Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Book Review: The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England

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

A guest review by my lovely wife! N.B.: The UK version (i.e. the one we own) spells it "...Traveller's..."

Brief overview of content: 

For me, one of the most enjoyable parts of being a tourist is the planning stage. Usually, when I'm traveling to a country I've never visited before, I go to the library and load up on guidebooks, historical guides, and fiction set in the target country. Even if I only make it to a fraction of the places I plan to visit, I feel like I've really experienced a new place through my reading. Recently we visited Mount Grace Priory. I loved seeing it, but wished it was even more immersive. I wanted to spend a day living in the monk's cell, going to Matins and mass, and working in the garden. Alas, that's not part of the tour. But, in the gift shop on the way out, I spotted this book. By pretending that we have the chance to visit medieval England, the author makes history vibrant and immersive. This book isn't about kings and wars, it's about clothes and manners and sanitation. For me, it was a real page turner and I think it will make all my future visits to medieval sights much richer.

 Author overview: 

Blurb from the book: "Ian Mortimer has BA, PhD and DLitt degrees in history from Exeter University and an MA in archive studies from University College London. From 1991 to 2003 he worked for Devon Record Office, Reading University, the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, and Exeter University. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 1998, and was awarded the Alexander Prize (2004) by the Royal Historical Society. He lives with his wife and three children on the edge of Dartmoor, in the southwest of England."


1. Read cover to cover vs. consult as needed. 

If you do have a time travel machine (contact us!) then you might want to keep this in your Tardis to consult as needed. However, for the rest of us, reading cover to cover is recommended. The book has sections on What to Wear, Where to Stay, What to Eat and Drink, and lots of information about the medieval character. I had to skip a few paragraphs about medieval diseases because the writing was so evocative that I was getting a bit overwrought. However, someone without my high sensibility would probably be fine.

2. Readability. 

Brilliant. This book is just fascinating and fun to read. There are kids books in a series where the titles start with "You Wouldn't Want to Be a" that describe different historical periods according to how awful they were. This is the farthest thing from that. Yes, he gets into the grotty stuff about sanitation and disease but he also has a real respect and admiration for the people who lived then. He makes their decisions seem rational. For example: "How do you define cleanliness? Most people, when asked this question, tend to define it in terms of personal experience. They know when their kitchen work surface is clean because everything which makes it dirty has been cleared off and it has been wiped down with detergent. What they are thus defining is the completion of a cleaning process, not a state of cleanliness itself. Medieval people do much the same thing, only using different processes." That makes you feel the human connection across time. The book also is filled with wonderful details of our differences: "Attitudes to hair are more complicated. Men expect their womenfolk to comb their hair for them, often beside a window, allowing them to see any lice and to remove them. However, excessive combing of hair among men is frowned upon. Moralists write diatribes against the practice, castigating the Danes, who are supposed to be so vain that they comb their hair every day and have a bath every week."

3. Helpful to a parent tourist? 

I definitely wouldn't want to travel to Medieval England without this book. For example, consider the question of where to stay. You can't just pull up booking.com and look for a family room. However, monasteries offer hospitality to travelers, right? They even run hospitals (hence - hospitality). Let's see what the book has to say: "The small Maison Dieu at Ospringe is perhaps more typical of the sort of hospital at which you might stay. Situated on the main road from London to Canterbury it is expressly for the benefit of pilgrims and lepers...As you may gather from the idea of lepers and travellers staying together and sharing the same bed linen, their priority is not the comfort of the guests. A large hospital might have its own kitchen and refectory in which one of the brethren will read a lesson aloud during the meal. If not, rye bread and a thin vegetable soup or pottage is likely to be your repast. Unless you have a particular craving for straw mattresses with torn sheets, rye bread, watery ale and a pungent leper in the next bed, it is worth considering staying elsewhere."

4. Did we use it? 

No, since we do not have access to a time travel device, we have not used this book. Or maybe, we have, but I can't tell you, dear reader, about it, because then everyone would want to borrow our time machine.

Sample text 

In the chapter "What to Do" the author describes the pastimes and diversions of Medieval England. One of the pastimes of the wealthy was reading or, more commonly, listening to books read aloud. Ian Mortimer picks some top authors from 14th century England and passionately recommends them. This section describes an unknown author who wrote Gawain and the Green Knight as well as The Pearl and several other poems.
"The greatness of this poet lies in his range. He can describe the inside of a whale in a vivid poetic manner. And he can describe, with great tenderness, a little pearl, neatly enclosed in gold, which is beyond comparison with any to be found, even in the East.
So round, so radiant in each array,
So small, so smooth her sides were,
Wheresover I judged gems gay,
I set her singly above them all.
Alas! I lost her in a garden,
Through grass to ground she fell away.
Wounded by love, by love forsaken,
I mourn that pearl without a flaw
And only as you read the following stanzas do you realise, with a tender but painful shock, that he is not talking about an actual pearl but about his infant daughter, Marguerite, who has died although not yet two years old. She is the one who has fallen 'through grass to ground'....Not many poets have the ability both to convey intense personal emotion and to write entertainingly and meaningfully on a popular subject for a wide audience. That an unknown man can do both so brilliantly is something of a marvel. And so it is astonishing that almost no one knows these works. If you wish to pick up a copy of Pearl or Gawain and the Green Knight, you will ask the copyists in the London and Oxford bookshops in vain. Just one manuscript survives down the centuries, in the dark and quiet, keeping this poet's genius alive."

1 comment:

  1. I have wanted this book for several years now and your review has done nothing to make that longing go away, darn it! Thanks for the review and I'm going to have to move it up my list!