Series: Good Times Travel Agency by Linda Bailey, illustrated by Bill Slavin

In each book, the Binkertons are transported by one of Julian T. Pettigrew (of the Good Times Travel Agency) back in time. In each adventure, the Binkerton family gets into trouble, meet some of the locals, and taste some of the various flavours of the culture. To escape back to the modern era, they must finish reading Pettigrew’s book, seen at the bottom of each page.

My son is still pretty young (today was his first day of Kindergarten!), but I try to pick up educational books here and there so that I can have a good stock of suggestions to make when the time is right. While we do read educational books together now, they tend to be geared more for his age range and attention span.

I had just finished reading Adventures in the Ice Age when I brought my son to the library to get Adventures in Ancient Egypt. My son saw it, and he asked if we could read it at bed time. I figured that we’d get a couple of pages in and he’d get bored. The adventures themselves (told in comic book style) are pretty interesting, but the Pettigrew book pages at the bottom of each page seemed a little too infodump-y for a four year old.

But he loved it. We read the whole thing, and then he asked for Adventures in Ancient China the next night, which he also loved. Even more wonderful, he’s absorbing quite a lot of the information.

What I really love about the series is that it doesn’t bother with trivia – with the names and the dates. Rather, each book gives you a little taste of the atmosphere. What did each culture feel like? What did people eat? What did they wear? What did their homes look like? What might it have been like to live in Ancient Egypt, or Ancient China, or during the Ice Age? That style gives kids a context into which they can slot the trivia later on, when they encounter it elsewhere.

So today, my son was telling me about weaving silk, and chattering about children’s sidelocks.

I was a little surprised that he took to the books so young, but in retrospect, I think that the quality of artwork and the entertaining action of the trouble the Binkertons get themselves into are well suited for a wide age range. If a kid is getting fidgety in the Pettigrew book portions, the books can still be read without them (though I found them to be a very good length, and to be very economical in the way they present information).

I highly recommend the series starting at around 4-5 years old, with no upper cap. Even for older kids, even for 30 year old me, I think the books provide a wonderful sense of place and time into which information from meatier fare can be inserted.

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Swords: An Artist’s Devotion by Ben Boos

As he explains in his Author’s Note, Boos is an artist, not a historian. It’s easy to tell since the book, while heavily (and beautifully) illustrated, contains very little written information. It really is “an artist’s devotion.”

There is some text accompanying the images. Mostly, it serves to label the different types of swords and to explain a little bit about them. For the most part, it seems uncontroversial (he does explain that blood grooves have nothing to do with blood), though I did scratch my head a bit when he talks about Medieval European footsoldiers being in “large, disciplined groups.” If there’s one word that I never thought I’d see associated with Medieval European armies it’s “disciplined.”

I quite liked that there was coverage of women warriors as well, though the historicity of Maeve of Connacht is debatable. The fact that women warriors are mentioned at all is fantastic!

The illustrations are incredible, and very detailed. They give a good idea of what these swords may have looked like in real life. They were a real pleasure to thumb through.

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Medieval Pottery in Britain by Michael McCarthy and Catherine Brooks

Read: 22 December, 2007

A survey of Medieval pottery divided into two parts. Part one deals with shaping, firing, and decorating techniques as well as the uses for pottery in both the domestic and industrial settings. Part two has an in-depth look at each area of England and the pottery styles common to each.

Part one is very interesting and a fun read. The writing style isn’t too dry and it’s full of great information. If you’re looking for something to just pick up and read one afternoon and have some interest in pottery or Medieval life, it’s a great choice.

Part two is a much more in-depth study. It’s mostly sketches of pots with explanations that are written for brevity rather than readability. Basically, part one is the read bit and part two is the reference bit.

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Life in a Medieval Village by Joseph & Frances Gies

Read: 31 October, 2007

With very little information available about peasant life, I can imagine that it must have been difficult to stretch out an entire book. Certainly, I felt that it was the chapter on the village from Life in a Medieval Castle with only a few extra details. I did find those extra details interesting and I made good use of the images. All in all, I think that if you are doing research on Medieval life but are strapped for time, read Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel, City, and Castle, but skip this one. If, on the other hand, you have plenty of time, by all means give it skim through.

The book covers what it can about the daily life of peasants, usually from criminal records and so the book is full of amusing stories about drunken farmers hacking at each other with sickles. It also talks about marriage traditions and the church’s efforts to control that. The interaction with the manor, both in law and in harvest feasts, dominates much of the information in the book. There is also a good deal of information on farming – the plants, the seasons, the methods of sowing and reaping, bylaws about grazing, and so forth.

