A Time of 'Incredible Violence': Historian Gives Readers Glimpse of Medieval Life

In a SPIEGEL interview, British historian Ian Mortimer discusses the often brutal reality of everyday life during the Middle Ages, the violent excesses of the time, his lively approach to writing historical tomes and his need to empathize with the subjects he is covering.

Historian and author Ian Mortimer: "There was real filth and stench in the streets until less than two hundred years ago." Zoom
Jim Wileman / DER SPIEGEL

Historian and author Ian Mortimer: "There was real filth and stench in the streets until less than two hundred years ago."

At one time, historian Ian Mortimer, 44, was an ambitious student at the University of Exeter. But, frustrated after his exams, he moved back to the remote village of Moretonhampstead in Devon, in southwestern England. He started a family, bought a house and built a bell tower.

For years, he raged against all the academics who torment their audiences with "boring and tedious" treatises. But then he started writing his own books.

Since Mortimer doesn't like to travel and hasn't boarded an airplane in years, it might seem odd that his best-known work is essentially a travel guide. In the book "The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England," Mortimer explains what travelers would expect if they were catapulted back to the Middle Ages in a time machine. Instead of writing about famous battles, kings and wars, he describes how it smelled in the narrow alleyways, what kinds of meals the people cooked in their crooked houses, and how they washed their backsides.

The response has been tremendous. Readers and critics alike are enthralled by his unconventional historical prose, and universities are recommending his trip into the Middle Ages as basic reading for young history students.

Now the historian has taken things one step further and is traveling back to Shakespearean times with "The Time Traveler's Guide to Elizabethan England."

Shortly after the completion of his most recent book, the author fell into a self-inflicted writer's block. He had stopped drinking his beloved port wine, which he had regularly poured in healthy doses starting at 10 p.m. "I was suddenly very clear-headed," he remembers of his time abstaining. "But my writing was worse than it seldom had been before." Since he views bad writing as one of the greatest possible sins, Mortimer returned to his old habits.

Mortimer recently met with SPIEGEL for an interview at his favorite pub, the White Horse Inn. But it wasn't the next chance to get tipsy that attracted the author -- it was the fact that the inn is more than 200 years old. "We are sitting in the middle of history here," he said. Sipping his coffee, he was ready to begin the interview.


SPIEGEL: Readers of your book about the Middle Ages could be forgiven for coming away with rather starry-eyed images of the period you describe: The loudest noise to be heard was the chiming of the church bells, and stopping for a chat on market day was a firmly observed ritual. Was all well with the world then?

Mortimer: Well, it was also a time of death, disease, suffering and incredible violence. Both of us would probably be dead by now -- half the population didn't live past the age of 21. If you had a toothache, the doctors would explain to you that little worms were tunneling into the enamel of your teeth. On the other hand, this was also an age that saw the building of stunning cathedrals, and a time when Shakespeare took literature to new heights.

SPIEGEL: Your book, though, doesn't tell the reader much about those things. Instead, you give us an enormous amount of everyday detail about the Middle Ages. But why exactly do I need to know what kind of toilet paper a particular earl used?

Mortimer: It's about gaining an understanding of what the human race is actually like. I believe we can gain a much deeper understanding by looking back in time. Humans are unbelievably adaptable. As a group, we contended with the plague in the 14th century and with the terrible flu in the 16th century. We're extraordinarily creative, even under enormous pressure.

SPIEGEL: Still, humans themselves caused many of these crises, for example, with poor hygiene.

Mortimer: Absolutely. There was real filth and stench in the streets until less than 200 years ago. But people then were fussier than we imagine today. Bad breath was considered embarrassing beyond description, and 16th century people combated it with toothpowder or licorice lozenges. Good-manners guides were severe in their censure of belching, farting or even smacking one's lips at the table. Even in the simplest households, everyone washed their hands before and after the meal.

SPIEGEL: Conventions governing the other end of the digestive process, however, were not quite so strict ...

Mortimer: That's true. A man passing an acquaintance urinating by the side of the road would simply doff his hat in friendly greeting. Where else were they supposed to go? The flushable water closet wasn't invented by Sir John Harington until 1596 -- and for another 200 years after that, it was regarded as a useless curiosity. In a town, only the wealthy could afford to have a private cesspit emptied regularly.

SPIEGEL: Among the barbarous medieval behavior you describe were young men who banded together and committed terrible crimes. In comparison, today's young men are as docile as lambs.

Mortimer: The excessive violence was partly a product of the fact that adults in those days drank alcohol constantly. It was considered the only way to ingest liquids without poisoning oneself. And because of these marauding drunks, it was quite dangerous to be out alone. Women, in particular, almost never traveled on their own.

SPIEGEL: Wasn't this the age of chivalry?

