First of all, to be clear, I’m reviewing two titles together here: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century, and The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England, both by UK historian Ian Mortimer. The former title was released a few years ago and focuses on the 14th Century, the latter just a few weeks back (at least here in the US) and covers the period ranging from Elizabeth’s accession to the throne in 1558 to her death in 1603. When I received a copy of the Elizabethan volume for review, I decided to find a copy of the Medieval volume and read it too, because they follow a similar pattern and, well, why not, right?
The conceit behind these two books is simple: you’re a time traveler from our time, and you’ve just landed in the past. What now? How do you get around? What do you eat? What does the average home look like? The average inn or abbey or street? How can you expect to be treated by people? What if you’re the victim of a crime? How should you behave, so as not to offend the locals? What if you get ill or hurt? And so on.
The two books follow a similar, if not identical, structure: they’re divided into roughly a dozen chapters each, covering such topics as “The Landscape”, “The People”, “Religion”, “What to Wear”, “Where to Stay”, “What to Eat and Drink” and so on. Each of these chapters goes into considerable detail: e.g. the chapter on accommodations will describe in detail what to expect and how to introduce yourself in the average inn, as well as the reception you may expect in townhouses, the castles and manor houses of the rich and powerful, and religious establishments. (Sample from that last example: “Unless you have a particular craving for straw mattresses with torn sheets, rye bread, watery ale, and a pungent leper in the next bed, it is worth considering staying elsewhere.”)
These two volumes appear to be well-researched (to my layman’s eyes at least) and provide multiple possibilities for further research through extensive notes and bibliographies. Sure, this is popular history that barely skims the surface of many topics that you can find entire tomes on, but for the average novice (like myself), and especially fans of the vaguely Medieval-oid fantasy that’s so often set in an analogue of the period covered by the first volume, there are many interesting facts to be picked up here.
Mortimer is at his best when he writes about life of the common person in these two ages. You can find plenty of other books about the religious controversies of 16th Century England or the historical importance of Elizabeth. A vivid, in-depth look at what those broader patterns meant for the average laborer or merchant is harder to find. Mortimer offers a cross-section of society in both books: from the very top of the ruling classes all the way down to indentured servants, villeins and paupers. How does justice work for each of those? How aware are they of what’s happening in the broader world? What are table manners like? What do people eat, for that matter? What would they have in common with you, and on which points might you as well be an alien, so different is your outlook on life?
I have two main complaints about these books. The first one is that, in my opinion, Ian Mortimer could have pushed the format further. The titles seem to suggest a true travel guide (like the wonderful The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones), but instead very many sections in both books sound more like your average History 101 textbook than a guide for a fictional time traveler. It’s not that these sections aren’t insightful or relevant, but more that they just don’t fit in with the general framework of a present day person landing in these historical periods. In those sections, the books’ titles may as well have been something like “A Look at the Life of a Common Person in Elizabethan England”. Even the crutch Mortimer uses to keep the time travel conceit somewhat going (the second person narration: “You will find yourself in a well-lit hall…”) frequently disappears to make way for fairly straightforward academic writing. It would have been nice to see a larger dash of fiction and humor added to all this research: imagine if talented fiction author with a good sense of humor could have co-written these books and really bring them to life. Imagine if the time traveler had been presented as an actual character, and rather than a succession of topics, the book was a true narrative. It might have been hard to maintain the same scope Mortimer achieves here, but the end result could have been wonderful.
A second complaint, somewhat connected to the first, is Ian Mortimer’s occasional tendency to go into staggering detail about certain aspects of life. There are a few eye-wateringly dull paragraphs about topics like which varieties of grains were most commonly grown in each county. There are a few inventory lists (e.g. of what household items may be found in a typical house). All of these serve the general goal of depicting life as it was then, and most of the time Mortimer gets it right, but occasionally the level of detail is overwhelming (not to mention that it further destroys the conceit that this book is a faux travel guide.)
Still, despite these minor quibbles, these books offer an interesting perspective on two crucial periods in England’s history. Some chapters are more successful than others: I will never understand why Mortimer decided, in both cases, with an analysis of the landscape, which in both books results in the one chapter that has the least human interest having been positioned right at the very start of the book. Compare these chapters to the ones about medical care in the 14th Century and during Elizabeth’s reign, and you can see the two extremes: from overly detailed and not very exciting academic prose to direct, surprising and immersive writing on a topic everyone can relate to–if maybe not without shuddering at what passed for medical science at the time.
In the end, I recommend The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England and The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England if you’re interested in getting a detailed, often lively look at two historical periods that form the basis for so much fantasy fiction. While these two books aren’t perfect, at their best they do manage to inject some welcome life and humor into history.
Note: I realize this is not the type of reading material I usually review here. I don’t even have a non-fiction category set up for the site. However, as someone with a basic and somewhat indiscriminating interest in history, these two books jumped out at me. I’m the kind of person who’ll lose half a day researching the the Tang Dynasty if sufficiently moved to do so by the fiction I usually read. (Guy Gavriel Kay, in this instance, obviously). I’ve also more recently been digging into historical fiction novels and even reviewing a few. Far Beyond Reality’s main focus will continue to be science fiction and fantasy, but in this case, I thought there might a section of my readers who’d be interested in books like these. I don’t consider myself the best person to review them, not being a historian in any way, but on the other hand – I guess you could argue that this type of popular history is aimed exactly at people who have nothing more than a broad interest in history.