Lonely Planet, eat your heart out.

Lonely Planet, eat your heart out.

“It is the cathedral that you will see first.”

While travel or travel writing may be something I never really got into, I have recently found myself to be something of a history geek. This is partly due to a strong interest in the Royal Family, the kids TV show Horrible Histories (which was one of the best shows of the last ten years) and my friend Claire, who has taken the Tudor period and made it her own, demolishing any book, show or film about the time.

Following her lead, I have decided to find a time period that I can become obsessed with myself, and so that quest begins here. So, fuel up the DeLorean, calibrate the TARDIS, or get spinning that Time Turner. We’re off to the 1300s.

Unlike other history books, The Time Traveller’s Guide doesn’t focus too much on figures and statistics. Mortimer takes the brilliant option of making us believe that the medieval people are alive. He argues, quite rightly, that once we start thinking about history as happening rather than having happened, it comes alive in a very different way. These are actual people. I’ve always had that issue with history. We lump people together and refer to millions as “the Romans” or “the Stuarts” and make generalisations about them, forgetting that they are, or were, us. That’s particularly true given that for you to be here today, your ancestors were there at the time. Once you start looking at people in history as individuals, it becomes much more personal.

The book is written like a travel guide. Mortimer doesn’t waste time in explaining how you’ve ended up in medieval England, he just explains what to do while you’re there. Cities and towns come alive as he describes what you would see, hear and smell, what the people look like, and what they may be thinking. He explains about the landscape and the people (who are mostly young, and few and far between once out of the towns), explains how to greet strangers, how to tell the time, and how to use the money. He gives suggestions on where to stay and how to travel safely, as well as what to wear and how to avoid the iron fist of the law. And, when you’ve settled in, there’s also a chapter on how to amuse yourself with bawdy taverns and falconry.

Mortimer does well to dispel many myths about the medieval era, removing the idea that people are dirty and all poor. Certainly, the Great Plague is rife throughout this century, and there are some workers who don’t feel it necessary to clean themselves, but there are also houseproud women who scrub their houses and linen daily. In medieval times, it is believed that bad smells spread disease, and body odour is linked to being a sinner, so it becomes vitally important to be clean, particularly in the small communities where everyone knows everyone else.

The book looks at everyone from the servants and villeins, to the kings and noblemen of the land. Even among the peasantry, there is much variation, from the poorest farmers to rich merchants who sell imported spices and silks. Everyone gets a look in here, and the way things were done is sometimes shocking and surprising. Yes, waste both animal and human is dumped into the local river, but people also wash their hands before and after every meal, and everyone drinks ale and wine. This seems excessive, but remember that the water is filthy – a weak ale makes a good substitute!

This is a great book for anyone planning a jaunt into the 1300s and should save you from any faux pas you may commit while there. Just keep your eyes on the king, go to church every Sunday, and keep your face clean, lest you be mistaken for a leper or worse, a criminal, which may mean you’re strung up in the street as an example to everyone else.

Clever, interesting and a really good way of bringing history to life.

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