Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England – Ian Mortimer

28 August 2012
Introduction and Chapters 1-2
This is good fun. Maybe the history is sometimes too dense to make the reading easy – I was beginning to find it difficult to keep a handle on the hierarchies in every ‘estate’ of society some time before Mortimer had finished telling us about them – but, often, he really does seem to have taken you to a new place. Or an old place. In the short introduction he’s careful to remind us that ‘the very best evidence for what it was like to be alive in the fourteenth century is an awareness of what it is like to be alive in any age, and that includes today.’ Not that Mortimer keeps referring us back to our own age. He doesn’t, because there’s no need to. Aspects of behaviour, or snobbery, or the ways that women can hold their own in a man’s world (or whatever) all chime with things that we think we recognise, however strange the context.

We’re time travellers, and the context is England in the fourteenth century. Mortimer makes it real by making it feel as if it’s happening now. The continuous present is the tense of choice for a lot of historical fiction – Hilary Mantel’s ongoing Wolf Hall trilogy is a case in point – and Mortimer is explicit on the very first page about why he is going to use it himself. ‘As soon as you think of the past happening (as opposed to it having happened), a new way of conceiving history becomes possible.’ And he’s right.

Chapter 1, The Landscape, is about how England looks. He starts, as any travel writer would, with the most eye-boggling scene the 14th Century has to offer: a visitor’s first sight of a cathedral, surrounded by other buildings that are like tiny pebbles in a stream surrounding the great boulder of the church…. And it isn’t only the eyes that are boggled: before reaching the city walls, we’re passing over Shit Brook, the depository for all the city’s ordure, then assailed by the noise and bustle of street life. (A point that Mortimer makes later is that the street is where most of life takes place in towns and cities: there are no public buildings available for ordinary people.) The city he’s describing is Exeter, where he is based in the 21st Century, but it could be almost any of England’s 17 cathedral cities. There are dwellings, from the grand – and, increasingly during the century, stone-built – houses of the rich to the overcrowded, sub-let hovels and tenements of those at the other end of society. There are the inns that house the visitors who double or treble the population at any one time. There are shops – usually merchants’ and craftsmen’s houses with shutters that open to make a board for displaying goods below and a canopy above – and, in full view, people at work because the street is where their business is actually conducted. And so on.

Cities are tiny, no more than walled towns to the modern traveller, but there’s a lot packed in – even more when you consider that half the land is taken up with ecclesiastical buildings and their precincts and the enclosed land of the wealthy. Mortimer’s first table gives the populations of the major cities and towns – and only three have populations above 10,000, no more than large villages by modern standards. But the density, the streets and tiny alleys, the buildings of extraordinary diversity (and so on, and on) make them like no village we’ve ever seen. There’s a section on London – pop. 40,000, making it a world city – in which the life of government, royalty and the ordinary people is given in a series of vignettes. These include ‘Ten Places to See in London’, from the heavily built-up wonder that is London Bridge to the permanent gallows at Tyburn and the Southwark Stews. All human life.

Outside the cities – and I’ll try to be quick now – are towns, mainly based around a market so that most of the population is within six or eight miles of a place to buy and sell almost anything once a week. They have no enclosing walls, only the boundaries of people’s own land, and outside are the fields divided into strips as any English reader recognises from school history books. Villages, often series of widely-spaced settlements, are not what we would call pretty. The medieval aesthetic is pragmatic: everything in its place, everything designed and built for the most hard-nosed reasons. ‘Practicalities take precedence over beauty and thus become ideals, or things of beauty, in themselves.’ A church with an aisle lopped off to save maintenance after a massive decline in population is simply ‘better suited’ to local needs.

And there are local variations. Some parts of the country are prosperous, like East Anglia, so the locals can afford to build big churches and maintain their towns. Other parts, especially in the north and far west, tend to suffer when the plague strikes. Or, in the case of the far north, when the Scots strike. Existence there is hand-to-mouth, and Mortimer mentions one part of Cumberland that is practically uninhabited. Throughout the country, a thousand villages simply disappear back into the landscape.

