Ian Mortimer's "The Time Travelers' Guide to Medieval England: A Guidebook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century" is a highly detailed look at life in England several centuries ago, related as if the reader were preparing for an actual journey back in time, studying on what to do (and how to survive) in a vastly different world. The benefits of such an approach are large. The author explains: "As soon as you start to think of the past happening (as opposed to it having happened), a new way of conceiving history becomes possible ... You start to gain an inkling as to why people did this or that, and even why they believed things we find simply incredible."
The book covers virtually every aspect of life and death in Fourteenth century England, from the highest royalty to the lowest peasant (peasants, Mortimer explains, did not call themselves "peasants", but instead would have conceived themselves as members of some subset of society as "rustici" -- countrymen -- or "villani" -- villeins). Social hierarchies, food, clothing, housing, law and order, medicine, travel ... Mortimer seemingly touches upon and describes every aspect of life. He deliberately limits himself to a single century as "medieval" actually covers too extensive a slice of time for accurate summary and even so the author frequently addresses changing behavior over the course of that single century.
A vast amount of information is conveyed in an engaging, lively style. In the very first chapter Mortimer emphasizes his approach to social history by submerging the reader in an ocean of sensory imaginings, descrbing sights and sounds and especially smells of a visit to a medieval English city. And repeatedly thereafter the author reinforces this "you are there" experience. All in all, this is an excellent and highly vivid look at a past era.
on January 1, 2010
I have been to medieval England by immersion in the writing of Ian Mortimer. The smells, the sites, the attitudes of the time have surrounded me. As the reader you become part of the fabric of the place. His writing leads the you through the homes and halls, the churches and landscape of the time. The reading is easy, not cold and academic, but warm and compassionate. For those of us that have only experienced a brief, school based, introduction to history, life in medieval England was probably described as 'nasty, brutish and short'. This is far from a complete picture. Ian brings the time and place to life. You will find that the book not only expands your understanding of the time, but when you finish reading it, you may be left with the feeing that you are leaving old friends behind.
The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England is just that--a comprehensive traveler's guide to the fourteenth century in England. It covers pretty much anything and everything of day-to-day life, from the people you would have encountered, to the clothes you would have worn, to the kind of medical treatment you would have received if you had gotten sick, and much, much more.
There's a lot here I already knew, but a lot I didn't--for example, that pockets were introduced during this century, as were differentiated shoes (left foot versus right, in other words). It's details like this, that you wouldn't normally think are important, that really are important in daily life. At first, the present-tense writing threw me off; but, as Mortimer says in his introduction, once you begin understanding history as happening rather than as has happened, then you'll better understand the complexities of fourteenth-century life.
As the back of the book paraphrases LP Hartley, "the past is a foreign country, they did things differently there..." It's not that things were bad or wrong with the way that people lived six hundred years ago; it's just that people back then had different ways of seeing the world. Take, for example, the chapter on health and medical practices. It's not that medical physicians and surgeons (two different things, up until the 17th century) were ignorant in the sense that we mean it; it's just that they used different areas of knowledge to make a diagnosis and treat a patient. Doctors and surgeons in the fourteenth century probably had as much knowledge as doctors do today--they just used things such as astronomy, religion, and blind faith in their practice. I wish the author had focused a little more on religion and education, however. In all, though, a fascinating study of medieval social life, and unlike any other history book I've read (and much more enjoyable than most). I read this book straight through, but it can also be used a a reference book, to dip into from time to time.
on July 15, 2010
As other reviewers have said, this is a very good overview of the 14th century in England, in terms of the social history (not a place to go if you are looking for political history. I think Barbara Tuchman's Distant Mirror would fit that bill, and would be a fascinating companion read). He has an easy going style that is readable, without the 'lets make this really funny' kind of trap that some popular historians fall into. I felt that he made it interesting and accessible enough for readers with little background, and yet was novel enough for those of us who have some background with the time and place. I liked how much day to day details he found for us, and brought us to what life was like for the 'peasants' (interesting that they were not called that at the time). I did think some of his details were overdone. While I enjoyed looking at some of the lists of household items and such, putting costs weren't that necessary. But his sections on clothing, food, and housing were excellent.
There were a few glaring omissions: maps!!! There should have been a general English one, as well as a map of London and other places mentioned, as well as drawings of the houses and such that he describes. There was also nothing about child rearing or discipline, schooling or apprentiship. I was very surprised to see that he left out midwives and herbalists from the section on medical practitioners. Otherwise, this is a very written book that I would recommend to others.
