The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century-Ian Mortimer

In Book Reviews, nonfiction on July 11, 2010 at 10:05 pm

An Atypical History Book That Reads Like A Travelogue of Today

The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England isn’t what most people would think of when they hear about a book on the Fourteenth Century.  Author Ian Mortimer presents Fourteenth Century England as a place to be explored and vividly shows what it was like.  His descriptions of everything from what the landscape and cities look like, to what kind of people inhabit this world, to what to eat and drink while you’re there bring the time and place to life. Mortimer shows that what most people believe about Medieval England is only partly correct; yes, there were knights and castles, but just as there are today, there were also average people who scraped by and lived in average or below average dwellings, far from moats and troubadours.

As a travelogue, the book works quite well because the author includes special sections, such as Ten Places to See in London (pages 18-20), described as they would have been at that time and Clothing Regulations Imposed by the Sumptuary Laws of 1363 (pages 104-105), a section that explains what people of all levels of society may wear by law.  Information such as this helps the book feel like a discussion of a contemporary place instead of somewhere 700 years in the past.

Particularly interesting are the parts of the book that deal with everyday life issues, such as money, dates, measuring time, units of measurement, greeting people, and what money can be earned at various jobs.  British money today is often confusing, especially to Americans, and Mortimer clearly explains the various denominations of money in Fourteenth Century England.  The penny (1d), the shilling (1s, which is made up of 12 pennies), and the English pound Sterling (which is made up of 20 shillings), in addition to various other coins more exotic and particular to certain rulers, such as silver groats (worth 4 pennies/d) from the time of Edward I, halfpennies, and farthings (which are worth 1/4 penny/d). Mortimer makes sense of what seems like a bizarrely confusing monetary system through an enthusiastic writing style that betrays his love for this time period.  Dates are also dealt with and are as confusing as the money situation, but again, the author provides clarity to a muddled idea. The New Year wasn’t always considered to be January 1.  It was also March 25  and September 29.  To add to the confusion, it is explained that other European nations had their own dating systems, some of which actually made the year different by up to two years! The solution for English people is to use what is called the regnal year:  a system of dating that revolves around the current ruler and his time on the throne. Therefore, the new year would begin each year on the anniversary of the ruler taking the throne.  As Ian Mortimer explains, ” “The year AD 1388 might begin on March 25, in “the eleventh year of King Richard II” (as Richard came to the throne on June 22, 1377).”  However, also explained is the ever present church influence on dates because of holy days and movable feasts.  Mortimer makes sense of it all.

However, The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England is above all a history book.  How it differs from most history books is not only that it treats the time and place discussed as somewhere to be visited but also that Mortimer writes in a wonderfully interesting style.  He deals with everything in a logical yet entertaining way.  A wry humor slips in occasionally too, such as when he’s discussing how Fourteenth Century English noblemen’s shoes lengthen to a size of 20 inches throughout the century and when he’s discussing how cleanliness wasn’t exactly the priority to people then that it is now, especially in America, where we are obsessive about our armpits stinking and our breath not smelling minty fresh.

The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England is a truly fascinating read because it brings Fourteenth Century England to life.  As the reader moves through the pages, the world Mortimer describes becomes as clear as the world we live in today.  Just as one would need a guide to 21st Century America to understand the intricacies of daily life, so too does one need this book to understand life then.  Mortimer presents Medieval England in a broader view than castles, knights, damsels, and minstrels; he presents it on the ground level and because of this, the reader receives an interesting and thorough education on his subject.

  1. […] one of my favorite places in history.  I also reviewed this book during the summer (see the review here).  Mortimer’s writing is easy and interesting, and he makes what can be a very dense topic […]

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