The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, Reviewed by Francesca Bucchi
The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England (2008) is a bestseller written by Ian Mortimer, an English writer and historian with a BA and PhD in history from the University of Exeter. The book is both unprecedented and fascinating because it offers the reader a new approach to history in an attempt to bring the subject away from the elitist circle of historians and to a larger audience. As the title suggests, the work is designed as a guide for a time traveller and it describes various aspects of the life in medieval England as the reader himself were visiting the country during the fourteenth century and experiencing what it meant to live there at the time.
The text is divided into various chapters, each of which dealing with a specific aspect of the medieval reality, such as the Landscape or What to Wear. Interestingly, Mortimer subdivides the chapters themselves into smaller sections in order to describe each and every aspect according to medieval social classes, which he introduces in chapter two. Although many would consider this as a method Mortimer uses to simplify and systematize his work, this is in fact a very courageous approach to analyse the specific historical period since it accentuates the different ways the author used to study the classes. By comparing the parts dedicated to the nobility and the clergy and those dedicated to the peasants, one would notice that the author tends to be more specific with the former, mentioning important examples, while more vague with the latter. For instance, when dealing with the medieval lodgings of the nobility, the author is able to present a great deal of supporting evidence for his claim of the fourteenth century as a century of castle rebuilding (154). On the other hand, when he deals with the lower classes’ houses, Mortimer only recurs to Chaucer’s tales as major evidence (163,165). The classist approach thus involuntarily emphasizes either the availability or lack of sources the author had to deal with when writing his work.
In addition to classes, sex is another subcategory the author uses to deal with the different aspects of medieval life in England. Mortimer specifically includes a part dedicated to women in the chapter on the medieval classes (chapter two). In this, the author seems very conscious of the patriarchal nature of medieval society, but he nevertheless claims that women indeed have advantages, for instance, “no man could take his wife to court for […] husband-beating” (56). Although this is a true statement, it is hard to believe in its wide applicability to the majority of medieval women. Moreover, after this short but intense part dedicated to the apparently “not so fair sex”, Mortimer uses sex as an analytical framework in a very biased way. He mentions women only when dealing with specific cases where sex obviously matters, like medieval clothing, but he seems to forget to mention, for instance, what it meant for women to travel in fourteenth century England (chapter six) or why they would just not “stay at an inn by themselves” (146). As a result of this, the entire book seems to be framed in a very male perspective and thus for a “male” time traveller to medieval England.
Besides the classist approach, another characteristic of Mortimer’s narrative is the sensory aspect of the book. This is both a novelty and a strength of the work that derives from the wish of the author to describe the specific historical period as the reader was actually living it. Throughout the book, it won’t be unusual to see references to the five senses such as the smell of a brook (6), the quietness of a road (246), or the chatting in a manorial court (126). For instance, when talking about Where to Stay (chapter seven), Mortimer spends quite few pages describing the peculiar and very common world of the inn; however, he warns the time traveller that despite what the tradition has conveyed to the modern reader about the often “romantic aspects” of staying in an inn (145), the reality is indeed different. During the night, in fact, “the sound of travellers stumbling along the gallery or down the stair is not uncommon” (146). This emphasis on the senses is really effective in catching the attention and curiousness of the reader, but it is important to say that such literary manoeuvre has a deeper purpose.
The very peculiar narrative style full on sensory details chosen by the author to deal with the specific historical period perfectly adheres to the principles of what he himself introduces in the preface as “virtual history” (2). This new approach aims at “taking the reader directly to a moment in time, and presenting events as if they were still unfolding” (2), thus bringing history closer to the reader by allowing him or her to go beyond mere historical sources and actually understand the humanity permeating a specific historical period. As Mortimer claims: “As you start to think of the past happening […], a new way of conceiving history becomes possible” (1). Thus one sees how the sensory details are not simply literary surpluses, but they are concrete devices used by the author in order to plunge the “traveller” completely into the reality of medieval England. For instance, in the chapter dedicated to Health and Hygiene (chapter nine), the author underlines the importance of understanding the gravity of the Great Plague not only as an historical turning point, but as a human factor that affected the life of millions of people and to do that he describes what the landscape would have looked like to anyone visiting England during the Black Death:
“As you look around and see ravens flying through deserted streets, and half-wild dogs and pigs eating the corpses abandoned on the edge of a village, you will see something no historian will ever see” (203).
In the same way, Mortimer uses the present tense throughout his book, which may at first seems confusing when dealing with history. Actually, this is just another means to make the reader feel like he is experiencing what he is reading and not just filtering information passively.
In conclusion, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England is an excellent book for all the lovers of medieval history, but I would actually suggest anyone to read it. The way of approaching history proposed by Mortimer is simply revolutionary and reading the book may eradicate anyone’s previous misconception of history as a merely scholarly subject. The narrative in fact seems to bring history to life, thus demonstrating that sometimes one just needs new eyes to really appreciate something. As Mortimer ardently states at the end of his book: “history is no longer just an extended academic exercise – it can be anything you want it to be.” (290)
Mortimer, Ian. The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England: a Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century. London: The Bodley Head, 2008