by Ian Mortimer

I was intrigued by the title of Ian Mortimer’s 2008 history: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century. Earlier this year, I read—and thoroughly enjoyed—Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book (1992), science fiction that bounces between the mid-twenty-first century and the fourteenth century. Mortimer’s book provided an ideal continuation of the theme.

The “travel handbook” format is evident in chapters on where to stay, what to wear, and how to get from one place to another in England during the 1300s. While most works of history focus on the stories of “great” individuals, Mortimer provides insights into all levels of society, from the wealthiest noble to the lowliest gongfermour (someone whose job was to remove excrement from cesspits and privies).

In theory, there were just three estates in medieval times—those who fought (the aristocracy), those who prayed (the religious), and those who worked (the peasants)—but there were hierarchies within each estate, blurred lines between those groups, and emerging categories, such as wealthy merchants, who no longer fit neatly into an ordering of society that was gradually fading away. Mortimer points out that “when you trot into a village on your palfrey, and see one villager’s wife leaning over a wall talking to another, and think to yourself how harmonious everything seems to be, just reflect that there are many inequalities, tensions and fears which you cannot see.”

Not surprisingly, women had the worst lot: rampant sexual prejudice and abuse; status as the property of a father or a husband; enormous risk of death in child-bearing (“one-in-ten chance of dying over the course of having five children”). Some women found a way to thrive: “the lot of a woman in medieval England depends very much on her luck in the marriage stakes.”

On what to eat and drink, Mortimer notes: “The modern traveler, coming from an age of good food guides and supermarkets, is liable to forget that people in medieval England still starve to death.” Cycles of failed harvests, storms that flood fields and cause illness in cattle, sieges of towns such that no food is allowed in: all wreak havoc on food supplies.

The book offers lavish details about what the traveler could expect in times of plenty, depending on the “rhythms of food” (time of day, seasons, church rules), the status of the host, and whether situated in town or country. Bread is the staple for peasants, meagerly supplemented by vegetables grown in their own small gardens; meat is a rarity. The nobility, on the other hand, feast daily on five courses at dinner (the main, mid-day meal): boiled, stewed, and roasted meat, game, and fowl served with spiced sauces; and all manner of fish and shellfish on the Church’s non-meat days (almost 200 days of the year). The poor drink a rough ale; the rich enjoy imported wine.

Turning to health and hygiene, Mortimer reminds the reader: “If you are ever asked whether you would rather live in a past century, you would be wise to consider the problem of ill health before answering.” Divine judgement, astrology, numerology, the four humors (yellow bile, phlegm, black bile and blood) were understood to cause illness; physicians’ methods included letting blood according to the stages of the lunar cycle, assigning a numerical value to each letter in a patient’s name and subtracting thirty to determine a prognosis, and tasting the patient’s blood.

The 1300s were notorious as the century of the Black Death, which at the time was called the Great Plague:

When you are there in 1348, and have been relieved of any complacent assumptions that anyone will survive this hideous calamity, and have come face to face with the very real prospect that it will annihilate the whole of humanity, and that God has deserted Mankind, then you will start to realise how destructive the plague is.

Yet there was also joy in the fourteenth century, which was vibrant with music, games, fashion, creativity, and curiosity. The cruel sport of jousting flourished, but so did the mystery and morality plays. Most notably, it produced a “true genius of the English language,” Geoffrey Chaucer—“able to win hearts and entertain minds” with his stories, characters, and insights into the full scope of human ambitions and failings.

For Mortimer, “time traveling” is not so much a gimmick as a way to champion living history: to understand medieval England as a living community, a place in time, instead of as dead and buried. “History is not just about the analysis of evidence, unrolling vellum documents or answering exam papers. It is not about judging the dead. It is about understanding the meaning of the past – to realise the whole evolving human story over centuries, not just our own lifetimes.”

This kind of time traveling—understanding a time and a place as it was lived by other humans—can help us understand who we are today, and how we got here, for better or worse.