Ian Mortimer: One of My Favorite History Writers

In an earlier post, I wrote about how much I enjoy listening to history on audible or reading it. I think it’s very useful research for fantasy writers, and the stories in history are so fascinating! One of my favorite history writers right now is Ian Mortimer, who wrote “The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England,” and many other great books. I already discussed the “Guide to Medieval England” in my previous post, but I’ve read or listened to many other excellent books by Mortimer. Here are a few I’ve enjoyed:

Edward III: The Perfect King

So my poor friends have had to listen to me nerd out about this book too much, so I should probably write about it! It’s an incredible look at one of the most successful, beloved, and glorious of England’s Medieval Kings. Yet his reign had one of the most inauspicious beginnings any King could have—his father was deposed by his mother’s lover, Roger Mortimer, when he was still underage. He quickly fell under Mortimer’s control, and had to survive some very real threats to his life and his crown. But in a dramatic turn around, Edward and his trusted companions made a bold move to sneak into Mortimer’s castle to capture and overthrow him. And that’s just the beginning of a very intense and dramatic reign, but one that also reflects the most exciting and romantic parts of the Middle Ages—jousting, poetry (Geoffrey Chaucer was a member of his court), feasts, and chivalry. He survived the Black Death and established the Order of the Garter. The book is an incredible story of the most pivotal man of the age, and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in Medieval history.

Henry IV: The Righteous King

This is a follow up book to Edward III: The Perfect King. Henry IV, like his cousin Richard II, was a grandson of Edward III. What I love about this book is how Mortimer manages to use the scant historical detail to create a living portrait of a man in a very difficult, unforgiving position. The reader feels the very real fear and dangers Henry IV faced, and the remarkable way he adapts to his circumstances and tries to find the right thing to do. Mortimer portrays a gallant and glorious man, a champion of the joust, who also has a deep love of books and music. Despite his reputation as a usurper, Henry IV showed remarkable patience and restraint towards Richard II, who several times threatens to murder Henry’s father, John of Gaunt. It’s a fascinating depiction of a king rarely discussed in English history.

The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England

I loved The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England, so I was excited to read Mortimer’s follow up, the Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England. I loved this book as much as the first one! It’s full of colorful and interesting depictions of Elizabethan life. It’s also an evocative portrait of Queen Elizabeth I herself, and how her own personal religious and cultural preferences fundamentally shaped both the age that bears her name and the history of England (and in particular the Church of England). If you have any interest in learning about real Elizabethan life, I’d highly recommend it.

Listening to History on Audible

I love audible because like podcasts, I can listen to something interesting and informative while I’m on my daily commute. I think that learning about history can be fun and inspiring, especially for people who write fantasy. There are so many incredible stories and settings from the past, many of which are really under used by fantasy or historical fiction writers, who tend to focus entirely on Medieval Europe. So whether you like listening to history or are looking for good writing inspiration, here are three of my favorite courses from audible.

  1. Famous Romans, by Rufus Fears

I've always loved Greek and Roman history, and while searching the website, I found a series of lectures called Famous Romans given by Rufus Fears for the Great Courses. I'd heard of Professor Fears while I was a student at the University of Oklahoma--he'd been respected and loved by students there. In fact, his classes were so popular, I could never get into one! So while I missed seeing Dr. Fears while I was a student, I figured it would be interesting to listen to his lectures on audible.

In Famous Romans, Fears gives us the history of Ancient Rome via the lives of its great warriors, politicians, philosophers, and poets. From the epic battles of Hannibal and Scipio Africanus, to the brilliant career of Julius Caesar, the stories of these great Roman citizens are engaging and informative. Fears narrates these biographies with passion and intelligence, and is quick to note the life lessons one can find in past. Like Plutarch, an ancient biographer he clearly admires, Fears thinks that the goal of studying history is to learn to be a better human being. In a time when it seems that so many people have little respect for the humanities, it's refreshing to hear someone so vigorously defend the study of history.

Yet, Famous Romans is as entertaining as it is intellectual. Many of these Romans lead fascinating, action-packed lives, full of epic battles, heroic virtues, and great tragedy. Others, like Nero, lead lives of utter depravity. Either way leads to a very interesting story. And that's the heart of what I like best about Famous Romans on audible; it's like listening to someone telling you a series of wonderful stories, with the added benefit of being historical. So if that appeals to you, I encourage you to give it a try.