Chapter 2, The People, is where we find out about those declines in population. They came in waves, most notably from the Black Death in 1348-9, so that there were only half as many people in England at the end of the 14th Century as there were at the beginning. Climate change didn’t help either: a fall of one degree Celsius over the century not only put paid to the wine-growing industry; crop failures led to famine and contributed to the disappearance of all those villages. Lords who had relied on bonded workers no longer could: a third or a half might die, and the others might seek better conditions elsewhere…. So the land changes, with arable land reverting to often vast, unenclosed sheep pasture – and the population becomes younger. To be a man in your twenties meant to be in your prime. A woman would expect to be married and producing children in her teens. You’re an old man by your late 40s – or an old woman long before that. Major political decisions are made by young men because there are few old ones to offer advice. There are some old men around – Mortimer names some – but life was on a fast burn for most.

I sometimes began to feel a little battered by the history in this chapter, as Mortimer describes the concept of the three ‘estates’ of mankind, using tables of information to explain the hierarchies. He has to explain the changing nature of relationships that had once seemed straightforward. These have been growing less rigid – and therefore increasingly tricky to understand – since the system began at the Conquest 300 years earlier, and some of the old relationships are becoming very creaky indeed. The ‘estates’ have always struck me as a massive con trick, and Mortimer seems not to disagree. Basically, the power and money reside with the first two estates: ‘those who fight’ and ‘those who pray’ – that is, the aristocrats and the clergy. The aristocratic hierarchy is something else that’s familiar from history lessons: a pyramid with the king at the top, with dukes, earls, barons and knights in the layers beneath. Generally, the income of dukes is greater than that of earls, and so on. The clergy are slightly different because there are various set-ups. Are you an archbishop, at the head of the ‘secular clergy’? A bishop? An abbot, high up in the ‘regular clergy’? A monk? A priest in charge of a parish? Power and influence, for both the aristocrats and the clergy, depend on a combination of where you are in the hierarchy, and how good you are at making the most of it. Mortimer has another table, to show the equivalence of status between the two estates, so dukes and archbishops are parallel, and so on.

The third estate, ‘those who work’, turns out to be as shot through by hierarchies as the other two put together. The English, it seems, have never been ones to iron out social differences at any level: in everyday life, an obsession with nuances of status is one of those things that make the people of the 14th Century seem utterly familiar. The most fundamental division is between those who are ‘freemen’ and those who aren’t, but that’s only the beginning. There’s a kind of middle class of esquires and gentlemen, a lower middle class of franklins and yeomen who own enough land to have it worked by others, and so on right down to the villeins or bondmen with no more rights than the African slaves of the colonial period centuries later. One telling detail is to do with marriage: if a widow does not re-marry quickly, and if the land is therefore in danger of becoming neglected, the lord can choose a new husband for her. She might be given only three weeks’ grace to find her own once notice has been served.

There’s a whole sub-section on women in all the estates. They had few rights in law, and ‘are blamed for all the physical, intellectual and moral weaknesses of society.’ This, of course, has its root in the interpretation of Genesis which finds that ‘woman was the ruin of Mankind’, as Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest has it. Of course he does. All a woman can do in 14th Century England is fight to hold her own, as many are able to do despite what Mortimer calls ‘profound’ prejudices. As well as ‘biblical, legal and intellectual’ prejudices, there is an ‘inadequate understanding of female sexuality’. This is putting it very mildly indeed. Not only is women’s need for sex seen as being at least as great as men’s, so that it is a man’s ‘duty’ to her to have sex as much as possible; she can only conceive if she has an orgasm. The implications for any woman who is raped are grim: if she is made pregnant she must have enjoyed it; if she isn’t pregnant it’s only her word against the man’s that she was raped at all. It’s like living in the USA under the Republicans. (I was reading this in the week following the furore over prospective Vice President Paul Ryan’s muddled statements on what is and isn’t rape.)

There had never been any real truth in the justice of the ‘estates’ system, and many were beginning to question it openly during the 14th Century. ‘Those who fight’ were being joined in the wars against Scotland and France by ‘those who work’: the longbow was the most effective weapon in Europe, and archers were all men from the lower orders. (In Morality Play, Barry Unsworth’s novel set at this time, this is the very argument some of the players have.) If the aristocrats aren’t protecting the workers, well, what’s the point of them? The Peasants’ Revolt is mentioned, and perhaps Mortimer will come back to that. Perhaps he’ll get on to the growing anti-clerical movements as well: ‘those who pray’ were seen by many as another waste of space, only in it for the money and power they could keep hold of.

