I am a medievalist; this is not a secret. My shame is only that it has taken me so long to read this book and then blog about it. If anything, it’s a book that I wish I could have written – but it would take much more research than I have time and scope for.
It’s such a wide-ranging book: basically, it covers every conceivable aspect of the 14th century, in the guise of a travel book. It discusses hospitality, sights, sounds, costume, social structure, habits….everything (and more) that a modern travel guide would cover.
There’s so much in here that is fascinating to me: meals, physical city structure, social hierarchy and mobility (which changed so greatly from the beginning of the century to the end), travel modes and customs, manners…any detail you might want is probably in this book. I do vaguely remember thinking at points “Oh, there should be more about that” or “Why didn’t he include this” but since I can’t remember now where those points (or what this and that) were, they’re quibbles rather than problems.
Another quibble, which is a little bit ridiculous, is that the book is at times too wide-ranging and also too narrow. The fourteenth century was an amazingly dynamic time, encompassing the Black Death, Peasant’s Revolt, and quite a lot of the Hundred Years War. At times Mortimer (what a great name for a medievalist, by the way) goes into details about how things changed over the decades, but at other times he doesn’t. In some ways, it would have been nicer if he’d started off the book with the disclaimer that he did – because of a lack of surviving information before the 1300s, this book will only focus on the fourteenth century – but then added even further refinement, to a specific decade or even king’s reign. The things that remained relatively constant over the century could have been noted, but the things that were more fluid wouldn’t have been so overdetailed.
My last quibble is just a general shifting in tone. At times he’s very conversational, very much a travel agent/tour guide. You can almost picture him on top of one of the open-topped buses, with a microphone in his hand as his details are translated into fifteen different languages. But at other times, the style gets much more stereotypically historian: less conversational, more dry and serious. Not a big thing, hence the quibble label, and probably inevitable given the subject matter and level of research.
Long story short, though, it’s definitely worth a read if you’re at all interested in medieval life. Even if you’re only interested to the point of “I wonder if that scene in that Robin Hood/King Arthur movie was anywhere close to accurate”, this is the book to tell you – and you’ll definitely learn more than you thought you would along the way.