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History prof’s study of Elizabethan England contains lessons for today

December 11th, 2010 Posted in Arts and Life

By Caresa Alexander

LOGAN—“It is not just about fancy costumes,” said Norman Jones, head of Utah State University’s History Department. His new book, The Elizabethan World, encompasses a wide range of topics, from government, politics, religion to Robin Hood.

Jones and co-editor Susan Doran of Oxford University, where Jones spent a year working on the book, assembled a team 38 scholars from around the world to contribute to the hefty, 718-page volume. Each one brought with them a specific talent and new information to share.

“I think there are certain parts that are really kind of groundbreaking, because the people we asked to do it were on the cutting edge of research,” Jones said. “Contrary to popular opinion, history does change. The more we discover the greater the nuance we have in our arguments.”

Jones has studied the Reformation period for more than 37 years. He said The Elizabethan World took five years from the time the contract was signed until its release in September. Most of the editing took place in England during the 2008-2009 school year, while Jones was on sabbatical at Jesus College, University of Oxford.

He is familiar with the history associated with the venerable British colleges—Jones earned his doctoral degree from Cambridge, noting that meal time was similar to what is seen in the Harry Potter movies.

“A lot of their education there turns around dining,” Jones said. “Colleges are living units. They include not only the students but they include the faculty. A lot of the education is that you all talk to each other over the meals.”

In the Harry Potter films, the teachers, including Professor Minerva McGonagall, eat in the common dining hall with the students. But, as Jones points out, this would not have happened during Queen Elizabeth’s reign from 1558-1603. The Elizabethan World addresses women’s roles.

“One of the things Queen Elizabeth did was, although it was legal for the first time for both clergy and academic and college professors to marry, Elizabeth issued an order saying that their wives could not live anywhere near the colleges because having women around students would distract the students,” Jones explained.

Jones says there are other little-known facts about Queen Elizabeth in the book. For one thing, the queen threw fits when women got married. Her ladies-in-waiting had to sneak off and get married secretly. She even broke one of their fingers when she was mad.

“I don’t think we can hold Elizabeth up as exactly a model of women’s liberation,” Jones said. “It was like she was born there because God wanted her born there and nobody else gets this privilege.”

When asked if Elizabeth changed the way women were viewed, Jones was quick to say no.

“There are people who think if you have a very powerful, very successful woman run the country, it should change people’s attitudes,” he said, “but I don’t think it did.”

Although Elizabeth may not have changed attitudes toward women, there were many other contributions that we trace back to her era, Jones said. The Elizabethan World contains information about culture and religion that are evident now.

“The intellectual culture of the English-speaking world is rooted it the Elizabethan world,” Jones said.

He noted that some of the world’s greatest writers and thinkers also came out of this period.

“Between Shakespeare and Francis Bacon and the King James Bible, which is translated by the same generation of people, you get a whole new cultural apparatus,” Jones said.

In addition, he said, “English is almost invented as a language.” For example, Jones says Shakespeare used around 2,000 words that no one at that time had ever seen before. It was all in the Bible and it was that language that became the core text for English-speaking Christians.

“That is one of the major contributions that may be the greatest,” Jones said. “You could argue that a lot of other stuff is rooted in the Elizabethan period as well: the expansion of Britain at the beginning of a British Empire or an English Empire.

“You could argue that some of the roots of modern science are in this group of people,” he said. “There are enormous contributions. This is where it all starts in terms of an English-speaking culture. The way we see the world is shaped by these couple of generations.”

Another thing that Jones said we can learn from this time period is the danger of religion. During this era reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin challenged the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

“All of Europe in the 16th century was convulsed with religious civil wars except England,” Jones explained. “It had to do with the mindset with Elizabeth and her ministers about how far to push religion.”

Jones said Queen Elizabeth didn’t care what people believed as long as they recognized the authority of the crown. Elizabeth believed that God had placed her in authority over the country to save it from a civil war over religion that erupted during the 1640s.

He pointed out that conflicts over religion continue today. The Elizabethan World provides insight into another world that faced some of the same issues we confront today.

“The reason you write a book like this is because you are advancing understanding of the field,” Jones said. “But then that raises the question of what does understanding history do for you. We are all in conversation with the dead when we use the past as a way of helping ourselves get perspective on the present.”


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