There are so many wonderful uses for this witty, good-natured, and lovingly assembled compendium of all things "medieval" that I scarcely know where to begin. Anyone who is about to plunge into the literature, politics, culture, or sociology of the 1300's for their school assignments or just for their own pleasure will find both the material and the writing so engaging as to be addictive; it will be with great sorrow when you finish the book.
That is, until you realise that NOW you can read Chaucer with an enhanced confidence and giddiness that the human heart does not change. And for those who love medieval mysteries (try Paul Doherty, if I might suggest just one author) this fascinating "tour" by Mortimer will answer (perhaps) many a question and reassure the reader that no, their mystery writers have not exaggerated the challenges and curiosities of the fourteenth century!
For those who prefer a non-fiction analysis of some political situation (with monarchy or wars or even the repercussions of the Great Plague) even here this book will provide an immediate and provocative feel for the whole environment. For myself I was smitten with his initial suggestion: approach the century and its people from 1300 moving forward, forget what you thought you knew, what myth and maybe Hollywood have told you, and instead, sit back and let Mortimer steer you through the countryside and cityscape of the unfolding century with all the ease of a meandering skiff as it floats down a river on a warm afternoon.
This book is a rare treat indeed. Mortimer wrote this compilation as a detailed survey but it is never burdensome; his humor is often pointed, but never embittered or crude. Mortimer's manner is respectful and he has a charming felicity with language.
And, if you still need additional incentive to get this book, the reader may dip in and out of various chapters without doing irreparable harm to the flow or understanding of the whole. Now ... how do I convince this author to do the same for the 15th century?!
on June 13, 2009
I'm not a historian or even a serious student of history -- I read history books for pure enjoyment. I can't think of another that has been as fascinating and informative as "Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England". Ian Mortimer has written a handbook in the second person voice that really makes you feel a connection to and an understanding of 14th century England. (To be honest, it also made me much more appreciative of the modern world!)
I would recommend this book to anyone who is curious about the past and what it was like to live in that time. I only wish such handbooks were available for other centuries and countries -- it gives such a unique perspective to "history".
(I added a tag for SCA, because this is a very useful reference for re-enactors.)
"It is not unusual to wake up in the middle of the night to the barking of dogs, the snoring of travelers in your chamber, and the unmistakable sounds of someone urinating or drunkenly vomiting from the stairs or gallery down into the yard." This sounds like a scene from a frathouse comedy, but it's Ian Mortimer conjuring up a stay at an inn, six hundred years ago.
"If an unchanging diet of boiled bacon, rye bread, and peas does not appeal, then consider yourself lucky not to be stuck in a house in which the bacon has not gone rancid, the flour has been eaten by rats, and the peas have become damp and rotted." So goes the summation of faring in the winter, when few tasty items can be imported or preserved. Mortimer, as in compelling chapters on the hazards of sea voyages, the predicament of hazarding roads, or making one's mucky way through darkened alleys, makes the smells and scenes come alive vividly. He gleans the best of what chroniclers and accountants have compiled, and as a trained medieval historian, he incorporates sources with diligence and an eye for the telling, vivid detail. He translates scholarship into a lively narrative.
With my own doctorate in medieval literature, I came to this curious how it'd inform me. I confess it taught me a lot. While the initial conceit of a Rough Guide for one transported back in time is not as sustained after a brisk start as I'd expected. No maps makes a lamentable lack, and while period illustrations are chosen well, they are in two middle color inserts. The publisher could have included maps and more b/w illustrations and charts; this would have improved the value. Still, while the chapters may veer about in tone and topic, the compilation of so much information and data rendered into richly described word pictures carries its own charm and its own compelling interest for those of us who are armchair visitors to the time of Chaucer, Piers Plowman, and the Black Plague.
There's fresh insight, as when Mortimer explains the Catch-22 of rape, pregnancy, and orgasm as (mis-)understood when applying Galen's ancient conceptions of the female sexual response to medieval legal interpretation and application, or when Mortimer accounts for why it was a good idea for any man never to leave one's house unarmed. He re-creates the rawness of the era, and how elusive were its refinements for many, although in a far less crowded landscape, perhaps even the poor could take in more beauty and certainly more quiet, as market towns held but a few thousand.
Movingly and compellingly, the few pages given over to the plague make the strongest impression. Mortimer asks us to imagine a child kissed to sleep one night, and then the next coughing up blood. The suddenness of death comes across vividly. He estimates about half of those living between 1330 and 1400 died of the plagues that ravaged England in waves, not only the Black Plague mid-century.
