Reflection on historical scholarship … Ian Mortimer’s Time Travellers’ Guides

In this blogpost we responded to requests for book reviews linked to a teacher subject knowledge reading list. It’s a resource that we can keep expanding as #obhd. Please send additions when you find them.

We are also keen to share colleagues’ thoughts about useful books they have read. How has a book changed your thinking? How has a book given you new ideas for future practice?

In this series of daily blogposts, teacher trainees reflect on a book that they read and discussed with their mentors. The purpose of this reading was not necessarily for use directly in teaching, rather to emphasise to trainees the importance of continuing to update their subject knowledge and the value of discussion with colleagues. Sometimes the reading has led directly to specific teaching ideas for a particular class or to a change in practice, but the posts also illustrate the different ways in which reading and discussing historical scholarship can support continuing professional development – for experienced teachers as much as for trainees.

Today’s reflections on Iam Mortimer’s Time Travellers’ Guides are written by Lucy Flexen and Habibat Alabi.

… to Medieval England

Why did you choose this?

The decision to choose Mortimer as our piece of historical scholarship was predominantly driven by my focus for an upcoming scheme of work: the Peasants Revolt. As my own knowledge of this time period was sparse, my mentor recommended Mortimer as his writing style makes it an enjoyable read, whilst simultaneously providing a detailed understanding and picture for the period.

In what ways was it helpful to you?

Mortimer splits his chapters into clear themes, whist all interesting, I predominantly focused upon the first two chapters, exploring the landscape and the people. A prominent feature that emerged was the impact of the Black death. Although Y7 had been taught the black death, I felt it was important to recap the impact in my lesson sequence. In addition, as my sequence focus explores how sources are used to make historical claims, I was also interested in which sources Mortimer used to construct his account.

How will this affect our teaching?

It has already had an affect on my teaching of the Peasants’ Revolt. My sense of the period had been enhanced by the substantive knowledge I gained from the detailed accounts Mortimer presents within his writing. Both me and my mentor remarked that this book is a fantastic introductory text to the period. For high attainers or student with a passion for history, Mortimer’s books provide a great introduction to a period (I recommended a Y7 to read his Elizabethan England). However, to further enhance my subject knowledge of the Peasants Revolt I also thought it necessary to read sections of Dan Jones Summer of Blood: The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. Therefore, whilst an interesting read, I believe additional scholarship should be read to provide a historiography of the Medieval period.

Furthermore, prior to reading this scholarship I was undecided on how I was going to evaluate my students’ understanding of our enquiry into Simon Sudbury’s death. Mortimer’s writing style indicates that he is writing for an audience’s enjoyment, to the extent that the book felt like a piece of historical fiction. Inspired, I decided that my Y7 could be tasked with producing a piece of historical fiction, which the vast majority extremely enjoyed.

… to Elizabethan England

I chose to read this book because I had just started teaching revision lessons on the Elizabethan Age to Year 11s and I wanted to improve my subject knowledge so I could better assist my pupils. My personal interest in Elizabeth I as a historical figure was also on the rise. Another PGCE trainee had read Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England and recommended the author. So, I bought his guide to Elizabethan England and really enjoyed it!

In this book, Mortimer uses the typical format of travel guides to introduce his reader to Elizabethan England. The chapters illustrate how committed he is to provide a traveller’s guide – with titles like ‘What to eat and drink’, ‘What to wear’ and ‘Where to stay’. I learnt a lot of small details that I am not confident I would have come to know had I not read a book like this which aims to provide an overview of life in this period as opposed to just one aspect of Elizabethan England like law and government. These were details that were not necessary but helped build a more human view of this period. For instance, he writes about Elizabethan people’s attitudes towards shopping, foreigners and women’s hair and perfume.

As the other trainee also found with The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, Ian Mortimer’s writing is very accessible. I would recommend this book to my students, especially those in Key Stage 4+. This is because his writing style is not convoluted. The book’s chapters are also well structured. This means that, for instance, I could ask my students to read that one chapter on religion instead of finding different excerpts about religion all over the book; this way there is more flow. The chapters that were pertinent to my GCSE teaching were Religion and Entertainment. The entertainment chapter provided a lot of information about the different forms of entertainment (ball games, archery, music and more) and how this differed across the period and in different social classes. The religion chapter was interesting but I found that it did not go into as much detail as I would have liked about the various religious issues and milestones in this period that students need to be aware of for their GCSE (Eduqas). Nonetheless, it did give a good overview of Elizabeth’s relationship with Catholics, Protestants and Puritans.

Please do share more examples of reading, thinking and discussing historical scholarship as blogposts by sending them to enquiries@history.org.uk.

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