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The Literacy Guild

Review: Ian Mortimer’s novel is a flashback to Medieval England

You look at the world around you. Dusty roads and a crumbling castle in the distance, close by a bustling city lies in a state of chaos, loud shouts can be heard across the city and children are crying in the streets. Where are you?

You’re in medieval England, a place of joy and sadness, wealth and poverty, pain and prosperity. Thinking of your life back home, this place can’t compare.

Ian Mortimer’s “A Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England” brings readers back into the past, giving us a glimpse of what life was like back in Medieval England. Mortimer’s book highlights how life in that time and place clearly differs from today’s life in a developed world in many ways, but mostly in terms of transportation, dress, and food.

Traveling in medieval England varies greatly from traveling now. For example, traveling at sea changed from being an arduous experience to a luxury ride.

According to Mortimer, the food on an English boat in medieval times “does not keep well, no on washes, no on shaves. It is almost impossible to keep anything dry in a storm, and you can expect to be wet and miserable most of the time.”

This shows the extremely unhygienic conditions in which people would travel in. Many people have also died in the process of traveling from diseases such as scurvy. People do not yet know of the problems dirty clothes can cause. Compared with now, the situation on boats is drastically different and better.

Many ships now can easily accommodate up to hundreds of people with plenty of storage area. However, when it comes to small boats, the stay may be even more luxurious.

According to BoatUS, in one boat, the galley would combine with the cockpit’s outdoor refreshment center making for a versatile meal prep station. The article also mentioned how Belowdecks are a “master cabin amidships, and stateroom in the bow, which shares a separated head and shower compartment.”

The different accommodations and furniture available show just how luxurious traveling by sea is now. Compared to back then, when people easily died and were left to rot in filth, it is safe to say that the world has improved its standards of living, especially when it comes to sea travel.

The huge difference in travel by sea is just one of the many examples of how different travel was different in Medieval English compared to today.

Not only is travel something that is drastically different in medieval England compared to the developed world today, but there are also drastic differences between the clothing worn today compared to what was worn then. The clothing of a typical peasant then is vastly different from that of a minimum wage worker now.

However, it is the rich that have truly changed their dress sense. For one thing, the shoes have changed drastically, from the main fashion statements in an outfit to a practical tool for daily life.

In the 1500s, male nobility’s shoes were so long some could not properly climb up the stairs, and, as detailed in Mortimer’s book, “[t]he longest style of all–the twenty-inch Crackrow, an imported fashion from Bohemia–is so long that its tips have to be tied to the garter.”

It is clear that the fashions then were extremely impractical and unnecessary. These shoes, sometimes going to 20 inches, show the frivolous fashions of the times. The shoes also show how whimsical and how impractical a fashion trend in those times can be and also illustrates the extreme measures someone goes to follow a fashion trend.

Today, a rich man might wear a designer suit for a meeting or work, some expensive t-shirts and jeans for more casual wear. All of the clothes may be expensive, but it will not be impractical.

Many of the richer people now seem to wear less ostentatious and expensive clothes. Fashion has changed a lot in the past few hundred years. It is clear that from shoes to shirts, medieval nobility varies greatly from modern-day aristocrats.

Finally, food is something that changes throughout the times. In medieval England, food varied in two different extremes. From a peasant’s meager meal to a lord’s feast, there is one thing in common, the willingness to share food.

However, when you dine at a yeoman’s home, according to Mortimer, it is likely that the vegetables served in a peasant’s house all come from his garden, as most homes also included flowering plants and productive fruit trees.

The peasant garden is an example of how people in that time valued utility over decoration and aesthetics. This showed how the people had to grow everything they needed.

Also, everything is more utilitarian for the less privileged. Dishes that someone who is less privileged now would eat would be something like McDonald’s which would probably be considered a lavish meal in the terms of medieval England.

Then contrasting, with the minimal plates of the poor, you have the large, mostly wasteful dishes of the wealthy.

According to Mortimer, it was common for “four-and-twenty blackbirds” to be baked in a single pie. He clarified, however, that the birds are placed inside alive afterward, so when the pie is opened, they do begin to sing–and fly out and swoop around the hall.

This dish is just one example of the absolute wasteful practices that the nobility had. There were many complications with cutting the pie because there was a very high probability of cutting into one of the live birds.

Additionally, this shows that the nobility lived a lavish life of indulgence and entertainment. While peasants worried over the next meal, entire courses were made just to be admired and looked at, and dishes such as these pies included live birds as well.

In today’s world, some dishes of the rich include caviar, lobster, veal dishes and more. These dishes are much less extravagant when compared to the ones of medieval England and are consumed in many areas in developed countries, such as the United States, England, and others.

Based on the following examples, one can safely assume that food nowadays is relatively much more uniform and much less flamboyant than that of medieval England.

The life of someone in medieval England differs greatly from that of someone who lives in the modern developed world. There are three main ways that life differs.

First, travel has changed a lot in the past hundred years. Safety has increased exponentially, and so has luxury. Second, back then the nobility wore extravagant clothing that reflected their prodigal lifestyles. Now, even the most wealthy person would at most wear a lot of designer clothing, but the clothing would still be functional.

Finally, food has changed a lot as well. From a live bird show inside a pie to plates of glazed apples and grapes shaped into sculptures, food changed from an artistic showpiece displaying lavish wealth to dishes that are still more to satisfy one’s hunger.

It is obvious that people have changed their ways of living over the centuries. At the rate people are improving, who knows what life will be like in the next hundred years?