The chapter on law shows another strength. It's the clearest description I have found in a popular account of medieval legislation, justice, and how the laws were enforced or broken in the absence of a permanent police force, reliant more on tithe-men called to gather miscreants to bring to sheriffs, and the local pressures and corruption that ensued when justice was carried out in a place where few could go unnoticed. Mortimer stresses the unpredictability of life and death well throughout. The author sustains respect for those six hundred years ago, and reminds us how they were not as different from our own uneasy, uncertain selves as we may imagine. He lets us know what they saw, did, and, to a limited degree given the century's extant data and literacy, wrote and thought.
This closes with a poignant summary of the little left to us from what stories people told. John Gower, the Gawain poet, Piers Plowman, and especially Chaucer gain brief but adroit notice. Rightly, Mortimer concludes by urging us back to read Chaucer, and not only chronicles and roll-books but literature enlivens the contexts Mortimer presents to us efficiently and affectionately.
This is one of the best popular histories I have ever read. Author Ian Mortimer looks at English life in the Fourteenth Century through the lens of people who actually lived it. The "big man" theory of historical event (kings named Edward and Henry, the Canterbury Tales and the Plague) merely serves as background, not main story, to this enlightening and entertaining work.
Mortimer takes us into a typical walled city for all its sights and sounds (and smells). Barbara Tuchman's description of the 14th Century as a "distant mirror" definitely rings true in this book, where life is a mixture of the familiar (kids' games, merchant associations) and the appalling (bear-baiting, and criminal statutes such that a child of seven could be hanged for manslaughter). The limits of technology were apparent: sanitation was such that the stream leading away from the communal latrines is called "Sh**brook". On the other hand those with the money could receive cataract surgery, and the very rich kept dozens of books around the house, all of them copied (or illuminated) by hand since printed books didn't make the scene until the 1460's.
Despite what we've heard, the author avers, people were not significantly shorter in that century (adult men averaging around 5'7" and women around 5'2"). Nor was there a great deal more forested land than there is now. Agriculture was intense, and the woods were often "coppiced" (grown for timber or "managed" in American parlance). Evergreen trees were practically unknown and since grey squirrels had not yet been introduced, red ones predominated. Mortimer takes us into the popular culture of the time, the group singing, the pilgrimages, the trade fairs and festivals (which turned jousting from blood sport into more of a show of nerve). By century's end and despite the privations of the Plague, the literacy rate was trending up, people were eating better, English men had strong right arms from growing up using the longbow, and fashion had entered the scene -- ordinary dress had gone from the simple hanging robe to form-fitting tunics and blouses for men and women alike, and some really silly shoes. People endured, and often had quite a bit of fun doing so.
I hope you like this book as much as I did -- I think you'll certainly benefit by it and be entertained, too.
In THE TIME TRAVELER'S GUIDE TO MEDIEVAL ENGLAND, Ian Mortimer takes readers on a voyage to fourteenth-century England. Exploring the time period as if it were a foreign country rather than dry facts in a dusty textbook, Ian Mortimer imagines the past as virtual history, a history that is happening. Ian Mortimer extends the approach of architectural historians who recreate images of buildings as they were during the period to cover more topics, especially those topics that a visitor would need to know, much like tourist guides for visiting foreign cultures. Ian Mortimer's approach looks not only at the evidence but also the humanity of people living during the time. Ian Mortimer combines "what if" scenarios in which outcomes are not necessarily guaranteed with an awareness of our perspectives and life today in order to pinpoint those areas of medieval life that clearly differ from our own routines, values, and expectations. As visitors to a fourteenth century present before us, we ask different questions than would someone viewing the period from a safe, comfortable distance. Consequently, the questions we ask and the answers we discover have a vitality sometimes lacking in traditional history.
