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

This brilliant book describes all the kinds of history that we love in the SCA: what games were played? How did people do their hair? How much did a suit of armor really weigh? And how much did it cost? The list of questions answered by this book was amazing. Really, if I could only recommend one book on medieval history to new SCAdians, this would be it, and it’s not too basic for people who have been playing 20 years or longer, either. So let’s look at some of the things we learned in this book.

We talk about crime and punishment from things that would be immediately obvious if you walked into a city (heads on pikes) to things you don’t think about too often (how did they find and punish criminals if there were no police?) We also assume that the reader is a time traveler and take the time to warn them that as a foreigner they will be immediately suspected if a crime is committed anywhere around them and if they are arrested they will likely be executed unless they have enough gold on their person to pay off a lot of different people. Corruption is the name of the game in the criminal justice system so much so that at one point the king makes a law stating that it is against the law to refuse to jail someone just because that person lacks the means to pay bribes.

There is considerable talk given to hygiene and cleanliness, taking the time out to point out that there are rats everywhere, and ditches are often filled with dead pigs and horses which often find their way into tomorrow’s sausages. Things are even worse on ships, so time travelers are advised to walk as much as possible and leave seafaring to the daring.

This also leads to discussion about disease. It is generally accepted that about half as many people live in Britain at the end of the century compared to the start of the century. Much of this is due to the black plague, but other diseases take their toll, too. One thing that doesn’t seem to happen much is sexually transmitted diseases. Although there is no stigma about a man going to see a prostitute, this category of diseases is rare. Medical information comes from Ancient Greece and does not evolve or expand since then.

We talk some about childhood, but it was rather abbreviated with children as young as 7 expected to work in the fields and liable to be hanged for theft. Then marriage was common at 14 for boys and 12 for girls. Military conscription started at 15. What education there is is designed to teach children the profession they are destined for. There are two universities, both of which teach the same curriculum of rhetoric, grammar, and logic followed by arithmetic, music, astronomy, and geometry. Despite this lack of general education, a surprising number of people can read and write. Almost any tradesman can do so.

If a woman is widowed and land threatens to lay fallow because of her lack of a husband, her lord can choose a husband for her, and if they refuse the two can be fined. This is because everything they produce technically belongs to the lord and refusing to do the work is considered theft of his property.

The book is specific to England and occasionally points out when things were different on the continent. For example, in Europe many people were starting to live in great cities: Bruges, Ghent, Paris, Venice, Florence, and Rome. All of these cities have more than 50,000 people. Even the largest British city, London, homes only 40,000, and no other city comes anywhere close to this number. In addition, playing cards are becoming popular throughout most of Europe, but they don’t come to Britain until the very end of the century. Details like this that show how different life was in medieval times depending on where you lived should be fascinating to SCAdians who do not generally focus on Britain.

Although there are not major cities, areas we would consider rural today are considered towns. The definition of a town is a place where there is a market, and there is one within 6 miles of almost everybody. Although the vast majority of people do not live in a town, almost everyone has been to one to conduct business.

Life In Medieval Times