Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the 14h Century by Ian Mortimer

When you think of the Medieval Period, what is it that comes to mind? Knights on Horseback fighting valiantly in wars and Jousting? Courts of Kings dressed in glorious finery? Unfortunately, the popular image of the middle ages is rather colorful, but also wrong. It was a colorful age, to be sure, but what was it like to actually live there?

Ian Mortimer, a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, sets out to make the Medieval Period come alive as something more than words in a book. From the moment you ride up to the city and the first thing you see, dwarfing all the other buildings around it being the church, proud in its gothic architecture with flying buttresses and rose window made of colorful glass, to the stench of the garbage, feces and offal that line the banks of the stream (known as the "Shitbrook" that runs past the great city, he firmly anchors the reader in time and place.

Of course, when one speaks of towns in England, one must also speak of the greatest: London, and the many sights therein, including the London Bridge and St. Paul's Cathedral, both quite different from the ones we know today, since the original St. Paul's burnt down in the great fire of London, and the original bridge was well-supplied with Garderobes, or toilets that emptied directly into the Thames.

Next comes a discussion of the people- the fact that people back then were both violent and bloodthirsty, and paradoxically, full of faith in God to an extent rarely seen today. Even the most mild of believers back then would be seen as dangerously fanatical in the depth and extent of their beliefs today. And at the same time, people take delight in seeing others hurt and discomfited, strung up by one leg on hocking day and made to stay there until they pay a fine as penalty to the jokesters who set the noose.

And as people must wear clothes, the kind of clothes people wore back then were important- for unlike today, there were sumptuary laws that everyone must abide by. As you went further down the social scale. more and more things, from kinds of cloth to jewelry and fur, were forbidden to you. At the bottom of the scale, you could only wear homespun and other rough cloth. This was to be able to tell people apart. In today's egalitarian society, anyone can wear anything, but in the highly structured society of the past, one had to be able to tell at a glance who was important and who was not. The sumptuous dress of the upper classes and the royals, also existed to make people proud of their leaders.

From there, it's on to crime and punishment. Medieval punishment was not "more time for worse crimes" as we have it today in our criminal justice system. But worse punishments for worse crimes. While theft might be dealt with by cutting off the hand of the offender nd murder with simple death, the murder of many might result in hanging, removing ones entrails, cutting off of the head and then literal drawing and quartering, along with exposure of the body and the head until the flesh had rotted so much that the piece fell off the stake or pole it was displayed on- and to show people the result of committing offenses, these bloody trophies were displayed for all to see.

Each chapter of the book covers another part of English society, with the caveat that this was a period of great change in English society. What was true in the early part of the century might be completely different later on or by the end, from fashion to the cost of items, due to changes, and the greatest change of all, the Black Death. Mortimer makes the point that the real reason you wouldn't have wanted to visit the 14th Century wasn't the lack of sanitation, the crime, dangerous wild animals or lack of freedom you would experience compared to the modern day, but because of the medicine, or what passed for it.

Today, if you go to a physician, you expect him to examine you to determine what is wrong with you, to do blood tests and to prescribe you medicine based on what he found, and also that your medicine would be the same as any other person who has the same disease and the same symptoms. Well, blood tests didn't exist back in the middle ages, but in actuality things would have been very different. Not only would the "Doctor" not examine you directly, he would spend more time studying your urine and your astrological chart than anything else. And his treatment would owe more to your chart than what was wrong with you. And medicine back then wasn't very efficient. You'd be lucky to survive what was wrong with you. Even injuries like broken bones had a good chance of making you a cripple for the rest of your life, and "bleeding", cutting into a vein and letting the blood run out, was a treatment for many diseases. Being a woman meant childbirth- and a 1 in 50 chance of dying every time you got pregnant.

The book ends with a discussion of the kinds of pasttimes that medieval people enjoyed, from football to hunting, gaming to reading (or having stories be read or told to them. And of course, music and singing. Games were also popular, even though card games had not yet been invented, there were dice games, chess, checkers (draughts) and merrils, or Nine Men's Morris.

This book has a lot of information, but all that information isn't presented in a dry manner. Some people think that once a period in history is over and the people who livd there dead betond the living memory of those who exist now, that such a period is completely unknowable, but Mortimer shows this isn't the case, using primary sources, and even secondary and tertiary sources to paint a fairly complete picture of what life back then was really like. While life in the 14th Century may never be as real to readers as their own life, he does make it much more realistic than many other history books do.

The people who lived back then are real people, and were more than just the stereotypes that we are used to in popular media. In some ways, there is a resemblance to those stereotypes (of course, or why would they be called "Stereotypes"?), but the reality is much deeper and stranger than those unfamiliar with the period would think. People back then may have been more bloodthirsty and closer to the production of their food than we are today, but they dealt with many of the same problems in pollution (admittedly, more on the order of human and animal ordure and early processes to tan leather, full cloth and the blood and viscera of animal butchery), but while there was no tobacco to smoke, smoking fires gave the same diseases that smoking leads to today. Our world may be safer and a great deal less brutal and devout, but it's also less colorful.

This book gives an excellent idea of what life back then was really like, in a broader picture than other books like "A Distant Mirror" by Tuchman. But it also covers more topics than that same book, including fashion, and leaves out more of the politics and wars, though the effects of both are mentioned. I liked this book, and I'd like to see others like this covering different time periods- perhaps the so-called "Dark Ages" and the Renaissance. As an overview of England and English society, manners, customs, dress and interests, this book excels. Highly recommended.

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