Book Review: The Time Traveler's Guide To Medieval England by Ian Mortimer
Social history is a relatively new branch of history but it has acquired a great deal of interest in our day. This interesting bit of social history is subtitled ”a handbook for visitors to the fourteenth century.” Using the format of a travel guide the author presents an extensive social history of the century in question in England. His object, I believe, is to get the reader involved with the people and conditions of England in the 14th Century, rather than just facts about the time and place.
This book has, at times, startling details about everyday life in the 14th Century of England. Take away the Hollywood romance and I think most of us would doubt the attraction of “the good old days.” Logically, I've known that life would not be what we are used to, but I am a bit surprised to see it as even less attractive than I would have imagined.
My contention, for a long time, is that we should not judge the past by our own standards. To understand the past we have to attempt to understand it on its own terms. The old saying about putting yourself in the other person’s shoes applies to the study of history. That is the reason this book is worth reading. The author tries to show what the conditions, environment, beliefs, knowledge and values of the period tends to do to influence the behavior of the people at all levels. The first chapter is a description of the cities and towns that people live in and the conditions of the physical environment and living conditions. For example, all sorts of garbage and sewage are dumped into a stream going through the city. It stinks literally. The reader finds that children start working at the age of seven.
In the next chapter he talks about “the people.” Life expectancy is low, at least by our standards. Especially in the less affluent class the population is generally young. This has influence on attitudes ranging from being “more violent, tend to be supportive of slavery, and see nothing wrong in holding brutal combats...for the sake of entertainment.” (P.37) The chapter also explores the different groups of people such as clergy, nobles and peasants. When he discusses medieval character there are some unexpected things, such as warriors love of flowers.
We learn that people of that day were in many ways tied to the communities they lived in and seldom traveled. If they went to other towns, they would be out of place. Clothing is determined by ones station in life and affordability. For those who do travel, such as on a pilgrimage, there are various kinds of accommodations. Not all of which are safe.
Health was a major problem with little or no knowledge of what we would call medicine. Justice and law enforcement were brutal by our standards. It is difficult but the reader should try to learn how things were before judging.
To me the most positive thing in the life of the people was music. The author says the medieval people loved music and music was played on many occasions. Possibly because they do not have the distractions of the modern day the author says, “People hear more sensitively, such as distinguishing the bark of a particular dog.” (P248).
I found this book to be interesting, informative about the 14th century and useful. I highly recommend it to anyone seeking a better understanding of Medieval History. For readers wishing further study the book has color illustrations, notes on chapters, list of titles to referenced works, list of illustrations and an index.
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© 2012 Don A. Hoglund
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