2 September
Chapters 3-6
Does Mortimer ever recapture the vividness of the book’s extraordinary kick-start, that first arrival in a 14th Century city? Not really… but there are remarkable things in every section. Chapter 3 is ambitious: Mortimer wants to explain The Medieval Character. He starts it with a war crime: a lord and a detachment of soldiers, bored in a nunnery as they wait for a change in the wind, end up raping and pillaging, taking some of the nuns on board ship with them, then throwing them overboard when a storm hits. The extraordinary thing, for Mortimer, is that the story is believed by the chronicler who wrote it: it may be an extreme case, but this is what young men can be like. More than that: ‘a streak of violence runs through the whole population.’ You expect to have to protect yourself, accept everyday cruelties: to modern eyes the medieval character seems to be entirely brutalised. And when everyone is looking over their shoulder for the next possible assault, loyalty becomes almost tribal. The description of the enmity between rival lords’ retainers is straight out of Romeo and Juliet – a play deriving from a medieval story.

‘Sense of humour’ gets a section to itself. It isn’t pretty. Sarcasm, crude insults, practical jokes… Mortimer invites us to think of the Miller’s Tale by Chaucer, featuring a fall from the rafters and a red-hot poker up the arse. But then ‘The Warrior’s Love of Flowers’ describes violence and mawkish sentimentality sitting side by side. ‘Sympathy and piety’ are hugely valued – and if you suggest a man has neither of these, expect a fight. ‘Education’, for most, is entirely practical – but more people can read than you might expect. A lot of jobs depend on keeping good records and accounts, and at least 20% of men in cities can read. Mortimer enjoys springing these occasional surprises – as in the section called ‘Knowledge of the Wider World’. 14th Century people never went anywhere, right? Wrong. Bonded peasants didn’t, but for almost everyone else journeys to cities were often necessary – hence the shifting populations staying in the inns. Occasionally, as for verifying a will, the journeys could be from, say, York to Lambeth.

Beyond England you get your information from those travelling on state business, sailors on the many merchant ships – and, especially, soldiers. Just about everyone knows someone who has travelled abroad, or has heard first-hand stories from those who do. Even if there’s a vagueness about where places might be, at least you know they exist – but then Mortimer spends some time on tales of places beyond northern Europe. Occasional facts – there being races of dark-skinned people, or cannibals – are mixed with travellers’ tales that are no more than fairy stories. (We know about these: doesn’t Othello mention anthropophagi and men with faces in their chests?) Monks in their cloisters regularly describe far continents and peoples: it’s a good job that the medieval mind-set was fine with a total blurring of fact and fiction: ‘no one can tell one part from the other.’

Next: superstition. You won’t find a village without a story of the devil having paid a visit at some time, and practitioners of some kind of magic are neither uncommon nor, surprisingly, outlawed by the Church. Nobody bats an eyelid if there’s news of witches having been found… and so on. Most of this is fairly unsurprising; I found myself remembering how vivid Barry Unsworth makes it by comparison when the narrator of Morality Play sees one of the beasts of the Apocalypse coming towards him in the snow. It isn’t really, however sure he is at first: it’s a knight on horseback, the fluttering red silk of his decorations lending everything a hellish hue. But Mortimer has a historical trump card: the extraordinary predictions of Roger Bacon who appears to foresee the ships, cars and planes of the 20th Century: ‘Flying machines might be made….’

Chapter 4 is Basic Essentials, another rag-bag of assorted bits and pieces. Medieval biblical paintings show Christ and the disciples in 14th Century dress, because no one has any idea of change over time; French is spoken less and less as the century progresses (see Melvin Bragg’s The Adventure of English for a more detailed account of the transition to English); Dates are hard to understand, as the year is often the ‘regnal’ year dating from the current monarch’s accession – and the ‘new year’ is rarely counted from 1 January; the time of day is according to hours of daylight – until clocks begin to appear and time ‘of the clock’ is sometimes used; units of measurement are just as haphazard, especially – go figure – in Devon. A section called ‘Identity’ describes the increasing need for surnames as a thinning population meant that people moved around more and needed to be differentiated in new places. Before then, only the rich and status-conscious needed family names. Then we get ‘Manners and Politeness’, as dependent on the social hierarchies as you’d expect, ‘Greeting People’ – nothing surprising there – and ‘Shopping’. Basically, most things are available in market towns, but for rare and expensive items you’ll need a city. And caveat emptor: medieval shoppers expected to be cheated unless they had their wits about them.

