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A Review of “The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England” by I. Mortimer
“The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England”, or a “Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century”, as the author chooses co call it, is a superb blend of a profound history book and an all-embracing guide to the past of England. It also reveals the writer’s smooth and easy-to-follow, easy-to-perceive literary and scientific manner of setting down whatever he has on his mind. And on his mind he has a lot to say, much of which, however, is left outside the confines of the book. The “guide” consists of eleven sections organized, laid out, entitled and elaborated on in a traveller-friendly way, although after reading it to the very last page you, in all probability, would opt for staying where you belong – in the 21st century. At least this was my firm resolution when the sections on “Health and Hygiene” and “The Law” were left behind. Starting as a real draw and zooming in on the magnificent, awe-inspiring cathedral that dwarfs everyone and everything in sight, it proceeds to impress on you the practicalities of medieval life, the very existence of which is nothing short of a miracle, given the conditions of water conduits, the sewage, the cesspits surrounding the city and the compelling names of some streets that seem to reflect their general purpose for existence. Take, for instance, “Shitbrook”, it is not hard to guess what kind of stuff was dumped there on a daily basis and what unavoidable physical acts were performed there with the selfsame regularity. In Exeter, which is the very first city I. Mortimer sets out to describe, tubs of putrid water seem to accompany every dwelling in every street. These tubs were, more often than not, misused: meant to be reservoirs of rain water, they were also filled with the end products of the gastro-intestinal movement.
Most of the reviews and critiques of “The Time Traveller’s Guide…” are favourable, and highlight the author’s literary and scholastic merit. Here are some of them:
“After The Canterbury Tales this has to be the most entertaining book ever written about the middle ages” [ The Guardian Review Section, p. 9, Saturday 18 April, 2009 by Sue Arnold].
“What I love most about this book is the way it’s written, as if you really were travelling back in time to the medieval period, with chapter headings like What to Wear, What to Eat and Drink, and most delightfully, What to Do <…> He offers plenty of insight and advise to those wishing to experience the bucolic delights of the medieval countryside <….> Social history at its best, well-written, often amusing, and yet backed with a great deal of research. If you’re writing about the medieval period, and medieval England in particular, I highly recommend this book” [ Magical Musings, November 7th, 2009 by Michelle Diener].
“Mortimer addresses every aspect of medieval life, from the mundane to the bizarre <…> Travel guides are designed to deliver helpful information about faraway places, but this one gets to the heart of a different time zone” [ The Washington Post, Sunday, February 14, 2010 by Aaron Leitko].
The review by Tom Holland, however, is more reserved in its praise, and points out some demerits of the work, among which are the inadequate distribution of the pertinent material, undue emphasis on the negative and some physiological aspects of Middle Ages Britons: “The result is a book that, like his biography of Henry IV, fascinates and frustrates in equal measure. By far the best sections are those in which Mortimer stays truest to his conceit, and writes as though his ideal readers really are time-travellers, peeping out through the doors of their Tardis at a world which unsettlingly mixes the familiar and the bizarre. He has a novelist's eye for detail, and his portrait of an England in which sheep are the size of dogs, 30-year-old women are regarded as so much "winter forage", and green vegetables widely held to be poisonous has something of the hallucinatory quality of science-fiction <…> if you have ever wanted a detailed survey of the lavatory facilities available in medieval England, from cushioned garderobe seats to village middens, then this is undoubtedly the book for you <…> What he does lack, perhaps, is the courage of his convictions” [Telegraph. co. uk. Wednesday, 11 Oct 2008 by Tom Holland].