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The long view of faith

09 June 2017

Ian Mortimer explains why time travel so often inspires authors


Enduring presence: Exeter Cathedral during the Baedeker raids of the Second World War

Enduring presence: Exeter Cathedral during the Baedeker raids of the Second World War

TIME travel as a literary device allows us to see a different age more intimately than is possible in a traditional history book. But, just as importantly, it allows us to juxtapose the day-to-day existence of people in the past with our own lives. By reconstructing what it was like to live in a different century (as opposed to judging it objectively, in an academic fashion) we automatically contrast the beliefs, expectations, and assumptions of that time with our own.

Non-fiction literary time travel, however, has its limitations. It is restricted to the simple contrast of then and now: the historical correlative. In fiction, many more forms are possible. For example, a novelist can have his characters leave the Middle Ages to visit the modern world. Even more interesting is the device of a character from one historical period who visits another era. What would a medieval man have thought of an 18th-century ship-of-the-line? An approach of this kind allows a historian-cum-novelist to juxtapose two stages in the development of society, and subtly to compare them with a third — namely, the modern world with which the reader is familiar.

My new novel, The Outcasts of Time, does exactly this. It centres on John of Wrayment, a stonemason working on Exeter Cathedral, who finds himself in the midst of the plague of 1348. When he realises he has caught the disease, he attempts to sell his soul to prolong his life. The voice he conjures up tells him he has just six days left to live; but he is permitted to live each one of those days 99 years apart. Thus, John lives to see one day in six future centuries: in 1447, 1546, 1645, 1744, 1843, and 1942.


BESIDES showing how daily life changed through the ages, this format pays dividends in exploring how faith and religion, our personal priorities and belief systems, have altered down the ages. For example, when John realises that he has six days left to live, his main ambition is to save his soul. Not many people in 1942 would have shared that priority in similar circumstances.

In 1447, John is shocked to find how life has altered considerably in just three generations. He finds pastures where there were tilled fields, rich clothing where there was penury, and high stone campaniles where there were once squat old church towers. Even the rector of his old parish has now started dealing in valuable woolpacks, and eats sugar and highly spiced food.

But it is in 1546 that John is most profoundly shaken by the religious changes: post-Reformation, the pope is no longer acknowledged as the head of the Church; the destruction of sculptures — such as those he carved — is truly distressing; and good works that he assumed would always secure a donor’s passage to heaven are no longer considered “good” at all. Instead, he is confronted by the early stages of industrial development: the spinning wheels and tin ore-crushing blowing houses. Money increasingly both guides and governs men’s priorities.

In 1645, John is confronted with the division between King and Parliament. As he understands things, Parliament exists only because the King summons its members; so how can one be for Parliament and against the King? This is especially as he thinks of the King as an anointed, semi-divine person, with thaumaturgical powers and spiritual authority. He is unsettled to learn that now priests can marry, and the strictures of puritanism seem alien to him, as well as the harsh justice of its leading advocates — who propose to punish adultery by hanging — are extreme by the more lenient standards of his own time.


ANOTHER 99 years later, and John is, again, dismayed to find that the cathedral in which he carved pinnacles and images of kings now charges for admission; inside, he finds empty niches where his sculptures had once stood. The altarpieces he created have been destroyed. The whole building has become a toothless smile. Debauchery prevails in the inns and taverns of the city; the poor are flogged and abused by the officials in the workhouse. He sees hypocrisy in a society that hides its down-and-outs behind the elegant architecture of symmetrical straight lines.

This lack of care for the poor is reversed in the 19th century, which seems to John a golden age in which technological progress has married with mercy to the benefit of the whole of society. And yet he is baffled by an age in which men can fly in balloons, travel in steam trains, and sail around the world, but deny the existence of purgatory.

Similarly, the godlessness of modern warfare — when he wakes on the last day of the Exeter Blitz — and the faithlessness of 20th-century society is countered by his discovery that, in wartime struggle, everybody is pulling together. It is in fact here, in this relatively irreligious century, that he finds his spiritual redemption.


IN STEPPING back from the years 1348 to 1942 and viewing them as a whole, it is clear that if anyone had lived through the entire period, he or she would have agreed with John when he concludes: “the man who has no knowledge of the past has no wisdom.” Every century shows unpredictable shifts in society — not just at a quotidian level but in the meanings and undercurrents too. What is particularly striking is how aspects that we think of as ancient undergo such rapid and profound changes. Even though each 99-year period represents just three or four generations, fundamental views of the world are swept away and replaced by new ones.

The Black Death, for ex-ample, leads not only to new wealth, which causes the Lollards to call for clergymen to swear vows of poverty, but also causes people to reappraise their relationships with God. Previously, it was believed that God sent sicknesses to punish sinners so that they might redeem themselves on earth. But how can God be responsible for this terrible disease when it kills innocent babies in their cradles?


WE SEE, however, that not everything changes with time. The recurrence of human conflict is evident in the detail that England is at war for all but one of the years that John visits. We see, too, that a fear of imminent death is common to us all, regardless of the century in which we live. Indeed, this most spiritual of enquiries — what happens to us after death — may well be said to be just as noticeable a feature of life in a secular age as it is in a medieval, universally Catholic one.

Finally, there is the enduring presence of the Church itself, represented throughout by the physical structure of Exeter Cathedral which John helped to build. Over the 600 years, it is desecrated, robbed of most of its windows, cleaned of its paintwork, denuded of its sculpture, stripped of its cloisters, divided into two separate churches, turned into a marketplace, restored, remodelled, and bombed and restored again — and yet it survives in 1942, though damaged by the Blitz, and remains a proud symbol of its people.

It provides a stabilising function, a place of gathering together in a common cause, despite the vicissitudes of time. We rightly celebrate our great cathedrals as architectural triumphs, but their capacity to provide the bedrock of hope in all ages is perhaps an even greater achievement than their architectural mastery.

Such insights are the benefits of literary time travel. Far more rewarding than a mere contrast of then and now, they constitute a different form of truth. It is somewhat ironic that it is not a truth that you can ever approach through non-fiction, but only through imagination, in the form of a novel.


Ian Mortimer is a British writer and historian, best known for his book, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England. His new novel, The Outcasts of Time, is published on 15 June (Simon & Schuster).

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