The British Isles were home to tiny cattle, blatant sexism, and extremely long and pointy shoes during the Middle Ages. Here’s what you can expect to find if you time-traveled back to medieval England.
What if you were to time-travel to medieval England? Historian and author Ian Mortimer asked this very question when he decided to write a very handy and original book, The Time Traveler’s Guide To Medieval England. It is an interesting thought indeed. What could we expect, what would we find, and what would shock us?
There’s two ways in which people today think of the Middle Ages: either as an unbelievably dangerous and violent period filled with ignorance, superstition, war, and disease, or as the idealized time of knights in shining armor, kings and princesses, and chivalry and jousting, full of magic, honor, and glory.
Neither of these views truly captures the intricacies of medieval society. As with most human periods, the complexity of the Middle Ages is beyond a single library to encompass, and so there’s always room for surprises. Where we see violence there was also sensibility, and where we see magic there was also an inordinate amount of fear. Then again, some facts are well known, and medieval societies were, in fact, brutal in ways that are incredibly shocking to our modern eyes.
So, without further ado, here are some of the things you’d find if you time-traveled to medieval England, according to Ian Mortimer’s wonderful book.
There were almost no public spaces
There are no public parks or gardens, and very rarely are there public squares in a typical English medieval city or town. The streets are the only kind of outdoor public space.
The King didn’t rule from a single city or castle
Up until the 14th century, there was no central place or official building from which the kingdom was ruled. Kings and their governments were itinerant, which means they were constantly moving across the realm, from town to town, and city to city. You couldn’t simply go to a set castle or palace to request an audience.
The streets were filled with disgusting tubs of water
Cities were places of contrast. Even the most vibrant, lively, and elegant main streets would have tubs of putrid water around in case of fire, which more often than not contributed to the horrid smell that was the rule in the Middle Ages—you know, since they lacked a proper sewage system.
Woodland was not more common than it is today
There were not that many more woods back then than there are now in England. And every medieval forest was managed very carefully, as people even built walls, so wildlife would not eat new seeds. Also, there were very few evergreens in England at this time. And without conifers, there were no regular Christmas trees either, I’m sorry to say.
A small population
If you arrived during the early 1300s, you’d find about 5 million people in the whole of England. Arrive in the final years of the century, and you’d encounter only half as many. Yeah, the black death was devastating. After the plague, it would take until the 1630s for the population to get back to 5 million, and until the 1740s for it to get to five and a half.
People were shorter
How about physical appearance? Expect slightly shorter men and women. The average man is around 5’ 7’’ (172 cm), and women are about 5’ 2’’ (159 cm). This varies according to status: the wealthy are far taller, around the same as the average English person today, whereas the poor are considerably shorter. No surprise in that injustice.
The average person you’d come across would be seventeen years old
If you were wondering about life expectancy, you can expect important differences, depending on wealth and location, but in general, people lived well into their forties and early fifties. However, this figure takes into account that half of all prosperous adults died before they reached fifty. It only gets worse for the poor, who lived about six years less on average. So, yeah, if you were to visit, you’d find mostly young people (which is not to say no one lived until their eighties. But these elders represented a very small minority).
Men above forty years of age were considered old
Medieval men were reportedly in their prime in their twenties, mature in their thirties, and old in their forties. So, yeah, they had to take action and plenty of responsibility at a young age, often as young as fourteen. Prince Edward, for example, was already leading battalions into war at the age of sixteen.
But women had it even worse
Women were considered in their prime at seventeen, mature at twenty-five, and growing old by her thirties. They were expected to be bethroted in infancy, married around the age of 12, and started living with their husbands at 14. The age disparity was also noteworthy on several ocassions, as brides with husbands who were more than forty years their elders was not unheard of. Imagine a 14 year-old girl forced to be with a 45 year-old man. Well, that was not really a problem in medieval England.
Girls were often seen as baby-making machines
Women were expected to have children—and lots of them. Due to a high mortality rate for infants, medieval societies needed a lot of births to even survive, and a woman who couldn’t keep up suffered severe social criticism. Teenage pregnancy was encouraged, and in general, most girls of good birth had produced five or six children by the time they were twenty-five, only half of whom survived infancy. To make matters worse, it was rather common for women to die during childbirth.
You had to know your place in medieval society, if you hoped to survive. There are three main “estates” that compose this hierarchy: those who fight, those who pray, and those who work the land. Those who fight are the aristocracy, and they are meant to protect the two other social estates. Those who work are the peasants (although they wouldn’t be known by that name for centuries), and they feed the fighters and the people of God. Those who pray are the clergy, and they are supposed to intercede on behalf of the souls of the aristocracy and the peasants.
(Illustration depicting each of the three social estates)
Women were blamed for almost everything that went wrong
In keeping with its sexist tendencies, expect medieval people to blame women for most of the physical, intellectual, and moral weaknesses of society. Men may legally beat their wives, and both parents can legally beat their children.
There were more literate people than you might think
People were mostly only educated for their trade or roles. The only “public education” children received were lectures about the deadly sins. And though many people were in fact illiterate, you might actually be surprised, if you arrive in the 14th century, by the number of people who were not. The fact that most social institutions and businesses had to keep a record or charter of some sort meant many were required to know how to read and right—if only for this basic function.
There were many different ways to mark when a new year began.
What’s funny is that many of them are used simultaneously, so it could get rather confusing. Aristocrats give each other presents on January 1, but people tend to count the beginning of the year of the lord in March. A third “new year” comes during Michaelmas, on September 29. Things get even more complicated, if we try to include dating outside of England, so let’s not even go there.
The first mechanical clock didn’t arrive in England until the middle of the 14th century
So, people were used to measure time on a sun-based system. Day and night were split into equal halves, regardless of the season. This meant that in summer a daytime ‘hour’ was longer than in the winter.
Fashion changed rapidly throughout the Middle Ages
From wearing lose-fitting and modest clothing in the early 1300s, people moved on to tight and ostentatious garments by the later half of the century. But apparently, the most scandalous and controversial piece of clothing were shoes with incredibly unpractical pointy ends, which not only were almost unwearable, but were heavily criticized by the clergy as immoral. Alas, fashion works in mysterious ways.
All this provides food for thought. A time-traveler must be aware of the fact that in visiting the past, they will be visiting the strangest country they could possibly imagine. An English person today has more in common with a Chinese person than either of them have with a medieval man or woman—which should make us question a whole lot about national identities. So, if you’re planning such a time-trip, expect to encounter shocking traditions, views, and norms.
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