Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Ian Mortimer, The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England

Ian Mortimer's The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century (2008) is a terrifically fun book. It was a genius idea, to write about medieval social history in the guise of a travel guide for modern visitors, and Mortimer has done a good job with it. Mortimer is a historian with several other books on fourteenth-century England to his credit, including a biography of his own ancestor Roger Mortimer, the rebel against Edward II. He knows a lot about the period and, just as important, he really loves it. Reading some historians I wonder why they study what they do, since they seem to find it so dry, but Mortimer's books ooze with enthusiasm for his subject. He loves the literature, the architecture, the chronicles, the characters, and much more, and he seems to spend as much of his mental time in the fourteenth century as he does in the twenty-first. This makes him just the man to write this handy guide.

Mortimer tells you what you will see as you travel across fourteenth-century England: the fields, the forests, the villages, the towns, the cities, the cathedrals, the castles. He tells you what you are likely to eat and drink, what you should wear to blend in, how you should greet strangers of various sorts, where to shop, and how you should go about haggling over prices. (You will have to haggle.) He describes the several sorts of houses you might stay in. He describes the changes taking place over the course of the century, for example in clothing and housing, so there is no assumption that medieval England was a static world. My favorite part was about accommodations, explaining where you will stay as you travel (much more likely a private home or a monastery than an inn), what the beds will be like, what you might be fed, and what you will pay or should offer as a present to your host.

Mortimer is as accurate as anyone can be, covering so many topics for a popular audience. I disagreed with a few points, but on the whole the quality of the history is very high. I even liked his brief account of policing and justice, which is my academic specialty and which I think most textbooks badly mishandle.

If you ever have occasion to describe a scene from medieval life to anyone -- as a writer, as a teacher, as a raconteur -- you should have a copy of this book.

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