Book Reviews · Non-fiction

The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England

If I were to choose a favorite topic for my non-fiction reading, I would have a really hard time deciding between history and anthropology. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I find history fascinating, and I love learning about the societies and cultures of the past. My most recent non-fiction read was a great blend of these two things…

The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century may sound like the title of a science fiction novel, but it’s actually a non-fiction book, written by historian Ian Mortimer.

The book takes the reader on a trip into the past, giving you the opportunity to explore England’s history as if it were currently happening around you. In addition to discussing the landscape and people, Mortimer gives the reader a chance to familiarize themselves with the behaviors and manners common to the 1300s, the evolution of medieval clothing (among people from all walks of life), the realities and perils of traveling, food and drink, health and wellness, and the types of entertainment available.

I’ve been interested in the Middle Ages ever since I was a kid, so I really enjoyed having the chance to read The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England.

But while I found the content of this book fascinating, I think what I like most about it is Mortimer’s approach to history. As he says in the final chapter, “History is not just about the analysis of evidence, unrolling vellum documents or answering exam questions. It is not about judging the dead. It is about understanding the meaning of the past — to realize the whole evolving human story over centuries, not just our own lifetimes” (Mortimer 292). I think this is a fantastic way of looking at history!

Mortimer does a great job of making history come alive in this book. There were many points where I found it very easy to imagine what it would actually be like to walk through the streets of a medieval city, and even a few occasions where I found myself laughing out loud at some of the more humorous aspects of 14th Century life. I’ve definitely decided that life in the Middle Ages is not for me, but it was fun to read about.

I do think it is important to mention that The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England does include frank discussions about topics that may be uncomfortable for some readers. Mortimer does not shy away from presenting the realities of life in 14th Century England, no matter how unsavory they might seem to an individual from the 21st Century. Some of these realities include: the inequality of men and women (including issues of domestic violence/abuse and rape), class inequality, commonly held beliefs about the world (and the people) outside of England, medical practices and sanitation, warfare, and the (sometimes gruesome) consequences of breaking the law.

But while some of these topics are difficult to read about, I applaud Mortimer for not trying to “sanitize” history. I think it’s important for us to understand what really happened in the past, in order to learn from it in the present.

In all honesty, this is probably not a book that you’re going to sit down and read in a single afternoon. There is a ton of information included in The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England, and it does take quite a while to absorb. Personally, it took me a little over three weeks to read the book from cover-to-cover.

If you are interested in the Middle Ages, or a fan of interesting non-fiction, I highly recommend taking the time to read The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England. It’s a great overview of England’s history during the 14th Century, which focuses on understanding medieval English society, rather than outlining specific historical events. If you do have the opportunity to read this book, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

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