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The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England - Ian Mortimer

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Author: Ian Mortimer / Format: Paperback / Date of publication: 01 October 2009 / Genre: History / Subcategory: European British & Irish History / Publisher: Vintage / Title: The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England / ISBN 13: 9781845950996 / ISBN 10: 1845950996

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    3 Reviews
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      16.12.2012 13:55
      Very helpful



      An entertaining look at the past as a foreign country

      I like reading history related books and so does my dad, so there is a constant traffic of titles between us. He gave me the book I am reviewing today -The Time Travellers Guide To Medieval England by Ian Mortimer. The medieval period is one of my favourites to read about, and so is social rather than polictical or military history, so the book seemed perfect for me.

      I have read one other book by Ian Mortimer - "The Greatest Traitor - a life of Sir Roger Mortimer." That was an interesting book to me, probably because the man in quesion is one of my distant grandfathers, although the author is not related! I felt that I would like to read other books by the same author because he has a talent for maintaining a narrative. The Time Travellers guide is a quite different kind of book though, as it isn't a biography of any particular person, and as such it is probably more entertaining if you have more of a passing interest in history. What the author asks us to do is imagine that we have been found ourselves put back in time and are now standing in medieval Engand, at first on the road into a town. What would we be wearing? How would we greet the people who pass us by? Would we understand a joke if they told us one? As we proceed towards the town, Exeter to be precise, he tells us what we shall see in front of us, what we will smell, and hear. It is a an evocative way to learn about history, especially as the author not only tells us what the people "do" but why they do it. For example, the idea that people didn't bathe or do laundry too often makes them sound odd to us. But when it is explained that a peasant is likely to have only one set of clothes, and washing the body and self was often regarded as the same thing, it comes a bit more understandable. The detail that the rivers were busy at the end of a summers day, when the hard labouring men and women dived in the water to relax and cool off, even if they didn't regard it as washing, is another nice detail. I can identify with the feeling of wanting to jump into cool water after a hot and sticky day. I think the book helps to make medieval people seem more "real" because it talks about the hopes and fears that they had, which are not so different from our own. How you you will provide for your family, and seek spiritual fulfillment for example, even if the solutions we seek are different now.

      The medieval period obviously covers a vast period of time, and the book is actually only a guide to everyday life in the 14th century. The author says he picked that period of time because it was the heyday of many things we regard as typically medievel - whether they are castles, monastries, friars or jousting. I think this is a sensible plan, because they are the things that most capture the imagination. If you were only interested in the very early medieval period though, then you may be disappointed. Obviously some things change more than others, and even within the space of the hundred years of the 14th century there are plenty of alterations to fashions, and ways of doing things. The author has also used writings from the late 13th and early 15th centuries where there isn't enough evidence for how things were done from 14th century sources. I don't think this can be helped and there is a full list of notes at the back of the book to define those sources should you wish to. It is also worth saying that the book is about English social history only, and not Scottish for example. I know from reading books on the latter subject that you can't always presume what was the usual thing to do in London was also what was done in Edinburgh.

      There are not many pictures in the book, but the ones that are there are well chosen I think. They mainly show different clothing trends, and I do think it would have been difficult to visualise some of those as they are so different from our own choices. In the main, I don't miss additional illustrations, because the word pictures painted by the author are so clear. The facts about what people did, such as how they ate and how they entertained themselves, have stuck in my head perhaps more than they would have done with a traditionally written history book. I read it cover to cover, wondering where I would "go" next, and what I would "see". Since that first read I have dipped in and out of the book, using it as a reference when there was something I wanted to remind myself of. That is easy to do because there is an index of the main themes and your journey is divided into chapters dealing mainly with a specific theme such as health or eating. There are not many history books that I would re-read again and again but this is one of them. There is so much detail within the book that there always seems to be a new fact that I missed the first time around. One of my favourites is the idea that a doctor didn't need to actually examine his patient, but might just diagnose them my looking at what the constellations were "doing"!

      I would recommend this to anyone with an interest in social history. You don't need to know anything about the kings and politics of the time to start the book, but I certainly knew more at the end than when I started. Telling history in the present tense may seem a bit of a gimic, but it works for me and I found the book both interesting and evocative. Amazon tells me that Ian Mortimer has also produced a Time Travelers Guide to Elizabethan England, and I will certainly be purchasing that.

