Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England is a lot of a fun. It’s a very refreshing take the social history of a time and place, offered in the guise of a Michelin guide to the 14th Century. This is not to say that it is tr

ivialising or populist in the worst sense. Much though I and the children enjoy the zaniness of Horrible Histories, they are necessarily slight and far too oversimplified.

This book is, thankfully, by no means a horrible history – although it is clear that the history of the period could certainly be horrible. It is a scholarly but wittily written book that opens eyes and even stimulates all the senses to evoke what life was really like in an unimaginable age. As befits any time-traveller’s guide, it is all written in the present tense, and thus full of possibility (like any good DK or Lonely Planet guide). It is an irresistible invitation for readers to be fully immersed in an alien culture.

I was especially taken by this thought, from his introductory apologetic for his whole approach:

W H Auden once suggested that to understand your own country you need to have lived in at least two others. One can say something for periods of time: to understand your own century you needto have come to terms with at least two others. The key to learning something about the past might be a ruin or an archive but the means whereby we may understand it is – and always will be – ourselves. (p5)

It is as good an argument for learning history as any – a great way to broaden perceptions and perspectives.

As might be expected, the book covers all aspects of 14th C. life – which means that the church features a great deal – for good and ill. Mediaeval society was divided into 3 so-called ‘Estates’ – ‘those that fight’ (the aristocracy), ‘those that pray’ (the church) and ‘those that work’ (the peasants) (p38f). Contra many atheistic apologists today, there were many, profound and valued benefits to society as a result of the church. And the book doesn’t skimp on these. However, these less than savoury or positive illustrations did rather stand out.

How bishops argued and profited

The contradictions of the age were many – the age of courtly love and chivalry was simultaneously a violent and brutal age. Here was one striking insight about punishment:

In the modern world we understand that the greater the severity of a crime, the longer the punishment should be. In the medieval world the worse the crime, the more extreme the nature of the punishment (p60).

Does this help to explain the following rather charming episode? Perhaps. But does it necessarily excuse it…?

One one occasion in 1384, after the bishop of Exeter has refused to let the archbishop of Canterbury visit his diocese, three of his household esquires force the archbishop’s messenger to eat the wax seal of the letter he is carrying. Several members of the archbishop’s household exacted revenge by seizing one of the bishop’s men and making him eat his own shoes. It is not exactly behaviour appropriate for the servants of the highest-ranking clergy in the realm. (Time Traveller’s Guide, p61)

I suspect contemporary ecclesiastical disputes would be sorted out far quicker if there was the ever-present threat of some shoe-ingestion…

Then there was the rather inconsistent compromises, or even corruption, of senior clerics to take into account. Take this illustration from the ‘stews’ or public baths south of the Thames, notorious for the ‘services’ available there. [I’ve always had my suspicions about Southwark, or anywhere south of the river for that matter… now I can begin to see why]:

Contrary to what you might expect, there is little or no stigma attached to those who frequent the stews; there are few sexually contracted diseases and the marriage vows only require the fidelity of the female partners; the man may do as he pleases. Some clergymen rail against such immorality, of course; but few directly allude to Southwark. Most of the bath houses are rented from the bishop of Winchester. (p21)

Well, I never! William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester (picture above), had been someone I was taught to revere, having been founder of my old Oxford college. So it seems that the foundation was built on the proceeds of the Southwark stews!). How disappointing…

The legal and artistic legacy

For all the alienness of this world, there are many aspects that survive into the present day. Here is one brief survey of the legal legacy of the era

But a few Acts are of vital importance. For example, there are officially two races – the English and the Normans – until this law of ‘Englishry’ is repealed in 1340. The Act of 1362 which enables to plead in court in English is a similar milestone in the history of the nation. Some important Acts are still in force in the modern world. The main clauses of the Treason Act of 1351, by which Edward III establishes exactly what constitutes ‘high treason’, are still on the statute books. One can saw the same for Acts forbidding men to come to parliament armed, and the Act of 1383 forbidding maintenance (where lords protect their criminal retainers). Also still in force in the modern world are an Act of 1331 making it illegal to arrest someone contrary to the terms of Magna Carta, and an Act of 1381 making it treasonable to begin a riot (passed in the wake of the Peasants Revolt). Interestingly, an Act of 1354 is also still in force, making it illegal for a man to be deprived of his lands or property, or executed, without first having had the chance to answer the accusations against him in court. Sadly, recourse to this law is normally made posthumously, when an heir is trying to clear his executed father’s name and reclaim his inheritance. (p234)

And then take the scientific contributions of Roger Bacon (right)– though I fear the terms with which he’s introduced are not as nuanced as James Hannam is in his excellent God’s Philosophers

There are rationalists and scientists in medieval society but you will find their writings even more outlandish than the prophecies. The most extraordinary and famous example of this is a passage in the works of the great thirteenth-century scientist and philosopher, Roger Bacon. In a text in which he tries to show how so many supposedly magical things are really quite normal, he writes:

Ships may be made to move without oars or rowers, so that large vessels might be driven on the sea or on a river by a single man, and more swiftly than if they were strongly manned. Chariots can be built which can move without any draught animal at incalculable speed. Flying machines might be made in the middle of which a man might sit, turning a certain mechanism whereby artfully built wings might beat the air, in the manner of a bird in flight. Another instrument could be made which, although small, will lift or lower weights of almost infinite greatness… Again, instruments might be made for walking in the sea, or in rivers, even to the very bottom, without bodily danger… And very many things of this sort might be made: bridges which cross rivers without pier or prop whatsoever, and unheard-of machines and engines.

It is not what you expect of a Franciscan friar living in superstitious medieval England. We might even wonder whether some other cranes, diving suits and suspension bridges. But think about this passage, as you pour scorn on the credulousness of the people. It is from the same belief that anything is possible that the greatest discoveries are made. “What others strive to see dimly and blindly, like bats in twilight, he gazes in the full light of day, because he is a master of experiment”, says Bacon, praising a contemporary. The same could be said of Bacon himself: when anything is possible, experiment is essential. As for his flying machine and diving suit – if Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings come to mind, it is not surprising. Roger Bacon’s name appears in Leonardo’s notebooks. (p76)

All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable romp. I could have done without some of the more exhaustive lists of household contents, for instance. But the quality and expectations of mediaeval life are clearly realised – and this is as close to a time-machine any of us will ever get. Who could forget the descriptions of the utter misery and filth of sea-travel, mediaeval medicine or the reality of judicial insecurities?

So, for all my immersion into and fascination with the 14th Century, it made me thoroughly pleased to live in the 21st Century!

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Edward Ockham

    I read this book last year & thoroughly recommend it for all the reasons you have given. (And I even liked the list of household contents). The stuff about sea travel was disgustingly entertaining.

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