‘Money’ is about the variety of coinage – mainly pennies and fractions of pennies – made in various mints and with new coins issued at the accession of kings and archbishops, and to mark new honours like ‘King of France’. It gets interesting with ‘Prices’. There is absolutely no way of equating 14th Century values with those of the 21st: food is unbelievably expensive compared to wages, so that a chicken would cost a day’s wages or more. Supply and demand operates on a much more localised level, and anything that needs to be transported is out of the reach of most people. Wages are low, often seasonal – there aren’t so many hours of daylight in winter, so wages fall – and if you can’t make it as a master craftsman you’re stuck on more or less the same level for life.

Chapter 5 is What to Wear, and I ended up skimming through it quickly. Basically, the long, loose-fitting and rather modest clothes of 1300 changed – more quickly than in any other century, apparently – into the tight, often revealing and ostentatious dress of 1400. Men’s tunics became ‘court-pieces’, short enough to reveal buttocks at the back and suggestive bulges at the front. (There is no etymological link with ‘codpieces’: I checked in the OED.) Their shoes became pointed to the point of being almost unwearable… and so on. Women’s clothes also became tighter around the upper body; their hairstyles became subject to changing fashions – and both men and women wore a lot of gold and jewellery. Clothes became a real badge of status and wealth – no surprise there, then – but the clothes of the lower classes, while being less extreme, still showed the marked change from loose to tight.

It’s no good, I just can’t seem to get interested.

Chapter 6 is better. It’s Travelling, and it contains some ideas that really do make you pause. You want to get from London to Chester? No worries. Except there are no maps or compasses and the roads are a mess. Mortimer tries to get us to imagine what it must be like to have no mental image of what England looks like, or the relative positions of towns and cities. People think in terms of general directions, and the sun and stars are useful for establishing these. Chester is in the north-west, so start off heading that way and ask when you get to such-and-such a place…. They think of the topography of counties not in terms of roads and towns but of major rivers. These can be a problem of course: there may or may not be bridges where you want them – it’s a good job that building and maintaining them is seen as a good work like endowing a church or other worthy institution – and tolls can be expensive. In fact, the whole process of travelling is expensive – horses, pack-horses, guides if needed, inns – and slow. Count on getting as far as a fit person could walk in a day – 15 or 20 miles – unless you’re the king or a messenger carrying urgent news.

And don’t expect comfort. Only the very rich have coaches, which cost as much as an ordinary man could earn in several lifetimes. People walk, or travel on horseback if they can afford it – Mortimer sets out the cost of horses and their tack – because anything else is slow and uncomfortable. Carts are made to carry specific goods – hay, coal or whatever – and carriages designed for passengers simply do not exist. When aristocrats get too old to ride, they go by litter – the seat supported by horses fore and aft – but these are far from comfortable. Once you’ve landed as a time-traveller, you might decide never to go anywhere by land at all.

But you can go by sea, right? Wrong. At least, you’ll have no better luck on the unsupervised sea than on England’s unsupervised roads. ‘Water Transport’, the final section of the chapter on travel, starts with a short section on how dangerous the waters are. Coastal erosion and shifting sea-beds (and sea-levels) mean that it’s hard for captains to sail any but the most familiar routes. There are practically no lighthouses, no maps, and no compasses. Astrolabes are only becoming relatively common by the end of the century. Piracy is commonplace, especially from enemy countries like Scotland and, later in the century, France. Any time-traveller is going to have to sign a hefty health and safety get-out clause in the travel contract.

Then Mortimer jogs through a quick history of ships which, at the start of the century, are hulks or cogs. Hulks have the ‘strakes’ – boards or planks – shaped to rise up out of the water at either end; cogs have a fixed stern-post, and can therefore have a stern rudder instead of steering oars. They seem crude compared to the fine ships of later centuries, because it’s only during the 14th that features from Genoese carracks start to be incorporated. In a merchant vessel, any superstructure is kept to a minimum, and even decks are not seen as important so long as the cargoes can be covered at sea.

Finally we get some entertaining descriptions of the miseries of sea travel. There are no ships designed to take passengers, and only lords and kings would have their own properly maintained quarters, often added especially for their voyage. For everybody else… guess. There is no sanitation, obviously, so there are piss-pots that can easily be knocked over in the night and seats overhanging the sides for voiding bowels. The latter are unsafe during bad weather, so people do what they can below deck. As Mortimer notes, you begin to understand why the stench is so awful down there.

