Martyn Whittock looks at life in the Middle Ages

Historians in the News

Historian Martyn Whittock is working on A Brief History of the Third Reich when I call, trying to distill all that has been written about this period of history into a one-stop shop easily digestible account.

But he is more than happy to stop writing to discuss a topic closer to his heart – medieval history – and his latest book, A Brief History of Life in the Middle Ages, which has just been published by Constable & Robinson.

It is his 37th book to be published, this number including school history textbooks and three medieval historical novels.

Martyn, who lives in Bradford on Avon, is passionate about Anglo Saxon and medieval history.

"So many English institutions and features that we take for granted are a product of that period," he says, running through a list that includes Parliament, common law, the spread of Christianity and the plethora of medieval churches.

"So many things have their living roots in that time that I like to work back and discover the links. My name, Whittock, for instance, is a medieval surname taken from an Anglo Saxon personal name, and lots of our place names belong to that era."

Using wide-ranging evidence, he brings the Middle Ages vividly to life, throwing up titbits such as the fact that the murder rate in East Anglia in the 14th century was higher than it is in New York today.

There's a glimpse of 11th century rural society through a conversation between a ploughman and his master, while the story of Roger the Raker is the sorry tale of a chap who drowned in his own sewage.

So great was the extent of church construction in the 13th century that it was the equivalent in modern terms of every family in England paying £500 a year for the whole century.

He says: "The book is written for the general reader and aims to be an entertaining exploration of what it was like to live in England in the Middle Ages, but it's carefully referenced so anyone can use it as a jumping off point."

He has written several books for the Brief History series and also has a GCSE textbook on Crime and Punishment since 1450 due for publication this summer...

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