A foreign country

Ian Mortimer's A time traveller's guide to medieval England is a delight. For all of us who have ever imagined finding a time machine and being able to travel to whichever period enthralls us, this is a must-read. A Lonely Planet for time travellers. It's history, but written in such an entertaining style, that you can't help but be captivated and learn an immense amount of medieval history completely painlessly.

The guide rather than just presenting you with lists of dry facts turns your average history book on its head, it presents historical fact in the same readable fashion that an historical novel would present it. So, for example, the book opens with your arrival at the gates of medieval Exeter. You are stunned by the new buildings, knocked out by the stench, and, as ever, the children are eager to find out who you are, and where you're from.

The chapters are set out much as your average guidebook would be laid out. There are chapters on language (did you know that William Caxton wrote and published a French / English phrasebook?), how to find a bed for the night, and the best place to stay, manners and medieval humour, what jobs are available, where to find a doctor (and why you might be better advised not to do so), what to eat, and what to do in your spare time.

It is wonderfully entertaining, and has some great "I never knew that" moments. Did you know that King Henry IV corresponded with the King of Abyssinia? That the literacy rate was probably rather higher than you might imagine? That horses were often blinded by unscrupulous horse thieves to stop them returning home? That you might not be punished for poaching, but your dog probably would be? Or that you could be fined for wearing the wrong clothes?

Concentrating primarily on the fourteenth century but also drawing on some sources from outside the period, this is both fascinating and eminently readable - a sort of Horrible Histories for adults. It's great fun, but there is also a serious side. It's impossible not to be moved by Mortimer's accounts of the Great Plague. And this is largely due to his writing style, moving away from the bare facts into the humanity is compelling. Who could not feel for the man who had buried his five sons by himself with no bells to mark their passing, or service held for them?

You inevitably find yourself wondering how you would have fitted in to this period of British history. As a musician, if I was lucky I would have apparently earned a good wage, but as an eczema sufferer I might have been diagnosed with leprosy and forced to wander through the land with no community to call my own. As a woman, I would have run the lottery of childbirth - a 1 in 50 chance of dying per birth, and could be forced into marriage against my will. But as long as I was literate and born into an upwardly mobile family, perhaps a merchant's family, there would be the chance to read some seriously good literature from Chaucer to the writer of the wonderful Pearl, and of course John Langland. There was great music, free street theatre, pretty good food in years of plenty, and the chance to go on pilgrimage.

There were some truly weird beliefs, but the wackiness of the medieval mindset had its positives. When anything was thought to be possible, it could actually become a possibility - a person like Roger Bacon could imagine that man could fly; and would inspire Leonardo da Vinci, while the tales of Sir John Mandeville (actually a French writer) would inspire John Cabot to land in the New World a century later.

The past is indeed a foreign country. If you want to read a definitive guide book to it, it should be this one.


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