Monday, July 30, 2012


British historian Ian Mortimer takes as his approach the idea that history begins with people, not events, and that to travel through history one must first delve into the lives of those who inhabited the time and place you wish to visit.

For me the definite strength of the book is its ability to breathe life into the long distant past, to draw out the commonalities between the lives of the people of that time and my own, and to make me see that when I read history and historical fiction of the time period, I need to view their lives through their era’s lens, not my own.  Ian Mortimer does a great job of stressing that, stressing the pride that they took in keeping clean homes-would they be clean from our standards?  No, but against another home of the time they were.  Or the fact that they washed hands and faces between five and eight times a day, but all we can focus on is the fact that they took baths so seldom.
This book subdivides into sections such as What to Wear, What to Eat, Where to Stay, among many others, covering all aspects of daily life, across all stratums of society.  Detailed lists are given, such as what furs were allowed to trim the hoods of your garments, depending upon your position in society.  Yes, in fourteenth century England there were actual written laws stating which animal fur you could use if you were a merchant’s wife as opposed to a duke’s wife.  It was fascinating to read through each subsection in turn and see the quality of and quantity of clothing, food, household goods, etc. diminish as the author moved from discussing the king on down to the lowest peasant.  Some things were loved in common by all, such as music, oral tales and poetry, and nature.  Also discussed were things that were common to society in general, although some could afford them more than others, such as medical care and traveling from place to place, and the law of the land.
At times the book became a bit too detailed for my taste, giving, for example, actual lists of household inventories, complete with values of items, or lists of specific kinds of fish that each level of clergyman would eat.  After section after section of list after list, this does tend to get a bit tedious, and I found my eyes beginning to slide to the end of tallies of fabrics or meats or whatever was being discussed.  If you are a serious history buff or really into historical fiction set in the Middle Ages, then you will find this book fascinating.  If, however, you have a passing desire to learn a little more about the time period, this is not the book for you.  It is far too detailed, and I doubt that you would give it more than two stars.


  1. Hi Care, greets from Italy via Shelfari. With six kids, you really have your own classroom! Must be a very down to earth start in life in today's otherwise so modern and often superficial society. I read in the newspaper that some politician in Sweden is suggesting schools to start using more laptops and iPads at the expensive of writing "so that the kids don't fall behind" or whatnot. It was very sad to read. Isn't it enough already that the ballpoint pen has ruined the handwriting of mankind, are we going to create generations now who barely can write anything by hand apart from shopping lists? (Which are probably going to be added on the "smart" phone anyway.)

    Mortimer's book seems interesting, I'll remember that one next time I focus on the Middle Ages!


  2. "expensive" --> "expense"

    See, I too am typing with too much haste... time to have a long walk in the forest to wind down a bit from everyday stress!

  3. It is such a tough balance sometimes! I do stress good old penmanship with my kids, but I confess, they do learn to type early, because it aids in teaching them essay writing earlier. If they can go back and quickly correct their draft of a five paragraph essay, they can write one as early as second grade, but when they pain-stakingly have handwritten that first draft out by hand, I cannot very well ask the poor kiddo to go back and rewrite the thing for a couple more drafts! So, we do certain assignments by hand and some on the computer, some in cursive, and some in print.

    You, I think, would enjoy Mortimer's book. When he gets a bit too into his lists, just skim over them and move on. It is worthwhile reading for those who enjoy the subject.