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Book Review

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England

Ian Mortimer

Vintage

368 pages

 

I had thought once, after reading Umberto Eco’s astonishing tome, The Name of the Rose, that another author would have had great difficulty in so convincingly, so lovingly recreating the Medieval past. Eco’s heady, hybrid mixture of very thorough historical research, insight and vivid imagination stood as though unassailable. For Eco had bridged the gap between literature and history and skipped lightly across it, with a beatific smile and an occasional pirouette. Perhaps I have not yet been proved quite wrong in this thought, but it does seem as though Eco’s postmodernist project for the Middle Ages has taken on a new lease of life by, surprisingly, not a writer but someone on the other side, a historical scholar. Achingly erudite, easily accessible and elegantly composed, Ian Mortimer’s time traveller’s guide is indisputably a major accomplishment in the recent historiography of the Middle Ages. Mortimer animates the period with his always interesting, lucid prose and his remarkable range of knowledge and emphasises our human connections rather than our technologically induced and intellectual disparities with the English of the fourteenth century.

 

He leads us authoritatively, and compassionately, into diverse terrains populated by haggling marketers, corrupt administrators, hypocritical priests, vile chefs and viler doctors, miniscule sheep, orgiastic monarchs and Flemish whores, across field and cobblestone. We journey alongside him, always fascinated, through the seraglios of the Southwark stews, the stinking mass of a City without sewage system, occasionally stopping over at a hospital or the humble abode of a villain, sometimes stopping over the spectacles of leprosy and public torture and humiliation. And Mortimer, time and again, corrects our presumptions, our facile assumptions and generalisations, adding more depth to this experience of living history. He reminds us of the lack of class resentment across the Three Estates of Feudal society and readdresses the real contingency of historical transformation in the period. He shows us how quickly, and how capriciously and drastically, fashion, sport and even the official language altered in the space of just a hundred years.

 

In this book, Mortimer reminds us of the contingency of lives – our own and others’. Knitting has not been invented in the Middle Ages. The foods that we eat do not exist there, livestock is smaller, men are much stronger, people are much younger. But there is no reductivism; Mortimer demonstrates the wide gulf between the classes and sexes, blue blood and common stock. In spite of this, he stresses everywhere the continuity of human experience which allows us to ‘time travel’: the timeless encounter with suffering, love and beauty. He shows us how we are all linked across the ages. And this is why his book is so engaging.

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