BOOKS & MOVIES



Hardcover
Published in 1999
by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Paperback
Published in 2000
by Ballantine Books
eBook
Published in 2003
by Random House





Note From Michael
As with many of my books, Timeline began with a question I wanted to answer for myself. In this case, the question was very broad: what was it like to live in the Middle Ages?

Originally, I asked this because I was seeing a reawakened interest in the Middle Ages, both in popular culture ("Goth") and in academia ("The New Medievalism.") Chain link dresses on women in Lauren ads, and so on. I was curious why this interest should arise, because I thought of the Middle Ages as a gloomy, dark time when people were downtrodden, dirty and oppressed. A time of prejudice. A time where nothing changed. I didn't understand why this bleak world should attract contemporary interest.

Of course, like most people, I had been fascinated since childhood by the knights of legend-Arthur, and Lancelot, and the rest. But I had no clear idea of the reality that lay behind it. I knew only the schoolbook basics: that there had been a time when mounted shock cavalry dominated warfare; when chaste courtly love was the ideal in Europe; and when the oath of knighthood was held up for all men to aspire to. But the historical picture seemed no more credible than the legends. Young soldiers chaste? Galloping, clanking knights an unstoppable military force? I didn't believe it. And if the oaths of chivalry were so revered, why was medieval warfare so ruthless and bloodthirsty? In short, I found myself asking how this contradictory world of chivalry had worked. How had knights behaved in the daily life of the time?

And finally, I began to wonder what our present society owed to the Middle Ages. I knew that Renaissance figures felt they were overthrowing the Medieval Period, putting an ugly past behind them, banishing it. Were they right, or just self-centered? I wanted to know.

So I began to read. I was quickly swallowed up in an enormous literature. Eventually I limited my reading to the final period of the knights, the so-called High Middle Ages, from about AD 1200 to AD 1500. I focused on England and France, and the decades of fighting between them that is now called the Hundred Years War. Eventually I settled on the early decades of that war, the period between 1330 and 1360. Even so, my initial curiosity expanded to more than two years of reading and study and travel.

And what I learned surprised me.

All of my ideas about the Middle Ages were wrong.

Far from being gloomy and stagnant, the High Middle Ages were a lively, dangerous and exciting time. This was a period of ceaseless change, movement and travel. People did not spend their whole lives in the town of their birth; that was a myth. On the contrary, distant travel was commonplace, both for work and during pilgrimages. Many merchants and soldiers lived abroad.

Daily life changed, too. Techniques of warfare could shift rapidly; the English longbow brought about the end of knights in a matter of decades. Even the agricultural methods of peasants in the fields changed, with ever more efficient methods of plowing, fertilizing and crop rotation.

Similarly, the medieval social order was not fixed; there were plenty of nouveau riche families elbowing their way into the nobility. Although women of the time had no legal rights, they plotted and schemed and conducted affairs as skillfully as their husbands. And since they ran the castles in their husbands' absence, they often commanded the defense of the castle against besieging armies.

Though the Middle Ages was a time of terrible disease, there was also a joy in life and an appreciation of the preciousness of life, which is more muted today.

As for the contemporary debt to that time, it is so enormous and so fundamental that it could fairly be argued that our present Western world is really the result of the Middle Ages, not the Renaissance. The Renaissance gave us art, the personal flowering of freedoms already won-but it was the Middle Ages that did the real work, giving us nation-states, central government, urban life, universities, codes of law and ideas of justice, government bureaucracies, and dozens of other institutions.

Since my own casual impressions of the Middle Ages had been wrong, I found myself beginning to think about the experience of finding out that you don't know what you think you know. For example, suppose somebody could actually go back and see for themselves what a medieval town was like. Even a professional historian would find the town wasn't as expected.

Eventually I began to think of a book in which that very thing would happen. Perhaps a group of graduate students would go back to a time they had already studied, and believed they knew well. And then find that it was not quite as they believed.

That was the beginning of Timeline.

As for the end, you are about to read it for yourself.

MC




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