A Compendium of
Common Knowledge, 1558-1603

Elizabethan Commonplaces
for Writers, Actors & Re-enactors

by Maggie Secara

Popinjay Press: Los Angeles, 2008

Review by
Jennifer Monroe Franson
193 pages September 2008


A Compendium of Common Knowledge, 1558-1603, like the Elizabethan Renaissance website on which it is based, is the brainchild of Maggie Secara, a researcher with roots in both historical re-enactment groups and commercial Renaissance festivals. As the subtitle implies, the information contained in the book was originally compiled to help those who "work and play in the 16th Century on a regular basis" — actors playing the parts of courtiers, servants, tradesmen and all the other "inhabitants" of Renaissance fairs, and re-enactors in history-based groups that re-create the past just for fun.

For the actor or re-enactor, this book is a practical, look-it-up-now tool for checking historical facts or correct linguistic usage (the term for a barrel-maker or the pronunciation of Southwark, for instance) — and, unlike Secara's excellent website, it's a reference tool that's portable, easily tucked into a basket or chest for consultation at a moment's notice.

However, the Compendium will also appeal to readers with a general interest in the Elizabethan era or in the history of day-to-day life. These readers will find that the book provides a compelling view of a bygone era, ranging as it does from the broad structures of society to the details of weights and measures, foods and fabrics. (In this sense, it resembles Daniel Pool's What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew; readers who enjoyed that book will almost certainly enjoy this one as well.) It is full of both basic information (such as a list of the Elizabethan peerages) and fascinating details (we learn that a seven-pound quantity of wool is a "clove", that Southwark prostitutes are nicknamed "Winchester Geese", and that one of the favorites of the bear-baiting pit is a bruin named Sackerson.)

One of the book's strengths lies in the author's ability to describe differences between the Elizabethan and modern worlds clearly and succinctly. For instance,

When we refer to corn, we are referring, mainly, to barley. If not barley, then it is whatever the major grain crop in the region is (rye is common). It is never corn-on-the-cob or maize.

A Compendium of Common Knowledge is also laced with sly humor. In the section on "Patronage", Secara notes of Queen Elizabeth's maids of honor that "They are her servants; she looks after their future. She is supposed to be finding them good husbands." To those who have read much about Elizabeth's court, it may seem that the Queen was less interested in finding her maids of honor good husbands than in finding good (or not-so-good) excuses to prevent their marrying at all. However, the average man in the Elizabethan street would not have known about this little foible of the Queen's, and the courtier who did know or suspect would certainly have been too prudent to remark on it. In this sense, the book also serves as a good reminder that what we in the 21st Century "know" about the Elizabethan world is radically different from what its inhabitants would "know" about their own time and surroundings.


© 2008 Jennifer Monroe Franson

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