Friday, April 23, 2010

Edi's Spotlight: The Time Traveller's Guide To Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

I'm interested in history since my youth. I can't remember when I read my last history book. That is not really true because the last one I finished this morning.

Today you get a review which is quite different compared to my normal reviews. Today it is just me. No Bona, Fide, Bona Fide and the keeper of the minutes. I decided it is necessary.

Is there any relation to fantasy in general and fantasy books in particular?
The short answer is yes.
I assume you read a lot of reviews, especially reviews of fantasy books. How often we come across a medieval setting, a medieval Europe setting. And how often we complain about settings.
What is your imagination of Middle Ages? Fat monks? Knights in silver amour? Outlaws with bow and arrows? Poor countrymen? Bondmen? Kings and Queens in gorgeous gowns?
And where did you get your knowledge from? TV and movies? Museums?
When we read in a review about a medieval setting a certain picture pops up in our minds and we balance it against the written words with the result that we are sometimes disappointed because it does not match.
But how would we react when we could revert to a more profound knowledge. How to get this more profound knowledge? The most successful way would be a time travel. So far it is technically impossible. Another way would be to study available sources. To be honest neither you nor I have the time to do that. It is a task for an historian. Of course we don't want to get endless and uninspiring facts and figures.
What do we today when we want to get information about a foreign country. As a book addicted person we look for a travel guide. Now think about the past as a foreign country. Then we need something like
Today I review The Time Traveller's Guide To Medieval England (June 2009, 368 p.)
[ISBN-13: 978-1845950996], by Ian Mortimer.
"The past is a foreign country: this is your guidebook. Imagine you could get into a time machine and travel back to the fourteenth century. What would you see? What would you smell? More to the point, where are you going to stay? Should you go to a castle or a monastic guesthouse? And what are you going to eat? What sort of food are you going to be offered by a peasant or a monk or a lord? This radical new approach turns our entire understanding of history upside down. It shows us that the past is not just something to be studied; it is also something to be lived. It sets out to explain what life was like in the most immediate way, through taking you, the reader, to the middle ages, and showing you everything from the horrors of leprosy and war to the ridiculous excesses of roasted larks and haute couture. Being a guidebook, many questions are answered which do not normally occur in traditional history books. How do you greet people in the street? What should you use for toilet paper? How fast - and how safely - can you travel? Why might a physician want to taste your blood? And how do you test to see if you are going down with the plague?"
The Time Traveller's Guide To Medieval England promises a lot and lives up to its promise.

I agree with Ian Mortimer's understanding of history:
"History is not just about the analysis of evidence, documents or answering unrolling vellum documents or answering exam papers. It is not about judging the dead. It is about understanding the meaning of the past - to realize the whole evolving human story over centuries, not just our own lifetimes." [p. 292]
You must not agree but should keep this understanding in mind when you read The Time Traveller's Guide To Medieval England.

Ian Mortimer delivers: Introduction, Eleven named chapters, Envoi (a kind of afterward), Notes, List of mentioned literature, Illustrations, Index.
That means The Time Traveller's Guide To Medieval England is several books in one: an entertaining and intelligent history book, a medieval England reference book, a basic book for further studies, a travel guide with recommendations.
Each chapter is divided in several parts and follows a plain structure: Introduction followed by specific parts which are interspersed by examples, quotes and asides.
Ian Mortimer knows to capture his reader. He has an aptitude to impart additional knowledge in a subliminal way. That means there are obvious facts and a lot more knowledge which you do not recognize at first sight. But as soon as you start to reflect what you have read you will notice how much more Ian Mortimer has delivered.

There is so much in in the book. I could quote The Time Traveller's Guide To Medieval England permanently. but I will restrict myself to three quotes related to three topics.

"The loudest noises you will ever hear are thunder, trumpets being sounded, bells ringing across a city, the rumble of warhorses' hooves (in a cavalry charge, for example, or during a tournament) and very, very occasionally, the sound of a cannon being fired. Sitting at a table in the great hall of a castle, the loudest noise will be the chatter from the lower tables." [p. 247]
"If you find yourself speaking English with the locals do not be surprised if their language gets a little rough around the edges. Just as fourteenth-century place names are direct descriptions of localities (for instance: 'Shitbrook Street', 'Pissing Alley'), so daily speech is equally straightforward and ribald." [p. 81]
"The passions of a violent society spill over into a sense of humour you will encounter. Yes, there is humour, lots of it, amid the violence and sexism. But whether you will find it funny is quite different matter. For example, here is a medieval joke. One merchant asks another. 'Are you married?' 'I had three wives,' the second merchant responds, 'but all three hanged themselves from a tree in my garden.' The first merchant retorts, 'Pray, give me a cutting from this miraculous tree.' " [p. 62]
The Time Traveller's Guide To Medieval England is a book about a certain time in a certain country. 368 pages to describe one century. Now look at fantasy book. Settled in a world which does not exist or never have existed. Pure imagination of an author. Does an author get 368 pages or more to describe his world? Mostly not. After reading The Time Traveller's Guide To Medieval England I have a different view of world setting in fantasy. It must take a lot of time to create a consistent world.
It is also interesting to read historical fiction bearing in mind the knowledge of Ian Mortimer's book.

The Time Traveller's Guide To Medieval England is most entertaining, intelligent, detailed, intoxicating, superb thought-provoking, meaningful view of humanity in medieval England.

The Time Traveller's Guide To Medieval England is definitely one of the best history books I read ever.

This is a must read for people who are interested in the Middle Ages, who like to read fantasy in general and fantasy with medieval setting in particular, who like to get a deeper understanding of the human evolution.

I highly, highly, highly recommend to read The Time Traveller's Guide To Medieval England!


Seak (Bryce L.) said...

I love medieval England, I should really give this a go. Thanks edi.

ediFanoB said...


yeah, give it a go. Afterwards you will read books with medieval setting from a different angle.

Simcha said...

I've been looking forward to your review of this book and hadn't realized that you already put it up. It sounds like a books I would really enjoy. I'll have to see if I could get a hold of it. Thanks for the review!

ediFanoB said...


it is indeed an enjoyable book. That is the way how you should get history knowledge. It is entertaining AND educating at the same time.
Hope you can get a copy.

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