A Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England – Ian Mortimer, Jonathan Keeble

Obviously, A Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England was a title calculated to gain my attention. The premise: a different take on presenting an overview of a period of time, using the format of a travel guide – something of a Fodor’s England 1320 that might be found in the TARDIS. Exploring the experience of all the senses, this should be a gem of a resource to the writer of historical fiction or fantasy.

From the introduction:

We might eat differently, be taller, and live longer, and we might look at jousting as being unspeakably dangerous and not at all a sport, but we know what grief is, and what love, fear, pain, ambition, enmity, and hunger are. We should always remember that what we have in common with the past is just as important – real and essential to our lives as those things which make us different.

Er. Almost lost me there. “Be taller” I can let pass with a chuckle – I’d probably fit right in, heightwise, in 1320, tall only amongst hobbits (oh: actually, I’d still be short – women average 5’2″) – but I strenuously object to the remarks about jousting. Dangerous? Yes, and so are auto racing and football. Not at all a sport? Pfft. Say that to Justin Lewis or Justin Ray Thompson’s face, I dare you. (And before anyone can chime in, yes I’m aware that the jousting of today bears about the same resemblance to 14th century joust as today’s sword fighting resembles theirs. But it’s still a sport.)

“W.H. Auden once suggested that to understand your own country, you need to have lived in at least two others. One can say something similar for periods of time. To understand your own century, you need to have come to terms with at least two others.”I like it. If nothing else, one wonderful thing about looking at another time period in this sort of format is as in the introduction, the oft-repeated, but necessarily so, axiom that people never change. There are some shifts in perception and tolerance – bear- and bull-baiting are no longer remotely acceptable in much of the world, and the education of children no longer relies heavily on the rod, and it’s no longer considered a hilarious lark to set a trap to string someone up by the ankle … but it’s taken centuries to shift such things out of the norm into the abnormal, and the behaviors or the desires toward them do still linger. One point carried through this book is that, fundamentally, a medieval man or woman is not so very different from someone you’d meet on the street right now. (Particularly if “right now” you’re walking down a path at a Renaissance Faire, but that’s a whole ‘nother post.)

I rather enjoy how almost point for point this book contradicts A World Lit Only By Fire. As described there, the medieval period was dark (“lit only by fire”) and filthy and pest-ridden, and the peasantry slogged their way through a short and grinding existence until they died of something which could probably be cured or prevented now. In which there is some truth, of course – but Ian Mortimer points out that a medieval man had no 21st-century standard by which to judge his own surroundings. If it was by our standards filthy, that only means our cleaning methods include chemicals, ready-made tools, and easily accessed fresh water; the average housewife did quite well with what she had. No one expected to live to see their nineties, and while the average day in the life might have been filled with drudgery, the sun shone just as bright as it does now, and it was also filled with laughter and song every chance there was.

Otherwise, there were surprisingly few surprises here for a reader of a great many medieval-set books; whatever can be said of some, I have always had the greatest faith that Edith Pargeter‘s books could be relied on as largely accurate. But it is the handful of surprises, and the much more generous concentration of detail, that make this a terrific reference. How far can someone expect to travel on medieval roads, on foot or by horse or otherwise? It’s in here.

There is some excellent information here, entertainingly presented. I do wish some parts had been expanded, though. Sumptuary laws are touched on, the origins and some detail given – but I think if a time traveller had to rely purely on this book as regards to what he is and is not allowed to wear he might end up in trouble: color, for example, was dictated as well as material. A great many of the dictates were moot, as crimson velvet or any material dyed purple was too expensive for most, but on the off chance a time traveller missed this and transgressed he could be subject to fine.

Another thing that surprised me was the failure to explain small surprising things … for example, the mention of a brown scarlet item of clothing. Apparently, I find after a little research, the word (from mid 13th century French) originally meant fine fabric, of whatever color: “a kind of rich cloth”. (1200–50; Middle English < Old French escarlate < Medieval Latin scarlata, scarletum, perhaps < Arabic saqirlāṭ, siqillāṭ < Medieval Greek sigillátos < Latin sigillātus decorated with patterns in relief; see sigillate). The author is very good about most such things, which makes this sort of omission strange.

I am unreasonably delighted the licenses required to build castles or fortifications. James Bond can keep his license to kill – I want a license to crenellate. Also, in the section called “Organized Crime”, suddenly Robin Hood comes up … and there came a tiny little light bulb over my head. Of course Robin Hood and his men were organized crime. As with the crenellating, I am insupportably tickled about this.

On the whole, while this was a lovely idea, well-written and well-read, and very enjoyable, for me there just wasn’t quite the depth of information I hoped for. This was a very nice overview, dipping down here and there for a closer look. But I still love the idea of the Fodor’s Medieval England; I’d love to see that.

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2 Responses to A Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England – Ian Mortimer, Jonathan Keeble

  1. I loved this book, was fantastic and very well researched, though I agree that some parts weren’t as detailed as I would have liked (but it was good to get a broad overview). Ian Mortimer’s other history books are also fascinating and worth a read – he has written quite a few good biographies of significant figures of the Middle Ages.

  2. stewartry says:

    I will definitely have to look for more of his books – I enjoyed the style. Thanks!

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