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

In addition, the patient should take a medicinal bath. For this the physician's assistant should 'take blind puppies, remove the viscera and cut off the extremities, then boil them in water, and bathe the patient in this water four hours after he has eaten.'

This is history told as if you were planning a trip to the fourteenth century and needed to learn what to wear and how to behave in order to blend in. It really brings the period to life, and shows the reader how the people of that time understood their world, rather than filter through modern eyes. A few historical events are mentioned in passing, but this is mainly a social history, although of course the Great Plague (which was not known as the Black Death until the nineteenth century) is covered since that had such a huge effect on people's lives, and led to the end of the feudal system. One thing I really like about this book, is that every section discusses the effects on people of different social class, as well as the differences between life in a town and in the country.

I found the chapter about clothing very interesting, and the colour plates helped a lot in showing how different classes dressed, and the difference between clothing at the beginning and end of the century. The invention of the button allowed clothing to be fitted rather than just hanging straight from the shoulders, and men's clothing changed more during the course of the fourteenth century than during any century before or since. What you were allowed to wear, in terms of cloth, fur and jewels was dictated by both your social status and your wealth, with restrictions in place for all except the royal family and the families of lords worth over £1000 per year. There are also laws restricting what you can eat, with the eating of meat forbidden on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, also creatures such as puffins and beavers counted as fish due to their aquatic lifestyle. The descriptions of typical fish dishes sounded interesting, so a fish-lover like me would be quite happy with three meat-free days per week, as long as I was able to afford fish. Although most of England is less than forty miles from the sea, and lords and abbots had well-stocked fish ponds on their estates, the dietary rules pushed up the price of fresh fish so the poor would probably be limited to dried fish.

Apart from the Great Plague and invention of buttons, it was also the century when the upper classes switched from speaking French to speaking English, and mechanical clocks came into use, leading the length of the hour to become standardised. Before then, hours had been shorter in the winter than in the summer as the short winter day was split into the same number of hours as the much longer summer day. Now that both systems in use, it became necessary to specify if you were using 'hour of the clock' rather than the old sun-based system in which the hour depended on the angle of the sun in the sky.

As a woman your best bet is to be widowed after you have learnt enough to be able to carry on your husband's craft or trade, as widows and elderly spinsters whose parents are dead have far more independence than any married woman, with Chaucer's Wife of Bath being a good example. Life in general was hard, the legal system harsh and the descriptions of some very peculiar medical procedures (treatments for tuberculosis involved sucking milk directly from a woman's breast or a goat's udder, as well as the medicinal bath described above) make it clear that it was not a good idea to fall into the hands of a physician, although you might have better change of survival if you required the help of a surgeon, but there were good tings too. The people of the fourteenth century liked to laugh, they loved music and dancing, watching plays and reading (or being read too).

The fourteenth century was a hard time to be alive, and although you might like to visit it as a time-traveller you probably wouldn't like to stay there permanently, but it was a time of great change so it is an incredibly interesting time to read about. And having read it , I want to read the fourteenth century classics "The Canterbury Tales" and "Piers Plowman", and re-read "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight".


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June 2012

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