A book review: London And The 17th Century


by @margarettelinc1

When Elizabeth I died, noblemen had to make a huge show of her funeral in order to prep people for the accession of James I (James VI of Scotland).

With modern eyes, it’s cool to see how critical the “show” was to a government’s legitimacy. Government meaning the king, obv.

This wasn’t some unnecessary extravagance. Shutting the city down for a day or two for the funeral procession was a critical part of establishing the legitimacy of the next king.

Oh and by the way, yes James II really was a horrendously bad king.

Today we take it for granted that interventions should have some evidence behind them. Or at a minimum, we have a social agreement that evidence is a thing we SHOULD care about.

Not back then.

Doctors were all quacks, home remedies worse than the disease were the norm, and the notion that evidence was useful in making decisions wasn’t even a thing.

In the modern world we may argue that decisions were made without or against the evidence, but everyone mostly still agrees that objective evidence is an important standard to hold to.

It may not feel like it, but this IS progress.

In this context, the founding of the Royal Society, dedicated to the utterly radical notion of actually learning about the world and how to improve things, was a phenomenal development.

It’s not crazy to say that the Royal Society laid the foundation for the modern world.

It’s kind of amazing how London was run as a loose confederation of corporations.

Like the whole city was a chaebol or a keiretsu.

The king had to ask nicely to even enter the City of London, run as it was by the livery companies (mercers, goldsmiths, fishmongers, etc).

And the livery companies really did run the show: they were the richest organizations by far, and their largesse basically paid for anything that happened in the country.

From parades to wars.

It’s hard to believe how small the government was.

Instead of having a monolith that defines your range of action, you had a hodge-podge of jurisdictions.

It’s kind of amazing to think that the English government consisted basically of a few royal advisers, Parliament, and some assorted tax officials.

That’s it.

No police, no standing army, no postal service, nothing.

Oppressed as everyone feels with government today, it’s worth noting that 17th century London was a hellhole.

Crime-ridden, pestilent (literally, the plague was endemic basically all the time). Poor sanitation, no building codes, no zoning, no clean air or water.

You had a butcher slaughtering a pig right next to a carthorse defecating, all in the same “river” where people got their water.

Samuel Pepys, upon going down to his cellar: “I put my foot into a great heap of turds, by which I find that Mr. Turners house of office is full and comes into my cellar, which doth trouble me.”

I love the “which doth trouble me” part. Like it’s a minor annoyance! I guess compared to everything else…

And of course religious oppression was totally normal. The thing is that religion wasn’t just a personal choice, like it is now. It was social, political, community, it was everything.

The whole Protestant vs Catholic battle was about literal control of the country.

If you didn’t like having the boot of the other religion on your neck, barring you from most decent jobs and places and lives, your choices were limited.

Rise up and foment a revolution, blow up some buildings, that’s about it.

Anarchists better be careful what they wish for.

Overall, highly recommend!

@margarettelinc1 is an excellent writer. She has a knack for bringing the events to life and there's a little thread of sardonic humor you can just barely see under the surface.


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