2. The History of Ancient Egypt

While I knew quite a bit about Greek and Roman history, I knew very little about ancient Egypt, so this seemed like a good place to learn more.

Brier takes the listener through every Egyptian dynasty, from the possibly apocryphal pharaohs of the Old Kingdom to the Ptolemies, including the great queen Cleopatra. The professor, who has appeared on National Geographic and Discovery Civilizations documentaries, comes off as highly knowledgeable and deeply passionate about Egyptology. He does have a thick New York accent, but after a while I found that endearing instead of distracting, especially since his voice has a lot of warmth. As for the subject matter, it was fascinating. Egypt's culture and civilization predates the Ancient Greeks by thousands of years, and it's clear that many of their ideas influenced the cultures around them. For example, although Egyptians usually worshipped many gods, one of the 18th dynasty pharaohs, Akhenaten, introduced the worship of a single deity, one of the first recorded instances of monotheism. His son, the famous King Tut, restored the traditional religion after his father's death.

In some ways, the ancient Egyptians felt surprisingly modern. Although they respected their traditions and were often highly resistant to change, they accepted outsiders so long as they assimilated into Egyptian culture. For example, all the pharaohs of the 25th dynasty were black. They were originally Nubians who invaded Egypt during a time of chaos, then ruled for over a hundred years. Likewise, Egyptians accepted the Greek Ptolemies as pharaohs as well. Clearly, ancient Egyptians were more diverse than you might think. They also had a female pharaoh, Hatshepsut, who may be the first great woman leader we know of in history.

Overall, I enjoyed "The History of Ancient Egypt" quite a bit. Egyptian history is fascinating, and the Brier's passion and knowledge of his subject made it all the more compelling.

3. The World of Byzantium

I decided to listen to Kenneth Harl's "The World of Byzantium," one of The Great Courses series. I chose it because while I've read a great deal about ancient Greece and Rome, I realized I knew very little about the latter part of the Roman empire and even less about Byzantium, the heir to the Roman empire that survived in its Eastern half for nearly a thousand years.

The history of the Eastern Empire, and its evolution from a classical Roman society to a Medieval Christian society (though one conspicuously lacking in the ignorance and feudalism of Western Europe), is a fascinating and engaging part of history that I'd never studied before. Yet without the Byzantine Empire, much of Greek and Roman history, philosophy, and culture would have been irretrievably lost. The lecture series begins by examining the divisions within the Roman Empire that lead to its split, and eventually to the loss of its Western half. Harl explores the career of the great Emperor Constantine I, who builds the great city of Constantinople in what is today modern Turkey. The wealthiest and greatest city in world for thousands of years, Constantine and his successors would use the city to spread Christianity throughout the empire and to rule the Eastern empire long after the fall of Rome.

Yet despite the vibrancy, strength, and wealth of the great city, called "New Rome" by Constantine himself, the rulers never quite have the ability to retake the rest of the former empire. Nonetheless, the power of Constantinople shapes the world as it transitions from late antiquity to the dark ages, through the crusades and the emergence of the Ottoman empire, Byzantium's successor. Much of Western culture, from the works of Plato and Aristotle, to the histories and law codes of Rome, survived in Byzantium and were only rediscovered in Western Europe during the crusades. Byzantine history is also full of fascinating characters, including the Emperor Justinian I, a brilliant man who fundamentally shaped the Byzantine state and its religious character, yet who ultimately could not reconcile the religious and cultural differences between the Eastern and Western halves of the former Roman Empire. 

I'd recommend this course to anyone who's interested in history. The Byzantine Empire and its demise had a profound influence on the modern world, and Harl depicts its wonders and its sophistication as well as its occasional savagery. As a narrator, Harl is clearly passionate and knowledgeable about his subject, which makes listening to him engaging.    

Three Nonfiction Books Fantasy Writers Should Read

  1. The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England

I love reading about Medieval history, so when I found this book on audible, I was very interested. The book isn't a novel, so much as a popular history based on what it would be like to travel through England between the years of 1300 and 1400 AD. What would you see, smell, and hear? Who would you meet? What would it be like to live there? It's a fascinating concept, one that treats the past more like a living, breathing place than a remote, long dead era.

