As part of our curriculum, we have been reading a book called The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England. The purpose of this book is to transport the modern reader into the 14th century as if they were actually living and traveling in that century. I like this book, so I have decided to share what I have been reading for this blog post. The author, Ian Mortimer, has drawn me into the reading, and I am always eager to read more of it. One interesting thing to note is that the author writes in the present tense. The best way to think about history is to think of yourself living it as if it was the present. This way, people’s emotions come to light, and we can piece together why they did what they did. In the introduction, he asserts that history is more than knowledge; it is an experience, and what we have in common with the past is just as important as what makes us different.
I appreciate that Mortimer didn’t write this as another history book. The chronicles left behind from the medieval era are informative in telling us what happened, but they are impersonal. You only got recorded if you were royal or important in some way. Mortimer gives peasants a chance to come to life more than their royal superiors to give the reader an actual sense of what life was like for the majority of people, not just the select few. For the rest of the post, I will be giving a brief synopsis of some of the chapters we have read so far, highlighting the interesting things I found. Hopefully, this entices you to read this book as well!
Chapter 1: The Landscape
As the title of the chapter suggests, Mortimer discusses what you will find in the landscape as you travel across the country. He focuses on the different atmospheres of cities and towns versus villages and the countryside. The chapter makes a point to debunk the myth that the English landscape remained unchanging through the century when in fact the landscape changed through human intervention and natural factors. The same can be said for medieval villages. The usual perception is that they are picturesque, but the practicalities of daily life took precedence over beauty. The typical medieval village found beauty in having the daily necessities close at hand.
Chapter 2: The People
Society is split into three “estates”: those who fight, those who pray, and those who work the land. Each group contributes to the welfare of society as a whole, and this system was used to justify inequalities in society. As you might imagine, these three estates left quite a few people out, so it was an increasingly outdated idea starting around the 12th century.
Chapter 3: The Medieval Character
Chivalry did not really exist in the way we think. The 14th century was a violent time, and loyalty was valued above all else. People were exceedingly cruel as a rule, and a streak of violence runs through the whole society. This surprised me the most. I had always expected there to be a minority of people with cruel natures who attacked others, with the majority just being people of their time. Violence was a part of life, but I had not expected so many people in the population to enjoy bloodshed as a sport, but maybe just accept it as part of life. It certainly made me rethink my ideas of knights in shining armor rescuing the damsels in distress. A surprising thing to note is that many more people than expected were literate: 5% in rural areas and 20% in urban areas.
Chapter 5: What to Wear
I won’t go into terrible detail on the exact fashion trends through the century, but there are some interesting things that happened that are worth noting. The 14th century sees greater changes in clothing styles than any previous period of 100 years, and men’s fashion changes more than in any century since. The end of the century even sees the pinnacle in the sexualization of men’s clothing. I found this interesting because, in today’s society, we see the sexualization of women’s clothing, not men’s. What you wear still denoted what you were, just like today, and people were restricted from dressing above their station. It was important to look the part of your station in medieval society.
Mortimer, Ian. The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England. New York, NY: Touchstone, 2008.