Book Review: This Orient Isle by Jerry Brotton
As featured in Edition 40, available here.
BY NIALL HAWKINS (3rd year - History and Politics - Berkhamstead, UK)
Elizabethan England might not initially appear to be a period we would wish to emulate in the present. By the 1590s our sceptred isle was devastated by famine, plague, war, and civil disobedience, all kept precariously at bay by a decaying queen and a government with itchy fingers as plots circulated over Elizabeth’s expected demise.
In his gripping history of the 16th and early 17th century Elizabethan foreign policy, Jerry Brotton brings to light a pivotal geopolitical and cultural moment in the ebbing reign of the Tudors. This Orient Isle not only provides a crucial exposition of how a ‘globalised’ Tudor economy and society was well in the works by the end of Elizabeth’s reign but also how relations with the Islamic world in this period, including the Ottoman Empire and beyond, were far more precocious and opportune than previous scholarship, and present-day international relations, assumes.
Brotton supplies us with a wide-reaching and intimate history, covering popular culture and the dramatics of London playhouses through to high politics, foreign policy, trade, and, perhaps most enlightening, travel. That ordinary English men in this period ventured as far as present-day Uzbekistan or Iran and lived to relay their stories is only made more interesting by Brotton detailing the noxious influence of the Islamic world on London’s fashion, culture, and consumption.
Anyone interested in the orientalism of Edward Said should read this book. It vindicates Said’s theories from an entrenched standpoint, but also provides a glimmer of evidence for what England could once have been, beyond inflated counterfactuals. Brotton colours a picture of England in the 1500s and 1600s that saw both mutual enrichment, cultural nourishment, and fulfilment of curiosity in its relations with the Islamic world. This book is an amalgamation of enlightened and globalised history, succinctly narrated to be entertaining and lucid.
Image: Penguin Books Limited / This Orient Isle