The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England
If I were going to write a novel set in medieval England, this book would be my bible. Mortimer packs an amazing amount of information into 340 pages (enhanced by sixteen full color plates). While he covers all the areas we expect in a “daily life” book, he goes well beyond them. He lays bare the social structure (far more complex than the idealized Three Estates), demographics (the median age was only twenty-one), mentalities—such things as sense of humor, attitudes towards women, violence, and credulity. The author’s tone throughout is genial: he addresses the reader—the putative time-traveler—as “you” (“You would be crazy to engage a fourteenth century man in combat and have a chance of surviving. Most of them are much stronger than you”). Mortimer’s focus is on the 14th century and, although this is the century that Barbara Tuchman in A Distant Mirror called “calamitous,” the picture that he paints is not absolutely bleak. These were men and women who, even in the face of plague, famine, and peasant revolt, could still sing and dance and compose some of the finest poetry in our language. In fact, much of what we know about the age comes from Chaucer. And anyone who is planning to read or re-read the Canterbury Tales could find no better companion than this wonderful book.