Sunday, March 11, 2012

Ian Mortimer's "The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England": Book Review

"It is not unusual to wake up in the middle of the night to the barking of dogs, the snoring of travelers in your chamber, and the unmistakable sounds of someone urinating or drunkenly vomiting from the stairs or gallery down into the yard." This sounds like a scene from a frathouse comedy, but it's Ian Mortimer conjuring up a stay at an inn, six hundred years ago.

"If an unchanging diet of boiled bacon, rye bread, and peas does not appeal, then consider yourself lucky not to be stuck in a house in which the bacon has not gone rancid, the flour has been eaten by rats, and the peas have become damp and rotted." So goes the summation of faring in the winter, when few tasty items can be imported or preserved. Mortimer, as in compelling chapters on the hazards of sea voyages, the predicament of hazarding roads, or making one's mucky way through darkened alleys, makes the smells and scenes come alive vividly. He gleans the best of what chroniclers and accountants have compiled, and as a trained medieval historian, he incorporates sources with diligence and an eye for the telling, vivid detail. He translates scholarship into a lively narrative.

With my own doctorate in medieval literature, I came to this curious how it'd inform me. I confess it taught me a lot. While the initial conceit of a Rough Guide for one transported back in time is not as sustained after a brisk start as I'd expected. No maps makes a lamentable lack, and while period illustrations are chosen well, they are in two middle color inserts. The publisher could have included maps and more b/w illustrations and charts; this would have improved the value. Still, while the chapters may veer about in tone and topic, the compilation of so much information and data rendered into richly described word pictures carries its own charm and its own compelling interest for those of us who are armchair visitors to the time of Chaucer, Piers Plowman, and the Black Plague.

There's fresh insight, as when Mortimer explains the Catch-22 of rape, pregnancy, and orgasm as (mis-)understood when applying Galen's ancient conceptions of the female sexual response to medieval legal interpretation and application, or when Mortimer accounts for why it was a good idea for any man never to leave one's house unarmed. He re-creates the rawness of the era, and how elusive were its refinements for many, although in a far less crowded landscape, perhaps even the poor could take in more beauty and certainly more quiet, as market towns held but a few thousand.

Movingly and compellingly, the few pages given over to the plague make the strongest impression. Mortimer asks us to imagine a child kissed to sleep one night, and then the next coughing up blood. The suddenness of death comes across vividly. He estimates about half of those living between 1330 and 1400 died of the plagues that ravaged England in waves, not only the Black Plague mid-century.

The chapter on law shows another strength. It's the clearest description I have found in a popular account of medieval legislation, justice, and how the laws were enforced or broken in the absence of a permanent police force, reliant more on tithe-men called to gather miscreants to bring to sheriffs, and the local pressures and corruption that ensued when justice was carried out in a place where few could go unnoticed. Mortimer stresses the unpredictability of life and death well throughout. The author sustains respect for those six hundred years ago, and reminds us how they were not as different from our own uneasy, uncertain selves as we may imagine. He lets us know what they saw, did, and, to a limited degree given the century's extant data and literacy, wrote and thought.

This closes with a poignant summary of the little left to us from what stories people told. John Gower, the Gawain poet, Piers Plowman, and especially Chaucer gain brief but adroit notice. Rightly, Mortimer concludes by urging us back to read Chaucer, and not only chronicles and roll-books but literature enlivens the contexts Mortimer presents to us efficiently and affectionately. (Amazon US 3-8-12)

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