination afforded some social mobility. Samuel Pepys, for example, was the son of a tailor, but rose to a career in navel administration and later became a Member of Parliament. Mortimer notes the extent to which the king, who sits atop this hierarchy, “possesses a unique pre-eminence in both spiritual and temporal matters,” and attempted to preserve an ideal of monarchy that was beginning to slowly fray at the edges. Interregnum works such as Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1652) inspired Restoration treatises including John Lock’s Two Treatises of Government (1689), which began to challenge the nature of kingly authority and affirmed his responsibilities to his subjects over his own divine rights. The Glorious Revolution of 1688, after all, paved the way for the Constitutional Monarchy by which the British govern themselves today.

Mortimer’s collects fundamental facts about the population of Britain and attempts some conclusions about the character of the British. At a time when Britain was far from unified, however, any observations about national character are largely overstated, particularly when he includes discussions of Scotland and the Scottish as a postscript to so many of his chapters. Although subject to the authority of the four monarchs of this period—Charles II, James II, and William and Mary—Scotland nonetheless feels distinct from England in everything from its building practices to its taste in fashion. Yet despite some differences between London and Edinburgh, both cities and their respective countries were moving forward into an age of Enlightenment—although the Scottish seemed to be moving somewhat more slowly, hanging onto many of the cultural and legal prejudices that England more readily cast off after the repressive years of Oliver Cromwell’s rule. England, unlike the still Presbyterian Scotland, had returned to a more permissive Anglicanism, and while not exactly tolerant of Protestants outside of the mainstream (or Catholics), was no longer fundamentally Puritan. As a result, England seemed to be softening many of its view while Scotland stood firm.

While this period experienced a movement toward greater freedom for subjects in general, Mortimer is quick to remind us that women seldom enjoyed such benefits, although he seems to ignore evidence that some women, including the writer Aphra Behn, made some headway against a tide of prejudice. The education of woman was largely left to chance, and although there were some schools for girls, access was largely dependent on one’s economic means. Moreover, even educated, accomplished women did little to agitate for greater legal rights, as Mortimer acknowledges:

Mrs. Lucy Hutchinson, for example, is a translator of Latin prose and poetry, a poetess in her own right and the author of a biography of her husband, as well as an autobiography. She is exactly the sort of person you would expect to make a stand for women. Instead she maintains that they are intellectually inferior to men. This is the amazing thing about sexism in Restoration Britain: the prejudices against female are so deep seated that many women share them.

Restoration women were subject to the authority of their husbands, which included anything from restrictions on their mobility to corporal punishment. Even Samuel Pepys beat his own wife for minor infractions. On the other hand, Pepys was more than a little fearful that his wife would uncover his many sexual peccadillos. It was her wrath he fears more than any sense of his own moral failings, and he detailed these indiscretions at length in his infamous diaries. Yet his infidelities, when found out, offered her no recourse to the law. Morality, it seemed, was the burden of women, not men.

On the other hand, Mortimer collapses distinctions between British subjects by emphasizing how much they actually share in terms of cultural practices and religious beliefs regardless of class or gender. For if one is not a conformist (a Quaker rather than an Anglican, for example), one’s status is lowered in the eyes of the government and society, and while wealthy Catholics may have had greater freedom than their poorer coreligionists, they were still quite vulnerable during the Restoration—particularly given the anxiety during this period regarding what would happen when Charles II, who had no legitimate heirs by his French wife, died and the throne passed on to his Catholic brother, James. Despite failed attempts to place the king’s illegitimate Protestant son, James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, on the throne in lieu of James, the right of the legitimate monarch temporarily prevailed. A Catholic monarch, however, was too much for the nation to bear, so James was forced out to make way for his Protestant daughter, Mary, and her husband William of Orange.

Mortimer’s treatment of scientific advancement and medical practice reveals some of the most contradictory aspects of Restoration life, and, together with the treatment of women, many of the limitations of this age. His discussion of scientific development and the founding of the Royal Society in 1660, with Robert Hooke’s appointment as Curator of Experiments in 1663, stresses the advent of of scientific collaboration in the spirit of scientific advancement. Yet the focus was not scientific discovery for its own sake, but in order to better understand and celebrate the creations of God. Nevertheless, scientific discoveries flourished despite this somewhat unusual motivation, and uncovering the mysteries of the universe was not necessarily at odds with personal faith:

Isaac Newton knows the Bible better than anyone, and writes several theological treatises alongside his scientific works. The astronomer John Flamsteed is an ordained clergyman. Robert Hooke’s depictions of the minutiae of life are part of his attempt to show the machinery of Creation in greater detail.

Mortimer is detailing the experiences of scientists who lived at a time when belief in God and his great design went largely unquestioned, yet he vastly underestimates the problems posed by the society’s mission to devote its efforts “to the Glory of God our creator, and the advantage of the human race.” As the scientists in question represented a range of theological beliefs, their religious motives, if any, could not be easily attributed to any one flavor of Protestantism.

While the infancy of scientific research might reveal conflicts between man’s spiritual understanding of God’s universe and what one actually observed in the natural world, Mortimer deftly exposes how religious belief could undermine medical practice. Many Restoration physicians believed God created both the disease and the cure, and if God withheld healing it was a mark of some earthly transgression on either the part of the patient or the physician:

[T]he physician has to act as a conduit of God’s healing power and, if he displeases God, then the cure will not work no matter how skilled he is. This is why, when physicians apply for licenses to practice from a Bishop, they are examined not only on their medical knowledge but also on their personal life.