10 September
Chapters 7-10
Chapter 7, Where to Stay, takes us beyond the half-way point… and it’s where I began to think that this might really be a book to browse rather than plough through. Mortimer takes us to the places where people live – expanding on the quick sketches in Chapter 1 – because a traveller is as likely to stay in a house as at an inn or monastic ‘hospital’. It becomes his opportunity to describe the interiors of all but the poorest houses, and he does it in that way of his, according to the uber-strict hierarchies of the time.

Inns are a hit-and-miss affair, and facilities are as basic as everything else in medieval England. The large room where you eat will probably be smelly from the detritus of previous meals, to say nothing of the cheap lighting from tallow candles and rush lights – both based on animal fats. Beds are in dormitories, and shared. Sanitation is… the usual. This may be better in the accommodation provided by monasteries and other religious institutions, but otherwise what they provide is very basic indeed: it is offered ‘for the fulfilment of a spiritual duty rather than the comfort of visitors.’

So, if you can, you’ll stay in someone’s house…. And this is where we get long descriptions of the set-up in every kind of dwelling from a merchant’s town-house to the most sumptuous castle before a quick visit to the house of a yeoman, on the highest rung of the ladder for ‘those who work’. Not very high, then…. And I’ve realised why I’m having a problem with so many of these chapters: it’s all mise-en-scene without anything happening, as if the long establishing shots at the beginning of a film were to be stretched to the closing credits. So we’ll go into a merchant’s town house, with its short flight of steps leading to the huge hall that is its centrepiece. We’ll turn a corner and see into other rooms, look at the merchant’s display of fine pewter, and try to stifle a yawn. Mortimer offers inventory lists from two merchants’ houses, one far more prosperous than the other, and we try to stifle another yawn. The middle classes in the 14th Century had stuff and were proud of it. Plus ça change.

The upper classes had more stuff, and they were proud of it too. But now we also get into the vexed question (for a modern traveller) of the strict protocols to be followed in the ‘Castles and Fortified Manor Houses’ section. But what we find out first is that the upper classes were great ones for refurbishing their properties: the 14th Century is ‘the great age of castle rebuilding’, mainly because the lords wanted to make them more comfortable places to live. At the same time they made them more impressive, ‘designed to overawe and entertain, as well as to defend’. Things have moved on a long way from the stark practicalities of the early Norman period. As you arrive, everything is designed to demonstrate the power, wealth and status of the lord. And, as a reader, nothing you’re finding out is particularly surprising. Mortimer has already let us in on how status-conscious medieval lords were, and the pomp and circumstance of their household protocols merely confirms it. Who sits at which tables, how people of different status should be greeted, when one should sit… and so on. (The modern milieu I’m reminded of most forcibly is the Oxbridge college. Go figure.)

There are more inventories, a list of how many staff are kept by lords of different ranks, and by the king himself… and so on. And then Mortimer contrasts all of this with the experience of staying in ‘Peasant Houses’. Everything is smaller, obviously, cheaper, simpler – but clean and presentable. Medieval life is not the stinking cesspit we might imagine – a view that Mortimer himself has occasionally bolstered with his descriptions of Shit Brook and festering backstreets – and a yeoman’s wife would have taken pride in the cleanliness of her house. But to a modern reader, the closest experience I think we can come to is life on a campsite. There are fewer comforts in a yeoman’s house than in a modern tent.

Chapter 8, What to Eat and Drink, uses a similar formula to Chapter 7: a general overview followed by a jog through the social strata. Come to think of it, this has already been the structure of Chapter 5, What to Wear. I suppose it’s why a straight-through reading begins to feel a bit repetitive… although the experiences of people in different classes in every aspect of life (except one, which we find out about in Chapter 9) are so vastly different it’s difficult to know what else Mortimer could have done. Take famine. Mortimer begins by listing seven two-year periods when there simply wasn’t enough to eat, when ‘families die’. They aren’t the families of the rich, with whom you’ll be staying if you’re lucky. But even the rich suffer in a siege, another 14th Century hazard. (Are you sure you still want to go on this trip?)

