Book Review: The Elizabethan Renaissance by A. L. Rowse

This, the first volume of Rowse’s multivolume exploration and explanation of Elizabethan England, is quite a treat. It is a book that distinguishes itself in a number of ways from its contemporaries and analogues. Most works of non-fiction, especially historical works, written in the past 40 years or so are arid exercises in intellectual masturbation by out of touch academics bound in moribund and minuscule areas of specialization. Rowse’s work is none of this.

He is frequently witty, offering a smattering of snarky asides and summarizing comments. He is always entertaining, continually parading out the most interesting examples of whatever area of Elizabethan life he is discussing. And he is a man who clearly loves his subject and, as such, brings it to life for the reader, offering not only a perspective into but an authentic appreciation for the Elizabethan Age.

There is, in addition, the rare combination of depth and breadth to Rowse’s erudition, as he discusses widely disparate aspects of life in the Elizabethan Age in detail while linking each aspect to the others. In this volume, for example, he explores such diverse subjects as class and occupation, sex, food, clothing, religion and sports (in the same chapter!), and beliefs about witchcraft, magic, and astrology. As he explores each of his subjects, he brings to fore the ways in which they are all connected to each other and together form the whole of Elizabethan life.

If you are interested in a modern historian who is not boring, and especially if you are interested in the Elizabethan Age and the great men, such as Shakespeare, which it produced, I recommend that you make Rowse an early stop along your journey.

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