By this point, it should be evident to anyone who follows this site that I have a certain fascination with history. That which I learn of history routinely appears in my writing or inspires some new story idea. Fiction, I think, is one of the best means we have by which to explore the past as a living, textured entity, to gain some conception of the reality of the past and not the dry facts on the page. That’s why I enjoy historical fiction, it’s why I seek out historical pieces from cultures throughout the ages, to better be immersed in those unique mindsets. It is no surprise, then, that I enjoyed The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England.
Considering that so much of fantasy is set in ‘medieval’ time periods (purportedly – few modern fantasies I’ve read are faithful to the period, and are arguably closer to renaissance era), Mortimer’s book ought to be required reading. If you want to write fiction with a medieval feel, this should be your bare-minimum research. Like a certain practical handbook on coups that maintains that framing conceit throughout, Mortimer really does provide a traveler’s guide for the fourteenth century in England.
There is great debate about the relevance of the term ‘dark ages,’ which begins to touch on deeper questions of how to approach the study of history and how to interact with the past (you can get some of this from listening to Hardcore History). It is easy to take the past in our own context, but I am more interested in approaching the past on its own terms. Mortimer seems to share this view, because he does an admirable job in his Time Traveler’s Guide of taking history for itself, and not imposing our modern mores or perspectives upon it. Even more than writing other styles of history books, that is important in a book that purports to provide a window into the routine and the everyday of the fourteenth century people.
The routine and the everyday is what makes this book unique and useful. You can read studies of the Black Plague, or biographies of famous period figures, or analyses of this or that aspect of the time and how it eventually gave rise to future events. None of those will give you the same depth of insight into the character of the period as examining the daily routines, and the perspective of a visitor is the perfect one to take. After all, as the back of the book claims, “the past is a foreign country. This is your guidebook.”
Do not fear that this book will be nothing but random trivia. There is some trivia, like the fact that football (soccer for the Americans in the readership) used to be exceedingly violent and played by teams of hundreds on fields miles long (which I find fascinating), but the book is much more than minutia. Yes, the minutia helps give it strength and depth, but the book also provides a depth of detail and analysis that you would be hard-pressed to find in a guidebook for a modern location. What makes it work, more than describing the experience of a yeoman, or a knight, or a nobleman, or a merchant, or a priest, is that it describes the experience of you, the time traveler, interacting with all of these people. It puts you in their context.
I’ll admit that I was skeptical when I picked up the book. I worried it would be too light, too unserious, and short on facts, but none of that is the case. The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England manages to be both approachable and a work of serious and insightful historical scholarship. Whether you are interested in history for its applicability to your writing, or you are just curious what life was really like in a time period that we deeply misunderstand from our modern pedestal, I encourage you to give this book a read soon.
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