‘Rhythms of Food’ is about daily rhythms, meaning that breakfast is rarely eaten and the main meal of the day is during the late morning; Church-imposed rhythms, stipulating on which days of the week and times of year it is allowable to eat meat; and seasonal rhythms. Then Mortimer is off into details, starting at the bottom for a change with ‘Peasant Households’. Meat? Forget it, except very rarely. If a yeoman has an animal or two they are most useful alive, providing eggs or milk, and most wild animals may only be hunted by the rich. Your staples are the plainer, darker kinds of bread – inevitably, bread has social hierarchies of its own – and pottage. Vegetables are almost all home-grown – you can start to see why bad years lead to the deaths of whole families – and fishing is governed by similar rules as hunting. Rivers, ponds and lakes are off-limits, because the rich want the fish for themselves on the days when meat is forbidden. Just about the only pleasure at the table is sweetened and/or spiced home-brewed ale.

Eating in ‘Towns and Cities’ is governed by the fact that fresh produce isn’t so easy to get, but a wider range of foodstuffs, often made by specialist producers, make menus more varied. And the more money you have, the wider the range: if your town or city is a port, there are even exotic foods like ginger and pomegranates. Sounds good – but you’re dependent on supply, and some shop owners will use meat from long-dead animals. There’s also plenty of different wine and beer, governed by strict rules over who sells what. Miscreants will find themselves in the stocks with their own ale or wine poured over them.

‘Noble Houses’ contains a long section describing the most elaborate of multi-course meals. Only the top table gets the best food; the lower down the food-chain you are, so to speak, the plainer your food. The lowest servants eat like peasants while the lord and his guests eat course after course, served in ‘messes’ to be shared. On meat days there will be many different meats and fowls. On non-meat days (Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and the whole of Lent and Advent – 194 or 195 days) there will be as many different kinds of fish. This is kept fresh by being transported alive in barrels, mainly by water. The bread at top table is better than any other you’ll find, like pain demain – white bread made from wheat, of all things, as opposed to the cheaper grains in other bread. Wine? You can just imagine the literally hundreds of gallons.

In ‘Monasteries’ the most interesting facts are to do with how well the monks eat, and the clever ways the monks invented to get round particular orders’ stipulations about what is and isn’t allowed. The Rule of St Benedict forbids the meat of four-legged animals. But many monks are the sons of rich men, so second dining rooms are built in which the monks take it in turn to eat meat. And offal is not counted as meat anyway….

Chapter 9 is Health and Hygiene, and it isn’t pretty. ‘Ideas of Illness’ sets the tone – unsurprisingly, disease is seen mainly in terms of divine judgment – and the ‘Diseases’ section, helpfully divided into ‘Plague’, ‘Leprosy’, ‘Tuberculosis’ and ‘Other Diseases’, is mind-boggling. There’s a hint at one stage about the sheer scale of death and misery: during the century 40-odd per cent of the population will die of the plague; World War I, which in the 20th Century imagination killed the flower of a generation, actually killed 4%. We had the list of seven periods of famine in the chapter on what to eat. Now we get the five main outbreaks of plague – which, if you catch it, will kill you in a day or two – plus a few minor ones. The first is in 1347-8, and the others cover the rest of the century. Two of the major ones are particularly virulent among children. My God.

Leprosy and tuberculosis aren’t so bad, right? Maybe not, but the first is hideous, the second terribly debilitating, and they both kill you in the end. And long sections of the chapter are about the medical practices of the time. Quite early on, Mortimer admits that ‘One is tempted to be cynical.’ You bet. It was in an earlier chapter that Mortimer warned the reader not to assume that nobody in the 14th Century knew anything. It’s just that what was considered ‘knowledge’ then – I think he was writing about knowledge of the world – wasn’t the same as what we know now. Physicians, and surgeons – not the same thing at all in the days when surgeons were often also barbers – held a lot of knowledge, made erudite pronouncements, and knew almost nothing about either the workings of the body or the causes of disease. Diagnoses and treatments were often based on religious superstition and astrology, certain operations being considered ill-advised when the sun was in a particular star-sign. The study of anatomy was forbidden, many physicians never even touched their patients… and so on. Expectations of favourable outcomes were not high, and there was ‘a widespread tolerance of death by medical misadventure.’

In ‘Dirtiness and Cleanliness’ Mortimer pleads for tolerance of what might strike us as a lack of hygiene. A medieval person would have no more conception of our ideas of cleanliness than we have of ‘the stench of sin’. In other words, ‘there are many varieties of cleanliness’. However, in medieval England, to be respectable you needed to appear clean and, as far as you could manage it, avoid smelling badly. It depends on social class, and religious houses have their own strict rules, but most people do their best. The idea of regular baths becomes fashionable among the rich – ‘regular’ being a relative term, obviously – and ‘stews’ are available in cities. Here, men can have their backs washed by the women, among other delights. As for keeping clothes and bed-linen clean…. Women do their best within their means. Hair is kept cleaner than you might think, and spices and perfumes are used If people can afford them. At the lower levels of society there will inevitably be some people who don’t particularly care, but this definitely isn’t the norm.

