A review of Ian Mortimer's "The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England," which shows the highs and lows of almost every aspect of everyday life in medieval England
‘The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century’
by Ian Mortimer
Touchstone, 342 pp., $26
As a destination, medieval England would have been a pretty tough sell. The cities were filthy, and the food was rotten. Also, nobody had a sense of humor. The way historian Ian Mortimer tells it, even the Three Stooges would have been too sophisticated for the 14th-century funny bone.
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The pleasure of reading Mortimer’s “The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England” is its Fodor’s-style framework. “A travel book about a past age allows us to see its inhabitants in a sympathetic way,” writes Mortimer, “not as a series of graphs showing fluctuations in grain yields or household income but as an investigation into the sensations of being alive in a different time.”
Mortimer addresses every aspect of medieval life, from the mundane to the bizarre. His dietary tips are helpful: “There is a widespread understanding that green vegetables — cabbages in particular — are not good for you.” His shopping advice is insightful: “If you are the victim of malpractice, go straight to the authorities. At a fair, the perpetrator will be fined. In town he will be pilloried, literally.”
Travel guides are designed to deliver helpful information about faraway places, but this one gets to the heart of a different time zone.
Aaron Leitko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.