Mortimer: Chivalry has its darker side. Just think of the awful example of Sir John Arundel and his men. During a spell of bad weather, his band found shelter at a convent. They used their time there to rape all the nuns and steal valuables. When the gang moved on, it was to rob a church, raid a wedding party and gang rape the bride. When the weather finally improved enough for them to return to their ship and set sail, they forced many of the nuns to come with them as sex slaves. But when the weather worsened again, they threw the nuns overboard to lighten the ship's load and keep it from capsizing.

SPIEGEL: Weren't there laws to protect women?

Mortimer: Yes, but they were limited. Rape could almost never be proved. It was the woman's word against the man's. If the woman became pregnant, this was taken as proof that the sex had been consensual because people in the Middle Ages believed a woman could conceive only when sexually aroused.

SPIEGEL: In their physical strength, as well, medieval men cut terrifying figures.

Mortimer: Men in those days were very strong -- as long as they got enough to eat. They may not have been bodybuilders, but they did hard physical labor out in the fields every day. Even young boys were good with weapons, such as the longbow, and were expected to play an active role in defending their communities. Many took part in life-or-death fights from a young age. Future knights received training from the age of six or seven. Jousting served both as sport, and as training for war, in which the aim was to unseat the opponent and break his neck.

SPIEGEL: Sounds like a frightening time.

Mortimer: Violence dominated daily life -- and humor, as well. Both men and women found nothing more amusing than seeing someone get hurt. King Edward II, for example, paid one of his kitchen servants a bonus equivalent to a year's salary because the man had given his king a good laugh by coming unseated from his horse several times, hitting the ground painfully.

SPIEGEL: How healthily did people eat in those days?

Mortimer: The majority of people were busy just trying to find enough to eat. They took whatever was available locally and didn't have the luxury of being choosy. Only vegetables were truly unpopular because they were believed to be poisonous. Cabbage was cooked until every last trace of vitamins was gone. What people really liked was meat. At the marketplace, though, they always had to wonder: Is this meat from a pig that was raised for slaughter? Or does it come from a wild animal that roamed freely, accidentally ate something poisonous and ended up dead in a roadside ditch?

SPIEGEL: What would be a typical meal?

Mortimer: First of all, there were just two mealtimes, not three. Boiled ham, beans and rye bread would be quite a decent meal for a farming family. But people were very resourceful in the kitchen, and they liked to combine savory and sweet foods. Fish in a cinnamon-sugar crust would be nothing out of the ordinary for a medieval dinner.

SPIEGEL: You live in Devon, a picturesque part of southern England, where the landscape has changed little since the Middle Ages. Did people then have an eye for the natural beauty around them?

Mortimer: No, that's not something they noticed. When your primary concern is the survival of your family, you don't pay much attention to the beauty of the landscape. It was far more important that the trees bore apples and that the ground was fertile and easy to farm. Up to the 17th century, they didn't even have a word for "landscape."

SPIEGEL: But at least they didn't suffer the effects of environmental pollution.

Mortimer: That is a great fallacy! The water was extremely polluted. Slaughterhouse waste and human feces ran directly into the rivers. River water wasn't considered fit to drink. Rainwater was believed to have the best quality, and this is what people used to dilute their wine and brew their beer. Drinking the water straight was unthinkable.

SPIEGEL: Would people from that time period get along better in our time than we might in theirs?

Mortimer: Absolutely not. People in the Middle Ages were utterly unfamiliar with change. They had no sense of what another time might be like. When they thought of the ancient Romans, they imagined them in medieval clothes. They would be completely at a loss here and wonder: "Where are we? This can't be the Earth!"

SPIEGEL: You deplore boring, tedious historical writing. Why, in your opinion, do many of your colleagues fail to bring the history they tell to life?

Mortimer: Many historians want to see everything objectively, but that creates too much distance between us and the past. And there's no such thing as objectivity. Historical figures are people as well, and I need to find a way to empathize with them if I'm to understand their actions. Besides, as an author, it's important that I have a sense of suspense, drama and vivid language. If I'm describing a battle, the reader should be able to hear the noise and commotion.

SPIEGEL: It seems this would get in the way of a serious handling of some subjects. Could you imagine writing a Time Traveler's Guide to Nazi Germany?

Mortimer: Of course. In fact, I'd love to. Don't use that idea without my permission, I'll sue. (Laughs.) A lot of horrible things happened in the Middle Ages. The most significant parts of my books are the ones that show that people managed to hold onto their humanity and their compassion despite the most appalling circumstances -- and that's something you can observe in any age.

SPIEGEL: If a working time machine really existed, would you take a trip back to medieval England?

Mortimer: Quite apart from the fact that, by my age, 44, I would probably have been carried off by some disease long ago, people in the Middle Ages were not exactly open-minded towards strangers, and they would have been quick to recognize my foreignness. They would not have been very nice to me. In short: No thanks!

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1. Brutal reality of everyday life during the Middle Ages
Antisthenes 07/13/2012
Good for him. He reminds me of Lucky Jim. Unfortunately, in university circles social history seems to be considered infra dig
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