Monday, 23 January 2012

The Time-traveller's Guide to Medieval England, Ian Mortimer

This is an interesting book on the life and mores of 14th century England by the popular writer and historian Ian Mortimer.

Alongside the obvious continuities - geography, language, ethnicity - Mortimer outlines some deep differences between modern and mediaeval English society.  One of the most striking differences was that there were a lot fewer people around back then.  The population was around 5 million at the beginning of the century, or about half the size of modern Belgium.  By the end of the century, following the Black Death, there were around 2.5 million Englishmen and women, a population comparable with that of modern Latvia.  Large parts of Northumberland and Cumberland were seriously depopulated, as well as being menaced by the Scots.  It would be the 17th century before the population reached the 5 million mark again. 

Nearly 90% of people lived in the countryside, and those who didn't inhabited diminutive cities with enormous cathedrals towering over them.  The largest city in the country was London, with 40,000 inhabitants, making it roughly the same size as modern Bishop's Stortford or Leamington Spa.  Almost every other city had less than 10,000 inhabitants.

What people there were tended to be younger than their modern descendants.  People died earlier, and fewer survived to old age.  The median age of the English population today is 38 - back then it was 21, and only around 5% of people were over the age of 65.  Life could be hard: crops did fail, famines did strike, and people did die.  Disease was a major problem as well.  Leprosy was not uncommon, and sufferers were social outcasts; tuberculosis was widespread too.  Worse by far, there was the Black Death.  This was a truly cataclysmic event - or, rather, series of events, since the plague returned in a number of waves.  The commonly accepted figure of one third of the population dying may be an underestimate.  Doctors did exist, and they had a large body of knowledge at their disposal, but much of what they thought they knew was useless or even harmful, being based on ideas like the ancient Greek theory of the humours and treatments like bloodletting.  Nonetheless, a few remedies existed that worked, and there were even some anaesthetics available if you had the money to pay for them.  Medicine was also intertwined with beliefs about religion, astrology and divination.

One consequence of the high death rate was that people grew up more quickly and took on greater responsibilities at a younger age.  A boy would begin work at the age of 7; he might get married at 14 and join the army at 15.  A girl might get married at 12; the engagement would have been arranged by the spouses' families while they were small children.  On the subject of gender relations, women were widely regarded as weak, silly and conniving - after all, Eve had been a woman, hadn't she? - and there was a lack of protection against domestic violence and rape.  On the other hand, "official" views on gender were not always borne out in women's lived experience, any more than they are in patriarchal societies around the world today.

Society was conspicuously violent by today's standards.  It speaks volumes that it was compulsory for private citizens to own a weapon.  There was a fairly complex system of constables, sheriffs and courts to keep crime in check, but justice was often rough and ready - the death penalty was widely used, and the lack of checks and balances in the system meant that it was open to corruption and brutality.  It was a far cry from the age of legal aid and the Human Rights Act - a closer comparison would be with the justice systems of Russia, Nigeria or Colombia.

Yet side by side with the violence and death were found philanthropy, art and spirituality - sometimes even in the same individuals.  People of all classes found respite in music, dancing and religious observance, and literary giants like Geoffrey Chaucer and William Langland were in their prime.  Mediaeval society was not as ignorant or benighted as we sometimes like to think.  Literacy rates were as high as 20% or more in urban areas, and people travelled around more than we tend to realise.  People were aware of happenings in the world beyond England, and nobody thought that the earth was flat.

The mediaeval world comes across as being smellier and less sanitary than the modern world.  London in particular had a serious problem resulting from the volume of rubbish and waste products, though the authorities did try to reduce it.  But people weren't as dirty as we might imagine: personal and domestic hygiene were issues for mediaeval people just as they are for us.

In mediaeval society, status and reputation were key.  There was a complex social hierarchy with numerous divisions and subdivisions.  At the top were the monarch, the aristocracy - who were beginning to switch from speaking French to English - and the dignitaries of the church.  The peasants were at the bottom, although "peasant" was a very broad label which took in everyone from prosperous yeomen to villeins who were bound in service to the local lord.  There were wide inequalities of wealth, from the nobility in their great halls and the merchants in their town houses to the urban poor in their tenements and the villeins in their one-room hovels.  There were also sumptuary laws governing who could wear and eat what, though these were not always strictly observed.

The basis of the economy was fundamentally different.  The basis of wealth was landholding, and the mercantile economy was quite closely regulated.  As far as food was concerned, the diet was quite different from our own.  Potatoes hadn't been discovered yet, for one thing, and carrots were neither orange nor edible.  The greatest delicacy was sturgeon, the royal fish.  Cattle and sheep were much smaller than today - it would be several centuries before selective breeding was invented.

Mortimer succeeds in conveying with depth and variety the nature of mediaeval English life and culture.  In many ways, 14th century England come across a disorienting place - recognisably similar in some ways, very different in others, and not at all like the Blackadder version of history that most of us tend to slip into by default.