THE TIME TRAVELER'S GUIDE TO MEDIEVAL ENGLAND examines topics a time traveler from our century would want and need to know for a successful visit to fourteenth century England. Chapters include the following topics: the landscape, the people (with a look at the roles of fighters, workers, the religious and more), the medieval character, basic essentials, what to wear, traveling, where to stay, what to eat and drink, health and hygiene, the law, and what to do. Ian Mortimer gives a perspective to the landscape that allows a reader to visualize the world before them. The chapter on medieval character delves into such sub-topics as violence and cruelty, the sense of humor and a warrior's love of flowers, education and more. Basic essentials covers topics any time traveler (or scholar) would need to know such as languages, dates, measuring time, units of measurement, manners and politeness, shopping, money, and more. Each chapter takes a reader deeper and deeper into the culture of the time, building upon the other so that by the end of the book, a reader feels one has visited the time and culture. Each chapter presents a new look at topics, even for those well-versed in the literature or history of the period. Chapters on health and hygiene and the law bring a particularly powerful vision and insight into the period. No matter how much one has studied the plague, Ian Mortimer's presentation of it and other diseases makes a reader feel the devastation from the perspective of people living through the event much more than facts and figures. Ian Mortimer focuses on the cultural differences between our time and that of fourteenth century England. Mortimer's examination of medieval England disperses modern stereotypes of "the Dark Ages" as a time of ignorance and lack of civilization. Particularly compelling are his discussions of cleanliness within the social and religious context as well as his discussion of knowledge. Science and medicine differ from today's perspective not through ignorance or a lack of study but because the two incorporate other areas of study that modern times discounts. Sixteen pages of rich illustrations, mostly from medieval manuscrips accompany the text, adding to the visual image built up by the author's words.
THE TIME TRAVELER'S GUIDE TO MEDIEVAL ENGLAND is an excellent choice for neophytes and medieval scholars alike. For readers wanting to explore Medieval England, the travel guide format brings the period alive in memorable, vivid imagery with relevant historical details. Readers who love historical fiction who tend to avoid history due to its dryness will particularly appreciate the humanity and sense of vibrancy Ian Mortimer brings to history. THE TIME TRAVELER'S GUIDE TO MEDIEVAL ENGLAND is highly recommended to medieval enthusiasts and lovers of medieval literature. THE TIME TRAVELER'S GUIDE TO MEDIEVAL ENGLAND would make an important resource for both undergraduate and graduate medieval literary students, helping readers to visualize the time period and its literature in new and exciting ways. This reader would have most appreciated this book as a background resource during my graduate medieval studies, above all for visualizing the background behind the literature. THE TIME TRAVELER'S GUIDE TO MEDIEVAL ENGLAND is a fine example of the use of imagination to ask relevant questions of history for literature lovers. Even though those familiar with the period may already know the material, at least in part, Ian Mortimer brings historical facts and concepts together in an exciting combination to provide a background for the reading of medieval literature. Even such details as the size and lay-outs of medieval towns become more memorable through his presentation. For those well-versed in the period, Ian Mortimer brings a wonderful sense of humor to medieval history. Last but not least, THE TIME TRAVELER'S GUIDE TO MEDIEVAL ENGLAND is highly recommended to historical fiction, romance and mystery authors writing in this period. Not only will his research help provide more accuracy to historical fiction, but his imagination asks the kinds of questions fictional authors should ask. Ian Mortimer's THE TIME TRAVELER'S GUIDE TO MEDIEVAL ENGLAND is a must read for medieval enthusiasts of all fashions and at all levels!
COURTESY OF BOOK ILLUMINATIONS
on February 8, 2012
I am a medieval junkie. I love learning about the middle ages and, yes, imagining what it would have been like to have lived in that time. I have read some of the more well regarded tomes on the subject - Medieval People by Edna Power, The History of the Medieval World, and The Oxford History of Medieval Europe, among others (though "Medieval People" surely laid the groundwork for this book and was closest of anything I've read before this to a guided tour of daily life) - and I have often found them to be dry and a bit too scholarly for my tastes. They spend a great deal of time on Kings, emperors, Popes and Knights, but they don't take into account the humanity of the people of the middle ages as it relates to the reader. That is to say, we want to know what it was like for the average person and, in so learning, understand what it would have been like for ourselves if we had lived in that time.
I am not a historian, just someone who is very much interested in various historical ages and eras, of which the middle ages is but one. I'm not terribly interested in the who, where, when aspect that so many of the scholarly books do (though they do it well). No, what I have long been looking for is a kind of sneak peek into what it actually would have been like to be there- a more "personal" look at the age where I can learn what it was REALLY like, and then kind of imagine myself in that time. This book was the motherlode. At the very beginning of the book we find ourselves coming out of a clearing in the woods as we approach the medieval city of Exeter. The first thing we notice is that the babbling brook outside the castle stinks horribly of human and animal excrement and urine, the innards of slaughtered animals, rotting discarded food, medical waste and who-knows-what-else. Disgusting, sure, but it's only the beginning of the kind of "real" tour I've always wanted to take. This is well worth the cash if you've wanted to know, really know, what it would have been like to have lived in that time.