One of the spin-offs from the Oscar-laden filmShakespeare In Love has been a revival of interest in things Elizabethan.
Not only is the Royal Shakespeare Theatre reporting an increase in ticket sales for the current season (although people expecting to find the Shakespearean world of the movie in Stratford will be in for a shock!) but booksellers have also mentioned an upturn generally in publications which deal with the Tudors, the Elizabethans, the Queen herself, her court and the arts in general.
Therefore, a book which should have much appeal to those anxious to sift through detailed information about early modern England, its attitudes and its view of English history is most certainly Barrett L Beer's highly readable, richly detailed study of John Stow and his writings.
Stow was born in London in 1525. As a moderate Protestant of the first generation, he managed to live through the reigns of Henry VIII (a man rightly compared to Stalin by the Renaissance historian, Stephen Greenblatt), Edward VI, and Gloriana herself aka Elizabeth I.
Not only that, but this remarkable man lived just long enough to witness the coronation of James I. Stow's greatest achievement, and legacy to us, were his twin books, Annales of England which was published in 1605, and, perhaps more famously, A Survey of London (1598).
Stow was different from other chroniclers - he had the common touch. And although he was English and wrote for an English readership, he was aware of a larger environment that included Wales, Scotland and Ireland.
Cornwall interested him and he was attracted to its language, "far dissonant from English", he wrote of its word forms which he thought similar to Welsh. But Tudor Cornwall had no political existence because the Normans had reckoned it to be one of the counties or shires of the country.
As far as Wales was concerned, Stow showed a little more sympathy. He believed the Welsh language had 'Trojan or Greek roots', and he criticised its pronunciation sharply. "The Welshmen do not pronounce their speech so pleasantly and gently as the Englishmen do, because they speak more in the throat. The English, rightly following the Latins, do express their voice somewhat within the lips which, to the hearers, seemeth pleasant and sweet."
By incorporating Wales into England and leaving its governance to the local gentry, the government set a pattern for disinterested administration which began to change only in the late 19th century with the crumbling of Welsh feudalism.
John Stow was a humble man - a citizen historian absorbed in London. His books, which he was anxious to sell, deferred to his social betters, offering no independent perspective. For example, Stow writes of the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, but does not venture upon a critical evaluation of this momentous act. When he gets to the murder of Darnley he leaves the revenge for the killing in "the mighty hands of God", and says no more than that.
If such reticence tells us anything at all, it is that Stow lived in a police state all his life, where first the rack and then the public hangman represented authority and were used against dissenters and those whose views did not concur with the Establishment.
It means that much is glossed over or safely ignored by this man who lived only on the fringes of the Elizabethan cultural and upper class world yet who was honoured for his work by the Society of Antiquaries.
After the death of the Queen of Scots, Stow's interest in Scotland fades and he turns to Ireland instead, writing a lengthy narrative of Sir Richard Bingham (1528-1599). …