Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: a very short review

Somehow, there came to be on my bookshelf a most unusual book: Ian Mortimer's The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century.

I'm not sure how I ended up with this book (who gave it to me?), but I'm quite pleased that I stumbled across it.

Mortimer explains the goal of his book in his Introduction:

As with a historical biography, a travel book about a past age allows us to see its inhabitants in a sympathetic way: not as a series of graphs showing fluctuations in grain yields or household income but as an investigation into the sensations of being alive in a different time. You can start to gain an inkling as to why people did this or that, and even why they believed things which we find simply incredible. You can gain this insight because you know that these people are human, like you, and that some of these reactions are simply natural. The idea of traveling to the Middle Ages allows you to understand these people not only in terms of evidence but also in terms of their humanity, their hopes and fears, the drama of their lives.

Steadily and systematically, Mortimer works his way through the various aspects of day to day live in medieval England: the landscape, the people, social and religious organizations, clothing, food, transportation, commerce, health, the arts, and so forth.

Mortimer's style is light and lively; this is from a section on shopping at the market:

There are reasons to be grateful for the supervision of trade. Caveat Emptor (buyer beware) should be engraved in big letters over the entrance to every marketplace. You simply would not believe how many different tricks and deceptions are practiced on the unwary customer. Ask any clerk in the London Guildhall; he will tell you of cooking pots being made out of soft cheap metal and coated with brass and of loaves of bread baked with stones or pieces of iron inserted in them, to make them up to the legally required weight. If you visit the city you may well find out for yourself what tricks are employed.

Two short sections of illustrations taken from fourteenth century artwork complement Mortimer's writing with vivid depictions of the events and practices that he describes.

I particularly enjoyed a short section highlighting a number of laws which were originally passed in the fourteenth century, but which remain in force today, eight hundred years later. Mortimer follows this with a description of "assizes", in which the judges of the city make periodic travels through the countryside, stopping at town after town, hearing whatever cases may be pending at the time, and issuing judgement before packing up and moving on.

This is, as I say, a rather unusual book, but it was certainly entertaining and informative to read. If you're looking for something a bit different, and if learning about fourteenth century England seems like it might be interesting, then by all means pick up Ian Mortimer's The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England and give it a read.

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