The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, Ian Mortimer

New Review! But first an apology/explanation. Dissertation deadline is coming up. That means pretty much all books I was reading are now on hold. It sucks because this is the second essay to interupt We, the Drowned, which was promising to be my favourite book so far from 2012 but work comes first and I have a lot of work to do. More regular reading and reviewing will hopefully resume in May and once exams are done with as well I hope to really catch up. And now I’m going to stop guffing and get on with the review. Non-fiction this time!

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

Publisher: Vintage Books (Random House)
Pages:
344 including notes and indexs (Paperback)
Form: Non-Fiction, History

Rating:

The past is a foreign country; they did things differently there…

Imagine you could travel back to the fourteenth century. What would you see, and hear, and smell? Where would you stay? What are you going to eat? And how are you going to test to see if you are going down with the plague?

In The Time Traveller’s Guide… Ian Mortimer’s radical new approach turns our entire understanding of history upside down. History is not just something to be studied; it is also something to be lived, whether that’s the life of a peasant or a lord. The result is perhaps the most astonishing history book you are ever likely to read; as revolutionary as it is informative, as entertaining as it is startling.

I’m never quite sure how to rate non-fiction. With fiction it’s all about plot, character and writing style – all stuff I can have quite strong opinions on. Despite being a history student, I’m never going to feel so strongly for a history book – instead I have to try and judge on how interesting and accurate I found it (something always made harder if it’s your first read on a particular subject). Writing style, though quite crucial for mass-market books (academia can be as poorly written as it likes, apparently, as long as the ideas are new*), is something that also needs to be assessed as a far less important factor than I would for a novel – a compellingly written but totally inaccurate history book is in many ways worse than a horrifically written and inaccurate one.

With that in mind I haven’t rated this fours stars purely because ‘I liked it’, I find most history books fascinating. The rating comes from the fact it’s a very good and apparently well researched introduction to the time period. It’s a nice easy read that doesn’t feel overly academic but manages to fit a fuckton of information in. And, even better for a geek like me, it endnotes to the original sources and important secondary works pretty extensively – so if there’s anything a reader wants to question there’s normally a note in the back of the book directing them as to where the information came from. Now I didn’t do it but just knowing I can always makes me feel a bit happier. Despite the gimmicky title it is a book that could be read purely for fun or used as a starting point for academic work.

But the gimmicky title…it’s oddly both the books main strength and its main weakness. ‘Time Traveller’s Guide’…eugh. I’ll admit it’s what made me pick the book up in the shop and flip though it, I imagine it’s what made many people pick the book up, but once you’ve read it it doesn’t really feel like a very accurate title. The chapters may be entitled ‘what to wear’, ‘where to stay’, ‘what to do’ etc. etc. but it does not read as a guidebook.

I’m not sure I’d have enjoyed it if it had to be honest. What it was was a fascinating and detailed account of everyday medieval England – not the big events or the great men and women, the everyday stuff – what people ate, what they wore or owned, how different sections of society interacted with each other. Basically all the background stuff that everybody thinks they know about the middle ages (it was dirty and grim) turned around and put into a more human context. As Mortimer points out, how would a medieval peasant woman who works hard to keep herself and her house as pristine as possible react to such an accusation? People should be judged and understood by the time they’re in, not by modern sensibilities.

Now I’m a big fan of ‘but what was it like for ordinary people?’ question, I probably don’t ask it enough but I think it is important, especially in medieval history. When almost all the written sources come from the upper classes or the clergy and the sheer force of personality of the rulers can so easily overpower everything else, it is important to remember that the vast majority of people’s voices aren’t being recorded to reach a modern audience. Mortimer doesn’t quite redress that balance – I don’t think anyone can with the sources available – but he does paint an interesting picture of everyday life based on facts, statistics, and anecdotes gathered from a lot of research, from which it takes only a little imagination to start thinking of the people from all classes who inhabited medieval England as complex people rather than medieval fantasy stereotypes.

The title is a gimmick, there’s no point denying that, and if you pick up this book expecting a gimmicky ‘guidebook’ you might be disappointed. But on the other hand what you will be picking up is much better. The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England is a very interesting and accessible portrait of the place and period – something I think a lot of people are interested in but, sadly, doesn’t often get taught much beyond year 9 or so (ages 13/14 ) until university**.

It’s not perfect and it sometimes rather awkwardly straddles the gap between mass appeal and ‘serious work’, but it’s definitely worth a read if you have even a passing interest in the period. The title might be gimmicky but the approach of ‘living’ the history and telling it in the present tense isn’t.

And if medieval England isn’t quite your thing The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England has just come out in hardback.

*I’ve lost count of the times I’ve wanted to throw ‘key texts’ across the room for crimes against English.

**Or at least it didn’t in my school. Hitler, Russia, British Interwar politics, and a teeny bit of American boom and bust was all I got from GCSE and A levels.

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