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Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval EnglandTime Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England
by Ian Mortimer
Vintage, 2009
Paperback, 344 pages

Organized as a travel guide for those visiting the past, the book is divided into chapters such as “Where to Stay”, “What to Eat and Drink”, “Health and Hygiene”, and “The Law.” Innovative and informative, I greatly enjoyed this book.

The book read like a novel at times. Mortimer sets the mood perfectly as he describes the sights, sounds, and smells one would sense upon approaching a city such as London. He breaks the rose-tinted view of the past that is so common among the card carrying members of the English Heritage society and other visitors of medieval ruins. Think moats were a romantic looking way of keeping marauders out? Just imagine a world with no running water and thousands of people in a cramped, walled town creating just as much natural waste as any town. Suffice it to say, you won’t want to walk too closely around the perimeter of that moat—certainly no rowboating about with your young lover!

The colour plate inserts were especially interesting (they include Templar underwear!) Did you know there were specific regulations on fashion according to class? Lords and families with lands worth £1000 annually had no clothing restrictions, while servants and their families were permitted fabric worth no more than two marks for the whole cloth—gold, silver, embroidery, enamelware, and silk were forbidden.

The only drawback is that the title is misleading: it is not a guide to “medieval England” so much as a guide to the fourteenth century. Mortimer addresses this in his introduction:

“The four centuries between the Norman invasion and the advent of printing see huge changes in society. The ‘Middle Ages’ are exactly that – a series of ages – and a Norman knight would find himself as out of place preparing for a late-fourteenth-century battle as an eighteenth-century prime minister would if he found himself electioneering today. For this reason, this guidebook concentrates on just one century, the fourteenth. This period comes closest to the popular conception of what is ‘medieval’, with its chivalry, jousts, etiquette, art and architecture.”

I appreciate the author’s point of view, but wish the publisher had made that distinction more readily by perhaps calling the book “The Time Traveller’s Guide to 14th century England” instead. What if the Doctor took me on as his companion and said we were heading to the thirteenth century, and I studied this book in preparation? I would look quite the fool referring to trends or turns of phrase that hadn’t yet come into use, just as the author suggests.

So next time the Doctor sets the T.A.R.D.I.S. for the Middle Ages, do your homework and read “The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval 14th century England.”

**NB: I just noticed the snapshot of the cover above shows the subtitle “A Handbook to the Fourteenth Century”. My copy, which I purchased a few years ago at an airport in England, does not include this. It seems I’m not the only one who thought the original title was slightly misleading. I think the image above is for the American release of the book, as “travelling” is spelled with one L, so I’ll let the commentary stand anyway. 

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