One of my first blog posts was an essay on time traveling. NPR asked listeners if they could, where would they go? My answer was not too surprisingly Jerusalem during the time of Christ. There are many reasons for this time period: I want to see just how the Romans and Jewish people behaved towards each other, I want to know if a man named Jesus of Nazareth was crucified (not that I wanted to see it; I saw Mel Gibson’s Passion, that was enough for me thank you very much) and I want to see just how people lived back in the Roman era. Why the Roman era? Well besides wanting to see how people lived before there were climate controlled markets, department stores and toothbrushes this is the only pre-modern era that had proper plumbing and hot baths. If I am going to time travel I at least want a nice hot bath once I get there.
As a medieval scholar I am curious about life between 1000-1500 B.C.E. but do not relish the idea of using chamber pots and would like more than one bath per year. Still, I love reading anything I can get my hands one that discusses
life in medieval Europe. I read Michael Crichton’s Timeline
in one day. Not for its wining plot line (it was awful) but for his detailed account of a medieval French village. Bernard Knight can describe the smells and weather so well you feel as if you need air freshener and an umbrella while Barbra Tuchman can offer more than a glimpse into why medieval people lived as they did. Yet none of them can really pull the reader into the life and times of medieval Europe. None of them can make their readers feel like a time traveler.
Enter Ian Mortimer’ The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England a Handbook for Visitors to the 14th
century. The book jacket says “This radical new approach shows us the past is not just something to be studied: it is also something to be lived”. In no other book will you find a more complete narrative on how 14th
century people ate, dressed, talked, traveled and how they survived in a pre-modern world. A world of chamber pots (if you are lucky), cumbersome clothing, religious based medicine and a hierarchy that is so involved one needs notes on how to walk into a Lord’s manor (never put your back to a person of higher status).
The book is written in the style of the modern guide book, though without the usual tourist attraction stops. The narrative is engaging but not humorous. Always one for humor I was a little disappointed that Mortimer did not use humor in passages that cried out for it. Instead it is more of a how to book. I learned more from this book than I have in the years I have spent reading and studying Medieval Europe. Here are a few things I learned: I classify them as dispelling myths.
Peasants dressed in drab clothing and colors because of a Sumptuary law added to the books in 1337, not because this is all they could afford. There was a hierarchy to clothing styles. Each class had their own rules or dress codes. Peasants could not wear fur or bright clothing. Wealthy town’s people could wear fox or rabbit fur, but not Sable or Mink. Wealthy Knights could wear fabric worth no more than 6 marks, but no cloth of gold or lined with ermine or stones. Less wealthy Knights and noblemen could wear fabric costing no more than 5 marks, and so on. Even in fashion, class status is everything.
When entering anyone’s home you are expected to give up your sword; there is no pulling it out for a quick fight over crossed words. All swords are hung out of sight for the duration of a visit. If you die in someone’s home they get all of your belongings. It is your way of saying “sorry for the mess”.
Homes, even castles have little furniture. Visitors are left standing for long periods of time. Stools come out at dinner and will remain for the entire evening. There are no knights sitting around a King. The best thing to do is to stand against a wall so that your back is never to a superior ( cannot stress this enough)
Do not throw your leftover food from the table. This will clearly get you kicked out of a house! In fact do not eat all of the food placed in front of you. There should always be food left for the poor; they line up around dinner time waiting for their share. All trenchers (the bread that serves as plates) are given to the pigs.
If you are sick, bloodletting is the least of your worries. As a matter of fact be thankful a doctor is taking the time to look at you. Many doctors in this period us complicated math formulas based on your name, the name of the servant who brought you to the doctor and birth sign as a way to figure out if you will live or die. Even numbers you will not live (so why treat you) odd numbers you live. If you get sick during your stay the best thing to do is to stay away from doctors. You will have a better chance at survival.
There is so much more to this book that I could go on and on. Instead I will go over it again and come up with a top 10 things you need to know when visiting 14th century England. If you want to time travel to the period right before the Age of Enlightenment, I highly recommend picking up this book. This is the closest we will get to actually being there.
By the way; two people asked so oviously I did not explain the contest very well. All of my followers are already entered. What I am asking you to do is spread the word about my blog. When your friends sign up to follow me have them post a comment on the contest page. This let’s me know who is now following me and who sent them here. You will be entered a second time if one of your friends mentions your name.
Hope this clears it up. I am looking foward to giving a way a box of books!