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Book Review: The Time Traveler's Guide To Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

Updated on November 17, 2014
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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.

What kind of history do you like?

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© 2012 Don A. Hoglund


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    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 3 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Hi Nell. By looking at life in other times and other places I think we lean to appreciate what we have. Thanks for commenting.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 3 years ago from England

      this sounds really interesting. I love history, and have in fact just read Tracy Chevalier's (girl with the pearl earring) other book The Lady and the Unicorn, which is about a tapestry made in 15th century England, it's a bit slow but totally shows how they lived back then, nell

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Hi Dolores, thanks for commenting.I think there is much more than the stench that we would have problems with.Enjoy the book.

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 6 years ago from East Coast, United States

      A great idea for a book. I'd love to check it out (literally, as I am a library nut). The medieval world is fascinating, but most of us would have a very hard time dealing with the stench.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Hi Peggy W

      I found the book to be a worthwhile approach to the past.Thanks for commenting and voting.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 6 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi Don,

      If you had a choice of all of the above that is how I would have voted. This history of the times in Medieval England sounds interesting. Thanks for your book review. We can always learn things from looking back in time. Thank heavens we do not (ordinarily) still have garbage in the streets! Up, interesting and useful votes.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Hi Sophia, Thanks for commenting. Glad you like the hub.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Hi DougBerry, when it comes to history and academic trends time is somewhat relative. Possibly relating to the observers age. To you the 1960s may seem like ancient history but I think it is relatively recent in terms of events. After hundreds of years of looking at history in one way, a few decades is nothing when it come to a new way of looking at it.In the academic world social history may be well established but ordinary people probably still think of history as memorizing facts and dates of wars and event.Thanks for commenting and adding to the discussion.

    • profile image

      Sophia Angelique 6 years ago

      This is a cool hub! Love the way you've illustrated it as well. :)

    • DougBerry profile image

      DougBerry 6 years ago from Abilene, TX

      I wouldn't say that the emphasis on social history is too new--it really came into full bloom in the late 60s/early 70s and has developed from there.

      I picked up a "Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome" and one for Ancient Greece several years ago that sound like they're on the same page with this one...

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for for reading my review and commenting. I'm sure you will enjoy the book.

    • Nils Visser profile image

      BOOK REVIEWS 6 years ago from The Low Countries

      OK, thanks, I'll try the book. Sounds like it's my cup of tea.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thank you for voting and commenting. It is an educational read.

    • alocsin profile image

      alocsin 6 years ago from Orange County, CA

      What an intriguing title. Thanks for introducing it to me. Voting this Up and Interesting.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for being the first to comment and the votes. I thought it was an insightful way of presenting and understanding a period of history.

    • Judi Bee profile image

      Judith Hancock 6 years ago from UK

      The past is indeed a foreign country and it is always interesting to find out just what things they did differently.

      Hadn't heard of this book before, thanks for sharing! Voted up etc.