Book Review: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England

It has been a while since we explored a non-fiction title in this space. I originally picked up The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England as research for my second manuscript. I had no intention of reviewing it for the blog. As I progressed through the pages, I found a surprisingly entertaining story that captured my imagination and deserves a place on the blogosphere. 

Anytime you’re talking about an academic subject, you want to know that the author knows their stuff. Ian Mortimer holds a fistfull of degrees in history from the Universities of Exeter and London, is a “Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, and was awarded the Alexander Prize by the Royal Historical Society in 2004” (source)

The Basics:

Title: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England
Author: Ian Mortimer
Genre: Non-fiction, history, education, 
Publisher: Bodley Head (Random House), 2008

Spoiler-Free Summary: 

The main character of The Time Traveler’s Guide… is you. Yep, you. Unlike another title we discussed recently, this book doesn’t abuse you. Rather, it takes you on a tour of iconic medieval English cities, immersing you in vibrant, sensory details of everyday life. The Guide highlights the sparks-of-life you don’t run across in your typical pseudo-historical fantasy work of fiction. 

Photo by Julia Volk on Pexels.com

The topics range widely, from high affairs of religion, government, and commerce, to the everyday details of how common people (who would never have referred to themselves as peasants, interestingly enough) made their living and interacted with their families. I personally found I held many unexamined assumptions gleaned from pop culture and public education that do not hold up against the research. 

For example, before widespread buttons and fasteners, all garments were pull-overs. Jackets, modern shirts, dresses, even pants don’t come along until nearly the end of the period. Before modern selective breeding, livestock would have been much smaller that their modern counterparts we are used to. All English citizens saw themselves as members of one of three broad castes, ordained by God – those who pray, those who fight, and those who work. Towards the end of the 14th century, the evolving economy begins to challenge this framework. These are just a few of the snippets that leap to my mind as I write this – the guide contains far more than can be adequately captured in a 500-word blog post. 

Why You’ll Love This Book:

The Time Traveler’s Guide manages to present a ton of information in a light, digestible format. There are many similar books out there that read more like a textbook or an encyclopedia. The Guide reads like a conversation with a local. I personally found it a breezy and enjoyable way to prepare myself for writing my next historical fantasy. If you are or know a writer, I recommend giving the Time Traveler’s Guide a once-over. 

Basically, it’s The Magic School Bus. But, you know, for adults.

Where Can You Find More? 

If you’re not writing a medieval or pseudo-medieval setting, or your interests lie elsewhere, you can check out the author’s other titles on Elizabethan, Restoration, or Regency England. Publisher’s Weekly houses a nice list of reviews from Mortimer’s Bibliography. 

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