True confession: sometimes I don’t really love research quite as much as I pretend to. It’s kind of a thing you’re supposed to say in the humanities, and I guess in a lot of other fields. “Oooh, I just love research! Research is the reason I get up in the morning! I live for research…”
Research is hard for me because it’s tough to quantify progress, and I do love quantifiable progress. When I’m writing, I can say, “I wrote 2500 words today. Look at me! I am amazing!” It’s harder to judge how far I’ve gotten with research.
But research is pretty great in that it’s an excuse for my real favorite: Not Writing.
Don’t judge. Writing is hard, and anyone who says otherwise is either lying or not a very good writer.
But, as happens sometimes, I recently stumbled across a book that makes work seem like goofing off:
The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century by Ian Mortimer.
Another true confession: if I could have any job ever, I would be a time traveler. A time traveler with a bottle of penicillin and updated vaccines, but a time traveler, nonetheless.
Mortimer says he chose to write about the fourteenth century because it holds much of what we think of as stereotypically medieval: feudalism, armor, plague. If only I’d had this book back when I was making all the neighborhood kids play delightful games of “Medieval Times.”
Mortimer writes about the kind of history I like best: social and cultural. Good old everyday life. (Think of diplomatic history and imagine me making a gagging noise.) He uses the format of a travel guidebook to explain fourteenth-century life at all levels and in all areas, treating the reader like a tourist. He tells you where to stay, what to eat, how to avoid the wrong side of the law, and why you really don’t want to pick a fight with a guy who’s been swinging a sword since he was seven, even if he’s unarmed—which he won’t be.
Mortimer writes about the character of the people, about what they do and don’t believe about the world and about their place in it. I’ve written before about the respect I have for George R. R. Martin’s depiction of authentic medieval character in A Song of Ice and Fire. I have greater respect for it after reading this book.
What I admire most about Mortimer’s approach is that he asks us to imagine ourselves in the moment, to think of history as “happening (as opposed to having happened)” (1).
That’s what good historical fiction does. It asks us to pretend we are in the moment, to admit we don’t know the end. It asks us to be more than researchers, to mourn and to celebrate with individuals in their lives. It makes the past personal.
I couldn’t possibly list everything I love about this book in one blog post, so I’ll end with Mortimer’s words: “W.H. Auden once suggested that to understand your own country you need to have lived in at least two others. One can say something similar for periods of time: to understand your own century you need to have come to terms with at least two others” (5).
The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England is a start.
Mortimer, Ian. The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008.