      ISBN 9781845950996
      Paperback price £8.99, 2009.


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      23.04.2012 23:38
      Very helpful



      My Wimple Brings all the Boys to the Courtyard

      'The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.' After studying history at university I was all too familiar with L.P Hartley's over-used and exhausted citation. And what a shame it is that there are no Easyjet flights to the Summer of Love of '69, no package holidays to Victorian London and no long-haul expeditions to Ancient Egypt. Nevertheless, Ian Mortimer does the best he can do in the absence of a Time Lord travel agency as he endeavours to take his readers on a journey back to a time long gone. And you won't need your sunglasses, flip-flops and itsy-bitsy bikinis for this trip. In fact, a young woman such as a myself may fare better with a wimple, a husband of good standing and a newly adopted coy attitude. This is 14th century England after all...


      If you had asked what life was like for a medieval yeoman, my mind would have been cast back to a few of the dull and uninspiring lectures which I endured in social and economic history (otherwise a thoroughly engaging area of history). These were lectures which detailed statistics of grain yields, population figures and agricultural methods. 'Help! Help! I'm being repressed.' Monty Python's 'The Holy Grail' may have had more to do with modern parody than history but at least they breathed some sort of life and colour into their peasant characters. In my historical studies, a medieval serf often seemed to be no more than a statistic - something that was born, sowed the land, possibly gave birth or sired a number of children and then died at a relatively young age.
      In Mortimer's book the reader becomes a time traveller but this is no piece of science fiction. It is a real historical study with a unique perspective. Instead of thinking about the past as having happened he thinks about the past as actually happening. By looking beyond graphs and statistics, he looks at what it meant to experience 'the sensations of being alive' in this age, examining the medieval people in a more personal and 'sympathetic' way. By looking at medieval people as a living, breathing individuals with feelings, an exciting and invigorating way of approaching history begins to emerge...

      *~WOT? NO POTATOES?~*

      'A Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England' is one of the most interesting history books I have read. Very well written and engaging, Mortimer provides a vivid account of what life could have been like in the 14th century without compromising and fabricating historical detail. Chapter after chapter, he builds a picture of a society which increasingly feels very tangible and real.

      He covers a whole host of topics, topics you would expect to research if you were off to visit an exotic clime. These topics are as follows:

      * LANDSCAPE - What type of surroundings do we expect to come across on our escapade? The novel opens with a colourful and detailed description of what it was like to walk into the city of Exeter. We also gain a top ten list of places to visit in London to rival Time Out's publications.
      * THE PEOPLE - What are the locals like? In this chapter, he describes medieval English society as very young and as a place where women faced much sexual prejudice.
      * MEDIEVAL CHARACTER - What type of people are they? As it turns out, it seems that society at this point in time was violent, religious and had a rather skewed knowledge of the wider world. This is probably not a place to voice any atheist point of views.
      * THE BASIC ESSENTIALS - This describes everything you need to know to survive your visit including language, time, greetings and money. You won't need no travellers cheques where you're going and good luck understanding the local lingo...
      * WHAT TO WEAR - What attire should we adopt? God forbid we turn up in our hot pants in the year 1300.
      * WHAT TO EAT AND DRINK - We all know about the horrors of dodgy bowels on our holiday travels. What should we expect to eat in medieval England? What do you mean they don't have any tomatoes and potatoes?!
      * HEALTH AND HYGIENE - Are the medieval people quite as smelly and disgusting as we might think? Shall we take a clothes peg for our nose? Maybe a gas mask?
      * THE LAW - Lets face it, no one wants to end up banged up in ye olde gaol on our trip. How do we keep on the right side of the authorities? Let's try and stay out of the stocks and as far away as possible from the scaffold.
      * WHAT TO DO - A spot of dancing, singing, jousting... perving at Heath Ledger in some chain mail armour? What DO the medieval people do for fun?

      By examining the past as if we were actually living it, Ian Mortimer explores details of the past which I did not read about when I studied medieval history at university. I finished this 300 page book feeling rather enlightened. One thing that blew my mind was the thought that Anno Domini was not in used back then but that time was recorded using the regnal year. In my two semesters of medieval history, I did not pick up or read about this concept and yet it seems so obvious that this is something I should have known. This is a world where even dates were different, mechanical clocks had only just been introduced and people were woken up by and beckoned to bed by church bells.