Yet at the same time, illness was a great leveler—and with medical treatment limited in efficacy, the rich were only a little better off that the poor. As for the infant mortality rate, Mortimer notes, “of the thirty-five legitimate royal pregnancies in the period 1660-1700, only three children live to see adulthood.” Yet the scientific spirit of the age clearly inspired scientist and practitioner alike to challenge old medical models like that of the Four Humors, which were undermined by William Harvey’s investigations into the circulation of the blood. Moreover, the long tradition of utilizing medicinal herbs as remedies for illness continued, with many good volumes of herb lore available to those who could afford them.

Mortimer is at his best when dealing with the trivial day-to-day of living, and his section on Restoration hygiene, reveals a slow movement toward more modern approach to cleanliness. While people of this period are obsessive about washing their hands before they eat (recognizing the importance of cleanliness, Mortimer suggests, because they so often eat with their hands), they are reticent about bathing and think little about doing so in someone else’s bath water. Cleaning the body, we learn, is typically done with linen cloths rubbed into the skin to remove dirt, but owing to the knowledge of Muslim hygiene practices (they, unlike the squalid Christians of Britain and other parts of Europe, bath daily), Turkish bathhouses are on the rise in London. While “Elizabeth Pepys goes to one in 1660, on the eve of her visiting the queen,” her own husband only immerses himself in water once in a ten year period—when he visits the spa town of Bath, know for its healthful waters (for both immersing oneself in and for drinking).

Mortimer’s treatment of more serious subjects is often overly focused on detail, partly because the logic of this world bears little resemblance to our own and is at times shockingly unfamiliar. The Restoration system of justice, for example, is frankly more medieval than modern as many different kinds of crimes are grouped together in a way that would make little sense to a modern reader. High treason, for example, can be a threat to the king’s person, but it can also be a threat to the king’s coins—which carries the wait of death for counterfeiters or coin-clippers (who shave, melt, and sell the metal). Crimes classified as acts of petty treason are especially interesting:

There are four different forms of petty treason: when a servant kills his or her master; when a child slaughters his or her parents; when a clergyman murders his bishop; and a when a wife kills her husband.

Mortimer, however, states the facts and then moves on, failing to offer the analysis that a casual modern reader of history might require. In the case of petty treason, the reader must work out for themselves that what would simply be counted as a murder today was defined as treason in the past because it involved a perpetrator of a lower status than the victim, which, if left unpunished, would seriously upset the whole hierarchy of persons.

The punishments, on the other hand, need little analysis and they remind Western readers in particular how frequently violence rather than justice was associated with the Restoration state. Coin-clipper Edward Conyers is drawn and hanged for his crimes, while his wife Jane is burnt to death. When Lady Alice Lisle, a country gentlewoman in her seventies, unwittingly hosted a non-conformist clergyman who turned out to have connections to the 1685 Monmouth rebellion, her punishment was ruthless. Given that she harbored a supporter of the Duke of Monmouth, the king’s illegitimate nephew who challenged his right to rule as a Catholic, Lady Alice was tried for high treason, found guilty, and shown no mercy by her sovereign—although he did commute the sentence from burning to beheading:

On 2 September 1685, Lady Alice is led out of the inn where she has spent her last night and makes a short speech from the scaffold. She forgives those who have acted against her, but insists her only crime was to shelter a minister of the church, on the grounds that he was a man of the cloth. She then kneels down and her head is cut off with an axe.

The petty traitor who killed her husband is likely to be burned, although in England she would be strangled first, whereas in Scotland she suffered the full horrors of her execution for the same crime. While people are typically hanged for murder, they are often only branded for manslaughter. Moreover, in a world without a professional police force, the subjects of the realm are expected to police each other, both in the form of neighborhood or parish watches and the less organized practice of spying on your neighbors.

Mortimer leaves the subject of entertainment to the very end of his book, perhaps because the Restoration ended a period of extreme censorship legally prohibiting all kinds of activities, from bearbaiting to the theatre going to dancing around a Maypole. The succession of Charles II meant the return of royal patronage, as well as the reopening of the theatres closed in 1642. While initially the crown licensed only two theatrical companies, with one given the monopoly to produce older works by the usual suspects (Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson), by the late 1660s and early 1670s both companies produced plays by newcomers John Dryden, George Etherege, William Wycherley, and Aphra Behn. Behn’s legacy as the first women to make her living writing for the stage followed the advent of another Restoration innovation unheard of in England before to the Civil War: women acted the parts of female characters on the stage, and one of the greatest actresses of these times was one of the king’s favorites mistresses, Nell Gwyn. Although women were still hampered by the law, they were finding more ways to not only express themselves creatively, but also to profit from it, taking small steps towards economic if not political independence from men.

While religious freedom was still unsecured in the Restoration, the days of the Puritan were decidedly over, and the pleasures of the court redoubled after a long, painful hiatus. As a general introduction to this exciting period in history, The Time Traveler’s Guide to Restoration Britain is a charming and informative volume, with ample facts and anecdotes for the casual reader, and plenty of endnotes for the reader who would investigate these tumultuous times in greater depth. Ultimately, Ian Mortimer presents a world in transition, already evolving into something not always recognizable by the twenty-first century traveler, but nonetheless moving towards a world in which science would eventually triumph over superstition, and British subjects would continue to seek new experiences while still remaining connected to the past.

Jessica Tvordi is Associate Professor of English at Southern Utah University, and she is currently completing a book-length study examining the representation of deviance in narratives of nation formation in early modern England.