In Chapter 10, The Law, Mortimer goes into more detail than is easy to handle. But the title of the first section contains an important concept: ‘Local justice’. In the 14th Century ‘everybody belongs somewhere’ and, to put it simply, everybody knows everybody else’s business. Justice is based on this, and on the ‘tithing’ system which has all men in groups of ten, more or less, who decide amongst themselves what is to be done if the law is broken. The tithing is the bottom rung of a ladder that goes up the power-chain through the constable of a township and the bailiff of a ‘hundred’ to the sheriff of the county. It is expected that, in the first instance, members of the tithing will do their best to find out what happened, and report it upwards. Ok.

The county court, with the sheriff at its head, is the highest. It meets every 4-6 weeks, and deals with the biggest cases. Surprisingly, cases are often settled ‘by battle’, in which the two sides (or their representatives) fight it out. Ye gods. Next down come the Hundred courts, and this is where many cases are tried. The justice sounds as hit-and-miss as in the county courts: a condemned man can ‘appeal’, not to prove his own innocence but to accuse others. Corruption is rife: a gaoler will offer to make things easier for a prisoner who will accuse certain named men. You r best bet is to ensure that you are ‘of good character in the town… often it is only your good reputation which saves you from the gallows.’ There’s a two-page section on ‘Miscarriages of Justice’. No surprise there, then.

And so the chapter goes on, through other parts of the legal system. Manorial courts might make judgments not only about crimes but about the behaviour of villeins, such as accusations of adultery. One borough court allows for women to be brought to the cucking-stool for ‘scolding or railing any townsman.’ For a third offence she might find herself dropped into deep water and left to swim or drown. ‘Royal Justice’ is about how some laws which are still in operation now were brought in as clarifications of the rag-bag of mainly Saxon laws around at the beginning of the 14th Century. New laws are enacted to deal with new circumstances, such as a riot act following the Peasants’ Revolt. Mortimer needs a bit of violence at this point, so describes the punishment of being hung, drawn and quartered.

Is that enough about the law? Mortimer doesn’t think so, and goes on for pages yet. The most interesting section is ‘Organised Crime’, featuring the appalling and wonderful Folville gang. If there hadn’t been the exploits of the Mafia to turn into films, the Folville gang could have done the job instead. Some of them even went straight (or bribed the right people) and were knighted, but many of the gang ended up being dragged from a church where they had sought sanctuary, and beheaded. So it goes. There are rules governing sanctuary, not always strictly applied. After 40 days you could be starved out or leave the country – if you had enough friends to get you to the coast.

Basically, the law in the 14th Century is a work in progress. Maybe they’ll get it sorted out in the end, in about six or seven hundred years’ time. Maybe.

13 September
Chapter 11 and Envoi
Mortimer mops up an assortment of activities in What to Do, covering culture from ‘Music and Dancing’ to ‘Literature and Storytelling’ via ‘Pilgrimages’ and ‘Jousting’. Pilgrimages help us understand the medieval mind-set: to go on a pilgrimage, to one of the big attractions in England unless you were rich, really was seen as a way to engage with God. It might be at a fairly basic level. You might make a deal with God that you’ll go on a pilgrimage if you are saved from the storm/illness/siege or whatever. Or you might have a particular sin to confess, and it’s less embarrassing to do it via a priest a hundred miles away, rather than through one who might be a close neighbour or even relative. It’s big business for the Church. 200,000-plus visiting Canterbury at a penny a kick will pay for a lot of building work – or whatever else you feel like. Genuine relics are desirable – Mortimer lists some of those available – but pilgrims are very willing to suspend their disbelief.