The author, Ian Mortimer, makes some starling observations. For example, how young everyone is. Because so many people don't live to old age, nearly everyone is under the age of twenty five. At 16, a boy is considered a grown man, one who can lead troops into battle or become a king in his own right. The youthful society goes a long way towards explaining the lack of education and the sometimes fanciful beliefs many people have. Likewise, the catastrophic effects of the Black Death are hard for modern people to comprehend. By the end of the 14th century, England has half the population it had in the beginning. The population didn't recover until the 1600s. Entire villages would be wiped out, so that walking around the countryside might be like being the survivor of a zombie apocalypse (especially since contracting the plague likely meant certain death).

The author also rightly points out that while they may not have bathed as often as modern people, people in the 14th century made an effort to keep clean, despite our beliefs to the contrary. Cleanliness was a sign of good manners, and so prized that people in particularly filthy occupations bathed every day, and soap was a valued commodity. Almost everyone would have washed their faces and hands every morning, and manners required you to wash your hands before every meal. It's true they might not have been clean by modern standards, that doesn't mean they didn't value cleanliness and try to achieve it.

While this book does have a few slow chapters--I found the section on money a bit tedious--overall, it was a fascinating exploration about what it was like to live in a different time. As a writer, I found it an invaluable resource. It gave me great ideas for stories and intriguing details for Medieval settings. I'd recommend it to fantasy/historical fiction writers, as well as anyone interested in Medieval history.

2. The Plantagenets by Dan Jones

I love reading history, and The Plantagenets covers a particularly fascinating and eventful era in English history. It opens with the tragedy of the White Ship, a pivotal moment when the heir to the throne, only legitimate son of Henry I, died in a shipwreck. Without a male heir, Henry I decides to leave the throne to his only remaining legitimate child, the Empress Matilda. From Matilda's line came some of England's best and worst kings (and queens). Kings like Henry II or Edward III are remembered as powerful rulers who dominated their enemies and expanded their territories and influence. Yet, the Plantagenet kings like Edward II, John Lackland (the notorious Prince John of the Robin Hood legends), and Richard II endangered the monarchy and the country with their incompetence, arrogance, and savagery. Their stories are exciting to listen to, and give the listener a great insight into the Medieval world. Although it's a history book, it's almost as exciting as Game of Thrones. All in all, The Plantagenets is an excellent book, and I'd recommend it to anyone interested in history, or any fans of Medieval fantasy.

3. Mindset by Carol Dweck

I've been fascinated by Carol Dweck's research into the psychology of success since I first read about her work in NurtureShock. It reinforced some of what I'd read about in Alfie Kohn's Punished by Rewards, another excellent book that challenges plenty of received wisdom on using praise to control children's behavior. Still I had yet to read Dweck's magnum opus Mindset, so on a trip to the library I decided to reserve a copy. It's been such an amazing and helpful book, I intend to buy a copy to keep around when I have to return it to the library. While I'd previously though of Dweck's research as primarily relating to teaching and parenting, this book goes much deeper into how our mindset effects our relationships, our careers, and our ability to lead a fulfilling life. 

After reading Dweck's book, I started thinking about how our mindset effects writers. Writing carries with it an enormous amount of rejection and criticism, and requires an intense, sustained effort for any amount of success. How many people want to write a novel but never finish even a rough draft? Or more likely, how many have a good story idea but never sit down to write it at all? So what does it take to withstand all this adversity and keep writing? A "growth" mindset.

In her book, Dweck shows that some people embrace challenges as learning opportunities. They see failure and rejection as valuable lessons, and learn to accept feedback without allowing the criticism to sap their self-worth. These people have a growth mindset--they believe they can grow their talents and improve themselves with plenty of hard work and effort. Other people have a fixed mindset--they believe that success is dependent on talent and luck alone. They're reluctant to take risks and hate failure, because it's a sign that they're not talented enough to be successful. The fixed mindset discourages effort, because if you have enough talent, everything should be easy for you. 

It's easy to slip into a fixed mindset when you've gotten another rejection. It's easy to say, "I'm not good enough, I might as well give up." But it's so much more satisfying and exciting to say, I'll try again. I'll write more stories. I'll write another novel. I'll listen to feedback from my writing group, my beta readers, and anyone else who'll give it to me. I've gotten helpful feedback from editors who rejected me, and I'm so glad they took the time to send more than a form letter. A growth mindset encourages me to take risks with my writing. I'll try a different genre, or try writing short stories in addition to working on a novel, or query for non-fiction articles. Quitting guarantees failure, but if we keep going, if we work hard enough, we just might make it.