Book Review: How to Survive in Medieval England by Toni Mount

This useful guide is a vital accessory when you next visit the Middle Ages. How will you manage without your mobile phone, internet or social media? When transport means walking or, for the better off, horse-back, how will you know where you are or where to go? Where will you live and what should you eat?

 What if you fall ill or are mugged in the street?

 All these questions and many more are answered in this new self-help guide: How to Survive in Medieval England comes with top-tips to make your visit to the Middle Ages much more fun; have a go at preparing medieval dishes and learn some new words to set the mood for your adventure.

 PLUS unique interviews with the celebrities of the day, from a successful business woman and a condemned felon, to a royal cook and a very controversial King Richard III.

 Have an exciting visit to medieval England but be sure to keep this book to hand. 

 *********

At last! Not only someone who takes my ideas about time travel seriously, but also an author who creates an entire book about the experience! OK, well, the writing of How to Survive in Medieval England had nothing to do with me, but I was pretty excited to learn about it nonetheless. From author, history speaker and teacher Toni Mount, this handbook is a fantastic resource not only for those interested in the journey and requiring sound advice, but also re-enactors, history buffs and those who want to know more about ordinary people of the Middle Ages. The volume being a great candidate for dividing up by categories, this is exactly what Mount does: there are ten illustrated chapters with the ins and outs, dos and don’ts of medieval life, from warnings regarding the utmost necessity of work, to health and medicine, awareness of religious beliefs, food, clothing and more. The author also considers the perspectives of her readers: some will want to assimilate, and so need to know what is and isn’t done, while others are strictly observers and just don’t want to be set ablaze for sorcery. Whatever your reason for passage through time, this is a book to keep close by even after your return, given its sheer repeat readability and delightfully laid out subject matter.

Mount’s presentation is smooth and alluring, in large part thanks to her often wry and humorous approach. This is the sort of topic that not only can get away with, but almost seems to need, the author’s presence. Many other books that set out to talk about ordinary life in the Middle Ages maintain a disassociation from their authors, and that hurts the experience because the topic becomes dry, even boring. In this case, however, the author provides a conversational quality that includes readers, and her style is casual and accessible.

Having said that, there is much more that keeps us attached to the book, including the sidebars with informational bits and bobs and interviews with natives to the age, some “superstar” famous and some less so. No matter which class of people, Mount has to ensure a respectful distance—not just physical—from this era’s inhabitants for, as you will see for yourself once you obtain a copy of How to Survive in Medieval England, their personalities are not only significantly more formal, but also a bit standoffish; some of today might even say rude. These portions are perhaps the most magical because, as observers to her conversations with those in the know, we get to watch what is almost two simultaneous discussions: one in which she plays her role expertly, and another in which you recognize the wink wink sort of nuance, as if the author is saying, “Yes, we don’t talk this way amongst ourselves but, you know, this is how they do it, so just listen and learn.” We can almost see her suppressed smile as she converses with those we meet and gain insight into how they operate.

It is clever on the author’s part that the sidebars mentioned above—which appear as Did You Know? and Top Tips—also often maintain the style of interpersonal communication we sense in the interviews. Consider this Top Tip:

 

Each Did You Know? not only provides the edification we all seem to crave about medieval times, but also with fascinating angles not often covered in other texts. These truly are the everyday, whether ordinary or weird. The author also dispels some myths we have been taught, all while making this such an accessible and smooth read for us that it is easy to forget the massive amount of research that went into preparing this volume.

 

As the book progresses, Mount’s instructions and information also bring us to awareness of the changes taking place within medieval England, that even amongst themselves there were differences between peoples and the eras in which they lived. After all, 1154-1485, the time range covered and a period of over three hundred years, leaves quite a bit of room to move about! She also shows us that in many ways we aren’t as different as we often seem to believe. The Middle Ages had thieves and con men; people kept records of what decedents left and to whom; and, as referenced above, knowledgeable medicine. Like us, they did not know all there is to know about the human body, but they worked diligently to understand and make discoveries, and without their trail breaking, we might not know what we do nowadays. We often tend to think we are better and smarter than those of the Middle Ages, and it can cut when we find out we aren’t. There are parallels, even up to this very day, of Roger Bacon’s advice about gathering information:

 

I have always said that learning about our ancestors (whether they come from this particular region or elsewhere) enables us to learn about ourselves, and Mount brings us through a fascinating array of medieval circumstances that, perhaps oddly, perhaps not, resonate with us as people. We see a picture of fifteenth-century bra and briefs, for example, found in Austria’s Lengberg Castle, and can’t help but wonder about the woman who once wore them. Would she be embarrassed that we have her undergarments on display? Or would she be, if even only a little, pleased they were discovered so us people of the future could know her times were “civilized”? That in their day they had items and ideas as modern as could be achieved at the time? That they had nice things too.

Also through word etymology, poetry and ways people found to have fun, Mount guides us through medieval England in a manner unlike any book on the topic I have ever read before. Packed to bursting with fascinating facts and stories of the lives of those who paved the way for ours, we see strangers, certainly, and also ourselves, but above all we recognize the humanity in those we don’t know but want to. Because people of all ages have been curious, I daresay there would be some, I hope, who wish to meet us as well.

In this way, Mount brings people together, dispelling myths and providing background for some of the “absurd” beliefs or actions of the Middle Ages. People generally had reasons for what they did and, once we understand what they were, a lot of the weeds are whacked away, even if we also are aware that beliefs evolved over time, paving the way for our own. I admire that the author achieves this without making fun of medieval people, but also without sacrificing who we are to better appreciate the lives they lived.

About the Author

Toni Mount is a history teacher and a best-selling author of historical non-fiction and fiction. She’s a member of the Richard III Society’s Research Committee, a regular speaker to groups and societies and belongs to the Crime Writers’ Association. She writes regularly for Tudor Life magazine, has written several online courses for www.MedievalCourses.com and created the Sebastian Foxley series of medieval murder mysteries. Toni has a First class honours degree in history, a Masters Degree in Medieval History, a Diploma in English Literature with Creative Writing, a Diploma in European Humanities and a PGCE. She lives in Kent, England with her husband and has two grown-up sons.

How to Survive in Medieval England, along with her many other books, is available at Amazon and Amazon UK. You can also find Toni Mount at FacebookTwitter and Goodreads.

By Lisl

My first career ambition was (at age six) to become a spy; shortly thereafter I added poetry to my list of goals. I went on to write in this genre through high school and beyond; by this time spying had lost a bit of its appeal, though I utilized stealthy methods to observe people and activity all around. I went on to earn an English degree and nowadays write on a variety of topics. I am currently at work on a collection of novellas, a series of essays re: Richard III and I dream of writing a really quality ghost story. My poetry has appeared in _Alaska Women Speak_ and I am a contributor to _Naming the Goddess_.

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