What would happen if we twenty-first century people took a trip back in time to the fourteenth century? It would be very like visiting another country. Even our landscape would be greatly changed. Ian Mortimer takes this approach and, applying his theory of living history, treats his readers to an objective and entertaining view of one of the most stereotypical centuries in medieval history. The fourteenth century has not only castles, knights, tournaments, and wars, but also gave birth to many of the creative minds associated with medieval England like Chaucer and the Gawain-poet.
Living history is a fascinating idea. Instead of applying modern stereotypes to medieval practices, Mortimer attempts instead to understand them on their own terms. For example, a popular perception is that medieval people were dirty. In comparison to us, they were; most people did not bathe on a daily basis, nor did they have detergents and disinfectants to clean their houses or clothes with. From a medieval perspective, however, women spent hours working to clean their homes, clearing rushes from the floor, scouring pots and pans, and laundering clothes with a variety of harsh soaps. Men and women washed their hands and faces daily and even started to use perfumes. They ate politely, especially in the presence of their social betters. To them, that was cleanliness. There were, of course, smelly or messy people, but there are smelly and messy people now too.
Mortimer’s book is divided into eleven chapters, covering such topics as the landscape, the medieval character, health and hygiene, and the law. He uses examples to illustrate his points, such as a genuine medieval gang that evaded the law or examples of a few women who broke out of the status quo and became unusually wealthy and powerful. Queen Isabella is the second richest person in the century; quite remarkable when women were regarded as property of their husbands and fathers. He also attempts to convey the tragedy of the plague; while other historians may evaluate it for its effect on history, which was largely beneficial, Mortimer shows us how it was anything but that to the third to half of the population that died from it and their relatives, who watched them die and mourned for them. Mortimer even imagines a few conversations that travellers might have, for example, when bartering for food.
My favorite section, however, was the chapter on clothing. Using illuminated manuscripts and tapestries, Mortimer shows how the style of dress changed drastically from the beginning of the century to the end. Clothing more than anything enables me to visualize the people described in the book and, in my experience, is rarely mentioned in detail in schools or museums as few examples survive. I loved learning how the invention of the button changed clothing styles and how people moved gradually towards more provocative styles, which were of course disapproved of by clergy and the elderly.
This is certainly history worth reading. It’s not heavy at all and is a perfect read for the non-academic who wishes to learn a lot more about the Middle Ages but doesn’t have the patience for a more serious, longer study.
I loved this book so much that I’m going to be discussing it on That’s How I Blog with the wonderful Nicole on June 8th at 4 pm EST. Do you want a copy of your own to discuss with me? Thanks to Simon & Schuster, I have 3 copies to give away to anyone with a valid US mailing address. To enter, just leave a comment on this review. This contest will be open until February 8th. The winners are commenters 3, 6, and 32 thanks to random.org. Congratulations to Lindymc, The Kool-Aid Mom, and Alyce!
This review was originally posted at The Book Bag and I’d like to thank them for my review copy.