      Throughout his chapters, Mortimer paints a picture of a society that is very different to our own. Here we are living in a world where we are worried children are growing up too fast and in the 1300s people could be respected leaders in their twenties. This was a time when Edward III led his army into battle against the Scots at the tender age of 20.
      It was also a world where people had really skewed ideas, particularly about what constituted reality and fiction. They believed that no men could go to the Southern parts of the world, the Antipodes, as they believed it was too hot and could only be inhabited by strange races such as the Amazons (fierce one-breasted women) and Sciopods (people with one big large foot). For medieval people it was all about the 'quantity of their knowledge, not its quality and correctness.' Logic quite often was banished altogether.

      This is a book that really does allow you to envisage what it may have been like to live in the 14th century. You are advised on what to do and what not to do, what to wear and what to eat. As I have suggested, ladies like myself wore wimples. There was then the introduction of tailored clothing around 1330 but I had to laugh when Mortimer referred to this 'new figure-hugging sexiness'. There was no limb flashing for women like me in this day and age.
      As a woman, I would have to make sure I covered my limbs, bagged myself a husband and remembered my position within society. Should I be looking for a spot of entertainment, maybe I could catch a jousting tournament.
      The chapter which details information about jousting is one of my favourite parts of the book as it opened my eyes up to the fact that jousting was highly dangerous. The reality of the pastime was a lot more brutal than the sanitized Hollywood versions would suggest - It's not very often you see knights crashing to their deaths in one of those films. In the eyes of medieval society, jousting was a form of expression of masculinity for noble men (an expression interchangeable with stupidity in my opinion). A man hadn't really proved himself unless he had bled in battle and many knights could be killed in just one tournament. Even 'jousts of peace' using capped lances could be fatal. Before a noble man had even stepped on a battlefield, he could end of perishing in the jousting arena...


      Should I have been planning to travel back to England in the 1300s any time soon I would certainly have given this a read first. This is a rich piece of history written in a fun and entertaining style. Even those with just a passing interest in the medieval period should find this book easy to digest as it isn't weighed down by umpteen facts and figures.
      Mortimer understands that statistics may be important in historical studies but he also understands that there is more to history than just facts and figures. History is not history if we cannot understand its people and the way they lived their lives. By humanizing medieval people, Ian Mortimer has produced a history book that is refreshing and engaging to read and one which I highly recommend.


      I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of a number of contemporary pictures within this book. One illustration the burning of the Templar's made me giggle a little - 'Images of extreme cruelty provide an opportunity to study men's underwear'. Never mind the execution of these men, look at the pants they've got on. Another illustration which made me smile was one of a surgeon named John of Arderne, performing a 'fistula' operation (a rather painful procedure involving the anus). John of Arderne states that 'Surgeons should be able to make their patients laugh'. 'Not easy, in this situation' states Ian Mortimer.


      In a world where books are not quite as expensive as in the 14th century, you'll be pleased to know you can find this book for as little as £4.69 including postage and packaging.

      *~ Thank you for reading my review : - ) )~*

      *~Also published on Ciao under Renza - April 2012~*


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        14.05.2011 22:47
        Very helpful



        A fantastic and exiting approach to history; Mortimer brings us into the world.

        Intro- why buy this?

        I love to travel. Each time I go some place I haven't visited before I like to buy a guide book so I can get a feel for where I am going; the language, the people, the law, the food, the customs, the landscape, places of interest etc etc. Having gone to many different places I am very proud of my little collection. Travel, I suppose is a form of escapism, as is my habit of travel guide reading and my love of history. I was very worried about studying medieval history when I started at university last year and I felt like I needed some sort of guide to get a feel for what I was about to embark on. The huge text books the university had prescribed for me looked unimaginably daunting. I needed something to help me 'think medieval' or get into the medieval mindset in order to understand such a strange and distant time. After all how can you understand the motivation of a people that you have never experienced. I needed something easy to read, something fun and something quick to enhance my enthusiasm. That's when I stumbled on Ian Mortimer's 'The time traveler's guide to medieval England'. This book though is not just for those interested in the study of history. It is for the socially curious, the dreamer, the adventurer, the sociologist and of course the traveler. With this book you're about to enter a world that seems alien and mysterious but also part of our heritage and the basis of what we consider reality today.