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Medieval Games by John Marshall Carter

Read: 20 October, 2007

Discuss the role of games in Medieval society, including its role in gender and class barriers and the way in which games reflected a society that was organized for war (Carter discusses the three estates as being formed around war). The book also touches on the cult of reputation (identified as a remnant of the Greco-Roman tradition) nurtured by sportspeople.

The purpose of this book is to argue rather than inform. If you would just like to read about the types of games people played, what they looked like, what the rules were, etc… this is not the book for you.

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Fashion in History by Marybelle Bigelow

Read: 20 October, 2007

I’m not sure how well-researched this book is. It made a few statements that set off my warning bells. For example: In explaining the term ‘barbarian,’ she says “[t]his name was given to them by the Romans because of the fierce and loyal way in which they fought in battle.” I had always been under the impression that the name was given to them because their language sounded like “barrbarr” to the Romans. Details like this made the history sections questionable, but, knowing very little about clothing, there isn’t much I can say about those sections. however, I would recommend using this as a source of inspiration rather than as primary research.

The illustrations were inconsistent. Some were sketches, some pictures of art or statues, and they didn’t always make it clear what parts of the costume we were meant to notice. I found explanations rather lacking as well, often having only a vague sense of what the costume piece would have looked like or what the term referred to. Different sections (17-20th centuries, for example) received far more coverage than other sections.

All in all, I was fairly disappointed. As research, I found the book questionable. In terms of inspiration, I found the images lacking. Read en masse with the other books I’ve gone through, it works fine. It filled in a couple cracks, gave me a few more decent pictures to work from, and so forth. But I wouldn’t recommend it to read alone or as a primary source of research/inspiration.

Life in a Medieval City by Joseph & Frances Gies

Read: 19 October, 2007

Another fantastic Gies to add to my collection, this one dealing with life in the cities. It covers life for richer women, education, crafts, medicine, trade, religion, and law. The writing style is easy to read and loaded with information. There isn’t much that I can say except that I highly recommend this book. In fact, if you plan to write historical fiction or Medieval fantasy, I think that this (and the Castle and Village books) is a great starting point.

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Historic Costume in Pictures

Read: 10 October, 2007

Put out by Braun and Schneider. This is a picture book (the only text being the copyright notice, a publisher’s note, and a table of contents). It details a wide range of traditional and historic costumes from Europe, as well as Indian and Asian costumes from the last century or two.

I have no idea how accurate the images are, but they seem fairly consistent with images I’ve seen in the past. The images are in black and white and seem to have been redrawn from statues or paintings. A fun game was trying to identify where the images were redrawn from (some being famous enough that I could place them).

Because of the dubious accuracy and the lack of explanation, I wouldn’t recommend this book for research. However, if, like me, you just want inspiration for designing your own clothes, this is perfect. It covers enough breadth that it should provide all sorts of ideas.

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Life in a Medieval Castle by Joseph & Frances Gies

Read: 1 October, 2007

This book covers many of the aspects of castle life, including the daily routine of the lord and lady, their costume, their diet, and their hobbies. It begins and ends with a brief history of the castle in England. It also deals with the lives of some of the non-noble residents: talking about knighting ceremonies and life in the village that the castle depended on.

As usual, J&F Gies have written another amazing resource for anyone interested in the subject. Taking notes, I found myself practically transcribing the entire book simply because every single sentence is packed with so much information. This book is more than enough of a resource for anyone interested in the basics. Those who are using this as an introduction for further studies will find enough base material to spawn a great deal of ideas. This is a fantastic resource and the writing style is absolutely beautiful. I highly recommend this and every other Gies book I’ve read to date.

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The Origins of Courtliness by C. Stephen Jaeger

Read: 5 September, 2007

This book explores the relationship between the literature of court and the setting in which it was written. It includes a discussion of the tension between the old warrior ethic and the newer ‘effeminate’ court ideal, especially ecclesiastical criticism of courtliness.

As with most of the books I’ve picked up recently, it didn’t really have what I needed. It’s great if you want an in-depth look at courtliness, but not so good if you want a general idea of courtliness you can leap off from to great your own fantasy world. For this reason, I just skimmed the book looking for anything I could use. One thing I really liked is that it would provide historical or contemporary fictional examples throughout the book, many of which made for very interesting stories.

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