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The following is a book review of ‘The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England’ by Ian Mortimer, published by Vintage (London, 2009).

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During the Summer term at the school I teach in we are pursuing a topic on Rievaulx Abbey and Medieval Monasticism for the Year 10 GCSE course work. The GCSE (which means General Certificate of Secondary Education) is the last set of exams required by law for students to sit. A Levels and Degree’s are non-compulsory though the government is looking to extend the leaving age to 18 which would make A Levels and equivalents compulsory as well.

Fortunately this topic is close to my specialism as I studied a lot of the workings of monasteries when researching the lives of Charlemagne and Louis the Pious (Frankish/French Kings circa 755-830s) as most historical sources from the period are written by the clergy in monasteries. So I did not need to do much research, however I took the opportunity to learn a bit more about medieval England to provide background information to liven and colour lessons. The book I bought was the Time Travelers Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer.

As a history text it is quite a different beast to the dusty academic works on my bookshelf. That should not detract from its historical merits. It is historical fact, not the fiction written by the likes of Bernard Cornwell or Conn Iggulden. It is the collection of a historians patient exhaustive research on a topic presented in a completely alien form.

The book describes the lives of 14th Century english men and women and the great events of the century in the very modern style of a travel guide. Just as if you were going to modern Peru, this book purports to be a guide to a living, breathing 14th Century England. Etiquette, dress, food, politics, law and order, entertainment, social order… These are all topics covered which you would expect in a modern tourist guide. The book sleeve leads with the familiar line that;

“The Past is a Foreign Country; they did things differently there…”

Which I think illuminates the inspiration for this book brilliantly. As history has been traditionally approached – as something that has been, is gone, is in the past… Is DEAD. Something to be poked at and debated on the basis of available evidence. The truth of that past, the knowledge of how life actually was is impossible. You simply cannot put yourself in the mind of Edward II or Geoffrey Chaucer and know why things happened truthfully. You could ask him immediately after a decision, and then thirty years later and you would get different answers because of how our memory changes and differing motivations become prominent.

What Ian Mortimer tries to do is instead of analyzing the past as being dead and cold, he tries to approach it as a living thing – a place you could visit tomorrow. As a result you begin to think about life back then differently. As a reader you come to respect and appreciate the lives of these people – both lowly villein and noble Lord.

The descriptions are vivid. You react with laughter, horror and bemusement at the everyday quirks of life in 14th century England. The stories are real, culled from documents of the time and they offer snapshots of a way of living we could not condone from our position in the 21st Century. But then I have always argued since I was a 14 year old studying Nazi Germany in a predictable boring good guys beat the bad guys approach that you cannot apply your morality to the past. If the aim of the study of history is to understand the past we should leave our judgments aside and try to experience from the sources how it was for the actors involved.

The Time Travelers Guide to Medieval England is a very useful and easy to digest book on a wide range of everyday topics in 14th Century England. It is not a detailed social study, it is more an introduction but told in such a fashion as to make you want to explore more. I am not known for a love of poetry but after reading this book I will be looking in to the poems of the GAWAIN author and John Gower.

Inspired by a family nickname of ‘The Three Bells’ (mom, dad, me) I’ve decided to adopt a three bell scale for reviews. One bell means its OK/Passable, two bells mean its Good and three bells means its a Must Read/see.

This book proudly earns THREE BELLS. Ding dong!

I bought my copy from English Heritage at Rievaulx Abbey but it can be purchased from all good book retailers online too.

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