The Time Travellers Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer reviewed by guest author Angela Wren
I am delighted to have a fascinating review by Angela Wren today. Angela, herself, is a noted author whose most recent novel, Messandrierre: Murder in rural France was published by Crooked Cat Books in August 2017. You can find her at her website : www.angelawren.co.uk or at her blog : www.jamesetmoi.blogspot.com
The Time Travellers Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer is a history book and why would anyone who is not a student of history want to read it? Because it does exactly what it says on the cover. It takes you on a virtual tour of the 14th century without the aid of a computer. And it does this in exactly the same way as a tourist guidebook shepherds you around the various points of interest in a town that you have never visited before.
The book begins by asking you to ‘imagine yourself in a dusty London street on a summer morning.’ As you pass ‘a servant opens an upstairs shutter and starts beating a blanket.’ Nearby in the market ‘traders call out.’ And so the author takes you on your journey through the towns, cities and countryside of the 14th century, carefully building up a massive picture for you, the reader, to peruse in your imagination as you turn the pages.
Whilst in London you visit various places including the ‘Southwark Stews or bath-houses…..Here men may eat and drink, have a hot scented bath and spend time in female company’ because prostitutes are not tolerated in the city itself. These establishments are all run by Flemish women and the stews are an accepted part of life – fidelity to marriage vows being only required from the female partner. Of course some of the clergy consider them to be immoral and say so – but all these places are on land rented from the Bishop of Winchester!!
Later we are introduced to Dick Whittington, not the guy in the pantomime but the real Mayor of London, son of a Gloucestershire landowner, who died an extremely wealthy man.
In the market we find that we can buy a brand new invention, buttons, to use as a fastening for our clothes and in the cordwainer’s we can now buy shoes of soft Cordovan leather that are cut to fit our feet – so we walk away with both a left and a right shoe – previously there was no distinction.
As we leave the great city of London and move out into the countryside onto a rich Lord’s estate we come across his sons, aged from 6/7 upwards, practising at the lists. Their armour is heavy and when you consider that an adult knight would be wearing 80lbs of armour – that’s the equivalent of 36 bags of sugar – and that your average 14th century man is around 5ft 7 tall, you begin to appreciate just how strong and agile these fighting men are.
As for the women in the great manor house, the Lord’s wife and daughters, they are feminine and courteous. Your average woman is about 5 ft 2 – so for once in my life, as a visitor to the 14th century, I can say that I am tall!!
As visitors to the Lord you are treated very well with a banquet held in your honour and as a special diversion, you are presented with four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie. The pastry is real and baked first and then the pie is assembled with live birds inside just before it is brought to the table. As you cut into it the birds fly out and begin to swoop around the hall and sing.
In the wilder parts of Yorkshire we bump into an outlaw called John Little and we discover that he has taken part in a robbery with the infamous members of the Coterel Gang. In the Wakefield Manor we come across a man by the name of Robin Hood. He is one of several men in that area with that name – but he isn’t wearing green, nor is he an especially accomplished archer and his social conscience is no better than the next mans!
Oh, by the way, gentleman readers, boxer shorts – not new at all, apparently they’ve been around for 600 years!
At just under 300 pages, The Time Travellers Guide to Medieval England, is quite a big read, but it is the most enjoyable history book I have ever come across. The narrative flow is easy and keeps you turning the pages. The use of statistics at various points to support the text is not intrusive and the additional material and explanations in the notes and appendices just complete the picture without clogging up the overall story. There are other books in the series for other centuries and I will be reading them. I just wish history had been this interesting when I was required to study it at school.