Sunday 7 July 2019

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, Ian Mortimer

Mortimer takes the famous quote from L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between ‘The past is a foreign country – they do things differently there’ quite literally as he leads the reader through the fourteenth century in the form of a travel guide. His argument for this style in the introduction is convincing but the execution leaves something to be desired. When he gets into his flow it is entertaining and informative but in large parts he slips into a more traditional form of historical narrative. Within this it can feel awkward and sometimes confusing as to which period he’s referring to when he suddenly jumps back to addressing the reader like a visitor. Nonetheless, if you’re after an overview of life in the 1300s you could do worse than picking up this book.

He discusses the strict hierarchical nature of society in England at the time with even the clothes worn being determined by social status. To be at the bottom of the class system meant being under the control of your lord your entire life. It was not just work and earnings they controlled but for villeins even who they married was decided by their lord with punishments being imposed if they did not gain permission or went against the lord’s wishes. Men’s status was decided by their work, for women it was their marital status, and even at the top they remained subservient to men. In an age far more violent than the one we inhabit women were in very real danger of assault and in the case of an abusive marriage they had no means of escape. It is clear throughout that the lot of women was hard but Mortimer does point out some advantages to their lower status. For example, in the case of a criminal couple the man would be hanged for his crimes whereas the woman could be excused by claiming she was merely acting under her husband’s will. It is also interesting to note that as the century progressed men’s clothing became more sexually revealing whereas women’s fashion remained with loose fitting garments.

Climate change being firmly on the modern agenda it was interesting to gain an insight into the disastrous consequences of it six hundred years ago. Temperatures dropped by one degree leading to crop failures, some of which never recovered, abandonment of villages as the land became unworkable, and eventually the Great Famine due to heavy rainfall.

Mortimer discusses the often scant sources available to medieval historians and gives the reader a glimpse into how historic knowledge is pieced together. He succeeds in showing how different life was but also makes the people living through it feel much more relatable and not all that different after all.

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