121. The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England (Ian Mortimer)

Sunday, July 17, 2011
For a lot of folks out there, history is boring.  They flash back to days spent trying not to fall asleep in class while teachers and professors drone on and on about various political events involving people long since dead.  Ian Mortimer has set out to change your attitude towards history in The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England (A Handook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century).  Mortimer wants to make history accessible, entertaining, enjoyable.  Heck, if one of the book jacket's reviews are to be believed, The Time Traveller's Guide is "Monty Python and the Holy Grail with footnotes" (Kathryn Hughes, The Guardian).

Imagine yourself on an open top tour bus, bumping and jostling along a dirt road, little more than two ruts cutting through an open field, heading towards a medieval village.  Mr. Mortimer acts as tour guide for you and your fellow first time travellers, providing you with a glimpse into the word of medieval England without having to get off the bus and wade through the muck and mire.  Covering everything from clothing to cooking, hygiene to housekeeping, commerce and trade to armour and blades, you're exposed to all those little details of everyday life in the fourteenth century that your 8th grade teacher didn't bother to share.  Mortimer provides enough information on each topic to pique the readers interest without becoming boring or overwhelming but I found myself craving more. 

While The Time Traveller's Guide is informative, its not 100% successful.  After finishing, I certainly felt like I could have been dropped into the fourteenth century and held my own for a few hours before I was labelled a witch and hanged.  However, I didn't find it as entertaining as Ms. Hughes apparently did.  It was certainly no Holy Grail.  Silly English knnnnn-iggits.  Mortimer's book would have a wider appeal if he had made it a bit more personal and taken on the role of tour guide and tried to be more interactive with the reader.  He begins many chapters well, you can imagine him at the front of your bus, microphone in hand.  You're almost anticipating the corny jokes and secret stories great tour guides provide their audiences with.  However, that quickly turns into a simple history lesson (albeit more interesting than most you've had in the past) and he loses the fun factor.

Having said that, I really enjoyed The Time Traveller's Guide.  Mortimer answered many of the questions I've been plagued with:  what sort of undergarments did people wear; what makes up a typical meal; what were their attitudes about cleanliness and hygeine; how do you greet one another; what was the fourteenth idea of good entertainment?  And he doesn't just focus on one class - he explores the differences between the nobility, the merchants and trades people, and the average joe.  How many of you know what a villien is?

Definately a recommended read for history fans out there. Just don't expect anything even remotely Monty Python-esque.


nbrsspot.blogspot.com said...

HI karen, I was reading your review and wondering it would be a good book for home schooling in the history area.

Karen said...

Hi Tweetey, I'm not sure - not familiar with standards/requirements for home schooling. However, the book is really well researched and includes notes and a bibliography if anyone wants further info on any particular topic. I'd recommend checking it out from your local library and seeing if its something you could use.

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