Book Review: The Time Traveler’s Guide To Medieval England

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

While it is a recognized truism that the past is another country [1], few books take this saying literally and create a tourist guide to the past that answers many of the questions that a reader would have about the past and how it would actually be like to visit it like one would visit a foreign country [2].  Although more full of text and less full of pictures than most contemporary travel books, since this is a history book, and a serious one despite its lighthearted tone [3].  A reader should note that the writer is fully convinced of the importance of treating the past as a foreign country that one cannot know completely but that one can understand as a traveler, from the last words of the author himself in this book:  “And in listening we may offer all these men, women, and children a degree of recognition:  the sort of dignified memory and sympathy which today we offer to those who give their names in war.  You may not agree.  You may think that living for the here and now is all that matters.  Or you may think that judging the past as dirty and cruel in some way establishes our superiority over our ancestors.  But if you believe that we are the inheritors of a living, vibrant past, and that an understanding of what we have been is vital to an understanding of what we are today, and what we will be in the future, then you may find yourself becoming a thoughtful time traveler, setting out on the highway of human history, guided by Chaucer down all the alleys of fourteenth-century life.  You might even consider joining him and his companions in that tavern, the Tabard, in Southwark, and yourself becoming a pilgrim.  At the very least you will hear some good stories (292).”  If you are willing to be a thoughtful time traveler, this is a good book to read.

The nearly 300 pages of this book are divided into eleven chapters that provide the reader with a nuanced and largely sympathetic understanding of 14th century England and what it would be like to live there [4].  The chapters included in this book deal with such matters as:  the landscape, the people, the medieval character, basic essentials, what to wear, traveling, where to stay, what to eat and drink, health and hygiene, the law, and what to do.  This advice, as might be imagined, can be very specific.  The author deals with fashion, from underclothes to high fashion, for classes from peasants to royalty.  The author strongly urges the reader not to engage in any swordfighting on account of the much greater strength and martial prowess of the natives, but that it is of vital importance to carry a weapon and develop some skill in using it for survival, especially while traveling.  The author discusses the importance of reputation and what sort of jobs someone might be able to do without belonging to a guild, as well as the vital importance of developing and maintaining a good reputation.  Compared to traditional tourist guides, this book aims between those geared towads tourists who want to see the sights, and there are a lot of sights to see, some of them of unspeakable horror, like dying in the Great Plague in the middle of the century, and between those who would want to live and work in the land and become skilled at dealing with people as an expatriate.

With a name like Ian Mortimer, the author is well poised to give a thoughtful and insightful welcome to medieval England, and that he does.  This is precisely the sort of book that deserves to be imitated in different areas, to become the start of a trend in writing about the past as one writes about other countries that one would want to visit.  After all, for those of us who are fond of reenacting the past [5], the task we are engaged in is precisely that of the traveler in this book, seeking to belong and fit in among the past, and seeking to convey as accurate an understanding as possible of that past to those in the present.  There are many questions that we would ask of the past differently if we are thinking of it as a place, rather than simply something that is dead and gone.  If we are fortunate, when we are gone people may try to understand how we lived life, and why we did the things we did, and seek to appreciate us as we are and not merely as some sort of primitive and barbarian culture unworthy of respect and memory.  Developing a respect for the past, and for the people who lived in that distant country, is the best way to be worthy of the respect of those who will come after us, and hopefully be as kind to us as we are to others.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

[3] See, for example:

“Normally such cultural differences are given a low priority in traditional history books.  But for this very reason it is necessary to describe a few of the most basic aspects of daily life.  You need to know how to tell the time, when and where you may buy and sell goods, why some people pay tolls and others do not, and how to behave politely.  Attention to these details should help you avoid being late for an engagement, placed in the town pillory, robbed, or regarded as just plain mad (79).”

[4] See, for example:

[5] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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8 Responses to Book Review: The Time Traveler’s Guide To Medieval England

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