Monday, November 23, 2009
Review: The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England, by Ian Mortimer
The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England is just that—a comprehensive traveler’s guide to the fourteenth century in England. It covers pretty much anything and everything of day-to-day life, from the people you would have encountered, to the clothes you would have worn, to the kind of medical treatment you would have received if you had gotten sick, and much, much more.
There’s a lot here I already knew, but a lot I didn’t—for example, that pockets were introduced during this century, as were differentiated shoes (left foot versus right, in other words). It’s details like this, that you wouldn’t normally think are important, that really are important in daily life. At first, the present-tense writing threw me off; but, as Mortimer says in his introduction, once you begin understanding history as happening rather than as has happened, then you’ll better understand the complexities of fourteenth-century life.
As the back of the book paraphrases LP Hartley, “the past is a foreign country, they did things differently there…” It’s not that things were bad or wrong with the way that people lived six hundred years ago; it’s just that people back then had different ways of seeing the world. Take, for example, the chapter on health and medical practices. It’s not that medical physicians and surgeons (two different things, up until the 17th century) were ignorant in the sense that we mean it; it’s just that they used different areas of knowledge to make a diagnosis and treat a patient. Doctors and surgeons in the fourteenth century probably had as much knowledge as doctors do today—they just used things such as astronomy, religion, and blind faith in their practice. I wish the author had focused a little more on religion and education, however. In all, though, a fascinating study of medieval social life, and unlike any other history book I’ve read (and much more enjoyable than most). I read this book straight through, but it can also be used a a reference book, to dip into from time to time. This book will be coming out in the US on Deecember 29th.
Also reviewed by: Medieval Bookworm