        Author and his Style

        Dr Ian Mortimer is a historian who comes across as someone who is not only truly passionate about history but who is curious in humanity as social beings. His work on the social history of medicine earned him the coverted Alexander Prize and he is a fellow of the Royal historical society. After a proud list of respectable publications Mortimer has set out on a mission (following in recent trends) to make history accessible to all. He doesn't tell us about Medieval England he invites us to live it! It is truly a revolutionary approach to the study of history using the readers mind to enhance the imagery of a world that was once real. We are the travelers coming from a far away world and the narration is our guide, pointing out places of interest and explanation for the sights we see before us.

        Reading difficulty and Audience

        This is a book which makes reading fast, easy and enjoyable. Any one is acquainted with the technical and needlessly pompous style of some scholarly articles in history can rest assured that this is not one of them. I found the book so easy to read; like a novel, it aimed to impress me with its meanings rather than its technical brilliance. I finished the book fast as I quickly got into it and found I needed minimal concentration to take in the content. This is a friendly book. Clarity is chosen over complex sentence structures. It also assumes you know nothing about Medieval England. Which was great for me, but although I can see some hardcore medievalists finding this enjoyable, the intention here is not innovative evidence and findings so I wouldn't recommend it for non beginners. This book doesn't dwell on historiography and all the work performed in each field. Instead the focus is narrative.

        How he brings you in to the world:

        1) tables and sources

        Apart from the authors comprehensible approach to narrative we also are bought closer to medieval society through the the tables that appear every so often throughout the book. It is like a travel guide; here we are not being told how stiff the law was or the theory of 'The Three Estates', we are being shown them explicitly. To get a picture of the density of rural settlements he includes a comprehensive table which shows the amount of rural poll tax payers. He gives us a feel for the economy showing average wages per jobs and how they change over time. He shows us the clothing regulations imposed by the Sumptuary Laws of 1363. the restrictions are astounding; income separates those allowed to wear fur from those who can't. So even if you have been given a fur by a dying rich cousin, if you don't earn over £100 a year you can't wear it. Through such detail we really begin to grasp how it must have been for one living in this time. Only through this detail can we begin to understand life for the average person as their voice is lost to us in the historical record. What I also love about this is the introduction to the reader to the sources that historians have to work from. If anyone has read any original medieval texts they will at first find it virtually incomprehensible and time consuming. His raw translation removes the effort.


        I do love pictures in books. Although this book sufficiently paints the imagery through its vivid descriptions, the color pictures found at two points in the book are a nice touch and also give a feel for how medieval people saw themselves and their world. The Black Death is only just hitting Europe and the paintings he includes tend to lean more to expressing a story or a metaphor rather than the true likeness of a person which became more common after The Plague. They are graphic at times; one of John of Ardern ('the great surgeon') performing a fistula operation; his finger disappearing into the holiest of holes of the sufferer. But this in tern tells us alot about the character and attitudes of a medieval person. This is a society that was a brutal and violent society in which death came soon and the young socialized into violence from an early age.

        3) Diologues

        I particularly love the diologues the author includes throughout the book. Here we can get a feel of what it was like to haggle in the market with the strange tongue of our ancestors. "Dame, what hold ye the ell of this clothe?"...."Four shillings for the ell if you please."..."That were no wisdom. For so much would I have good Scarlet."...."What were it worth?"...."Dame, it were worth to me well three shilling."...."That is evil-boden..."
        These types of diologues are present throughout the book. My lecturer Peter Heather told us we must think medieval. These dialogues do precisely that, helping you to understand the dimensions in which the medieval mind persisted. I really enjoyed this aspect of the book and had fun reading them out loud! There are also a nice array of cultural items such as carols, ballads and other types of poetry, song and segments of plays which help to initiate us into medieval culture. We can understand what they found entertaining, frightening or repulsive.

        Final word:

        This is a book which takes you to a place you have never been before and it does it really well. I would recommend this book to anyone novelist medievalists or anyone who just enjoys learning about a foreign place. I couldn't put the book down and for me this book changed my opinion on medieval history. It gave me a taste to want to understand this society more. Of course I love history and love scholarly writing and debate, but I appreciate that books like this invite every literate person to gain reward from understanding a little about their heritage. It was a thoroughly enjoyable, useful and original read and one that I would recommend to all. Commendable; Ian Mortimer..... I salute you!


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