I love the concept of this book. Mortimer takes a rather Tralfamadorian view of history, in that he wants us to think about medieval England as a place that still exists somewhere in time, as a vital, real place rather than a mere collection of dates or a costume drama. I heartily agree with and enjoy this approach.
Here’s a quote that sums up both the nature of the book itself as well as Mortimer’s philosophy about the study of history. It’s also one that I liked so much I copied it into my commonplace book:
If we really want to understand what humanity is, and how adaptable we are, we must see ourselves as a constantly living, evolving race–always on the very cusp of a vast and unimaginable future, whether we live in the fourteenth century or the twenty-first–and in no way dead until the whitened bones of the last human being lie abandoned on the sand….History is not just about the analysis of evidence, unrolling vellum documents or answering exam papers. It is not about judging the dead. It is about understanding the meaning of the past–to realize the whole evolving human story over centuries, not just our own lifetimes. (Mortimer, 292)
For the general reader with an interest in medieval England, this is a great piece of nonfiction. It’s very broad in scope, the prose is approachable, and one doesn’t need to be a specialist or historian to appreciate Mortimer’s examination of medieval life and the medieval mind. The bibliography and notes are extensive, which is good news for those who would like to read more in-depth about England in the Middle Ages.
If you’re not picky about your time periods, but would just like to dip into some more social history, I’d suggest Liza Picard’s books about everyday life in London–she’s written books on Victorian London, Elizabethan London, Restoration London, and 18th century London. Her focus on the practicalities of everyday life in those eras might appeal to those who enjoy Mortimer’s historical focus.