Strange to have left this unfinished for so long whilst knowing how likeable it is. It's a guilty-pleasure history book: full of fascinating factoidsStrange to have left this unfinished for so long whilst knowing how likeable it is. It's a guilty-pleasure history book: full of fascinating factoids and inferences about every day human behaviour in the past - the kind of thing that could inspire a teenager to do a history degree; however, if gathering evidence for an essay, you'd need volumes like those in the bibliography, as there are no footnotes, and this is obviously just popular narrative history to be devoured like a story.
Last year I started the book again and got so incensed by the Goodreads reviews from Americans who wanted special contextual footnotes or re-writing just to explain British things them, that I had to put the book away. We - and the rest of the world - are bombarded with American books all the time and we're expected to work out references to Peeps and brownstones and baseball arcana. How come they can't manage it the other way round? Also, I bet they haven't seen the TV series because Lucy Worsley is lovely, and how can you criticise her?
In the meantime, I trained myself to read fewer community reviews. This has been a good thing.
I'd love to say the book is practically perfect, but there is the odd error, or example of out of date research. For instance, it was known by 2011, at least in some quarters, that the 'rushes' on the floors of medieval halls were woven rush mats, not just a lot of loose stalks scattered. Also, there are a few things - details of modern every day life, like those that bothered the American reviewers - which look like personal perceptions: I don't think galingal, hake or whiting are particularly obscure (I was too- frequently served the two latter as a kid), and I'm of a similar background and age to the author. I really liked the moments of authorial intrusion, details about her life and flat, because I'm a fan, and anyway those make a lot of sense in a TV tie-in book - but they may not be so welcome for those who are unfamiliar with a writer. It would have been nice to see proportionally less, on royal households, and - whilst there is some - more on the middling sorts and lower orders; but this can't really be helped given the surviving evidence and typical audience interest. My preference would have been to exclude the material on America and include mainland Europe instead, but no doubt the publishers had an eye on likely markets. (Who will only say irritating things on the internet about their product anyway.)
The assertions that disgust and shame were 'new' emotions, which became prevalent in Britain only in the early modern period, make me want to do research. In psychology these are considered core emotions common to all cultures; however it would be far from the first time that psychologists had asserted that a contemporary norm was an absolute. I've no idea who's right without digging around in a lot of textbooks and journals.
I was surprised how much I learned, nonetheless. I figured because I'd known for years about things like the ancient pattern of humans probably having two sleeps on long winter nights, that everything else would be cosily familiar. I didn't used to know that the term 'cloakroom' was used for loos because an ammonia-rich environment was a good place to hang your medieval robes so as to discourage pests. Or there are things I should have deduced, maybe once did but had forgotten - e.g. that it might have been preferable to be a medieval servant rather than a peasant because you'd have access to better food. It would be possible to write down a couple of dozen such factoids. (Maybe I'll add a couple more later.) And a small personal mystery has been solved; most of my life I thought 'quilt' and 'duvet' might be class-marked words for the same item, Mitford style, although no-one else had ever said so. I secretly resented having to say 'duvet' more and more often so people knew what I was talking about. Given what this book says, my word preference probably just means my family were early adopters of the things known in the 70s as 'continental quilts', whilst the word 'duvet' became popular a little later, never feeling like the 'right' or original term to me.
The reflections of the remarkable number of ways in which tastes and opinions have revolved over the past 1000 years were nice to have, and I was surprised to see future projections so much in line with my own casual thinking on how environmental issues, the end of oil and the increasing ineffectiveness of antibiotics might change homes, in some way perhaps becoming more like the past. I was instinctively comfortable with these sections, whilst also thinking I'd have framed them a little more conditionally and cautiously if writing them down, and added supporting evidence. But then, like the narrative of a contemporary TV documentary, the publishers clearly weren't aiming for an academic presentation.
This has always been a nice book to browse - odd chapters throughout the book were entirely familiar when reading it from cover to cover these last few days - but it was great to read the whole thing finally. It may not have quite all Worsley's exuberant presence that a TV series has, but to make up for it there's more information....more