The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century by Ian Mortimer
History can be dull. The way it’s taught can be, anyway. When I was in school, history was mostly about memorizing names and dates. Students would regurgitate these undigested fact bites for tests and quickly forget them, as they might try to do for other embarrassing teenage spews. What history lessons did not do was inform me about what the past was LIKE.
I can never truly appreciate what it was like to live in Medieval England as a native. I doubt I can truly appreciate what it’s like to live in modern England as a native because I’m not one. What a book might be able to do is tell me what it might be like to visit, though. That’s the approach this book takes. Fourteenth century England exists as a point in the space-time continuum. If we could jump into a space-time transporter (something like a TARDIS, perhaps), what could we expect to find when we arrived? What might we see? What do we need to know? What should we avoid?
This book does that, sort of. It’s almost like historical fiction except it’s not…fiction, that is. It doesn’t follow a certain group of fictitious characters around. It puts you, with your compliment of contemporary knowledge and sensibilities, into Medieval England as if you were a visitor. As a citizen of what you might reasonably think is a far superior culture, you might be tempted to be judgmental. This Medieval England place sucks! The people are ignorant, superstitious, violent, and cruel. Their idea of sanitation would make rats look fastidious. And as for medicine, well, just don’t get sick, but if you do, don’t call a doctor. Oh, and watch what you say, especially about the nobility, religion, or… well, it’s probably best just to keep your mouth shut. You definitively don’t want to find yourself entangled in their injustice system.
As unsavory as these Medieval English people are, we owe them a lot. They endured conditions most of us, I think, would find unendurable, but they carried on so that later generations could build something better. Their descendants ended up being major contributors to the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution, and to Western civilization. I’m fairly sure that if I were alive then and there, I wouldn’t have made it. Even if I didn’t succumb to the whims of the Church, the nobility, or disease, I’d have thrown myself into the Thames.
This realization gives me a greater appreciation for all those who did soldier on. They didn’t know what the future might hold for them or for humanity. They couldn’t foresee the accomplishments that eventually would be made to overcome hunger, disease, and oppression. None of these achievements were inevitable to them. Many, I’m sure, would have been unimaginable. But they carried on, and they survived. So to all those smelly folks back in Medieval England, thanks for putting up with all that and for living through the fourteenth century. I’m glad I didn’t have to.