‘Jousting’ is like gladiatorial combat in terms of the risk of serious injury or death. But the difference is that the people who go in for it are volunteers. The practice came out of a need to train for mounted charges in battle, but such charges were rendered obsolete not only by the longbow but by new practices like the embedding of 16-foot-long pikes with points at the heights of horses and riders. (The most important kind of training for battle now was based on archery. Daily practice was needed in order to bring about the necessary strength in the arms and upper body.) So now jousting has become something different, and the various kinds of tournament tend to become less lethal as the century progresses. Organised charges like mock-battles gave way to ‘tilting’, often with capped lances. Obviously, tournaments like this allowed ‘those who fight’ – remember them? – to prove their worth and value with less danger to life. (There’s a section on other toffs-only pursuits: ‘Hunting and Hawking’, but I can’t really be bothered with that. It’s further confirmation of what we’ve already learned: that the rich are only interested in what brings status/respect/food on the table for themselves.)

It’s time for some culture. This whole chapter actually begins with ‘Music and Dancing’, because these were the commonest leisure activities of all. Lords and kings will pay good money for skilled entertainers, and are expected to have them around. Other people do what they can with whatever is to hand. There’s one of Mortimer’s lists, this time of obscure-sounding instruments ranging from those that make a big noise – I forget what the recognised term for this is – to those that offer a more delicate sound. There was little standardisation in their making, so instruments evolved over time. And what people played on them was far from standardised as well – who would be able to buy hand-written musical scores? – so music and songs would change over time and from region to region. Nowadays this is a well-known idea in connection with folk music, but it would have applied to almost all music and other cultural activities in the 14th Century.

In the section called ‘Literature and Storytelling’ Mortimer reminds us that for all but the rich, all stories would have been transmitted orally, changing and evolving over time. But books were enjoyed in the big houses, with reading-parties of ladies – the early precursors of modern book groups – and some lords gathering collections of high-status, expensively produced manuscript copies which were definitely not bought only for display. Literature was taken seriously, particularly history and travel writing. Mortimer has made the point in earlier chapters that there was no equivalent to the modern insistence on academic rigour in either of these fields: what counted was how interesting the writers were able to make their stories.

This leads neatly to Mortimer’s celebration of the four greatest writers of the 14th Century: Gower, Langland, ‘the Gawain poet’ and Chaucer. Inevitably, Chaucer gets almost as many pages as the others put together, but the descriptions of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Langland’s Piers Ploughman make me want to go back to those works after all these years. (Don’t ask how many years.) My only regret – my background is in English – is that Mortimer’s quotations are in a modern rendering of their words. (Throughout the book, Mortimer has glossed over the differences between 14th Century English and that of our time – and has never mentioned that a modern traveller would in effect have to learn a new language with huge regional variations.) But his main point stands: these writers were all of an exceptionally high standard, and each one of them was able to cover a range of emotions, situations and literary effects. It is our good fortune that literary artefacts are among the best preserved of any that have come down to us from the 14th Century, and that we are able, in Mortimer’s view, to trace a direct line of descent from them to later writers.

In the Envoi Mortimer brings us back to some of the points he was making in his introduction, but now ‘we have encountered all manner of things.’ ‘We have seen’ this, ‘we have caught glimpses of’ that. We haven’t really, obviously, but this is what Mortimer calls his ‘virtual reality’ approach. He makes some bold claims for it, to do with ‘a more profound subject, namely the way we see the past.’ It isn’t the same as academic history, he says, which is confined to what is verifiable by evidence. As a virtual historian – he doesn’t call himself that – he has a more open agenda, is only limited by his own imaginative response to this evidence and his ability to engage his readers. He cites an essay, ‘written alongside this book’, in which he calls it ‘free history’. If I’m reading him right, he is advocating his immersive approach because it forces us to see human experience as a continuum, and not judge those who lived in the past as though they are a different, dirtier, less fully developed species. We are the same as they were, and we can only judge them as people, like us, doing the best they could in the circumstances. ‘It is not about judging the dead.’ No. He urges us to follow Chaucer ‘down all the alleys of 14th Century life.’ And, in the final sentence, like an actor on a medieval (or Shakespearian) stage, he craves our indulgence for what he has been doing: ‘At the very least you will hear some good stories.’


2 Responses to Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England – Ian Mortimer

  1. Kyle says:

    Great summary, but leave current politics in it. “It’s like living in the USA under the Republicans”
    We both know this isn’t true. Be more professional.

  2. wecanreadit says:

    Thank you for your comments.

    Edit: I can understand your irritation, but that’s how the Republicans look to us in Europe, where the GOP has become the butt of jokes in its current form. It seems incomprehensible to us at the time of writing this addendum (9 November 2020) that there are still very few in the party hierarchy who are admitting that Trump just lost an election.

    Also, I’m not a professional anything. I do this for love.

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