Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century by Ian Mortimer

This was such a disappointing book. It sounded really good when I read about it. I was envisioning some kind of travel guide like the Lonely Planet series, with photos and little blurbs about food (roasted swan), lodging (in a monastery), and attractions (London Bridge). Doesn't that sounds like a fun idea? Kind of like the fake travel guides published by JetLag, about made-up places like Molvania (A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry), only about the past instead of about an imaginary place. But no, alas, this was just a weird mix of dry scholarly facts and figures presented in the dullest of formats, prose chapters studded with occasional headings. Mortimer does try to sprinkle in some first-hand accounts to liven things up a bit, but he relies so heavily on Chaucer that it starts to feel like a Cliff Notes version of The Canterbury Tales.

The thing that annoyed me most of all about this book, though, was its assumption that the time traveller who was using this book was male. Written mostly in the second person, the book directed all its information to a "you" who was obviously a man. For example, "you" would wear a certain kind of cloak, but a woman would wear a different kind, the book explained. If "you" were traveling by horse, you might expect certain things to happen at an inn, but a woman wouldn't really be traveling by horse, the book points out. What's with that? Yes, I do understand that women's lives were lived more in the background during medieval times, but since the whole book is a fake construct anyway, why adopt this odd voice? No one, male or female, is really going to use the book  because you can't time travel (duh!) so why not just talk to everyone the same way and handle gender-related exceptions as they crop up? Real travel guides have no trouble discussing options that are available to only one gender (such as segregated bath houses, for example), without resorting to treating half the possible readers as afterthoughts.

(Book 42, 2010)


Margo Baxter said...

Becky, Do you think you are being a little harsh here? I read the first 20 pages or so when I was visiting your house and found it on your couch. I thought it was a very clever and original way to present cultural history, and I was much more engaged on the topic than I would have been with a standard history volume. I made a mental note to myself to get a copy of this from my library so I can finish it and learn more. This would probably be the only way I could get through anything that even resembles The Canterbury Tales. Usually I fall asleep right away with that stuff.

I only read a little bit however, so it is possible that it goes downhill from page 20. I agree with you that assuming male readers is annoying. I still think this book is worth a shot though, even if it does have a few flaws.

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