All right, Historian, a wonderful time machine can take you to any past period of history. Which one would you choose? In Connie Willis’ science fiction novel, Doomsday Book, Kivrin, a history student at Oxford, yearns to visit the medieval period, specifically the year 1320. (It’s important to get in and out before the years of the Black Death, which came to England in 1348.) Kivrin needs to make a lot of preparation for the trip. Her tutor lists the requirements. Besides four languages — Church Latin, Norman French, and Old German, in addition to Mr. Latimer’s Middle English—
“You’ll need practical experience in farming – milking a cow, gathering eggs, vegetable gardening,” he’d said, ticking them off on his fingers. “Your hair isn’t long enough. You’ll need to take cortixidils. You’ll need to learn to spin, with a spindle, not a spinning wheel. The spinning wheel wasn’t invented yet. And you’ll need to learn to ride a horse.”
What else has not been invented yet is modern medicine which, imperfect as it is, can still save many lives. Kivrin goes fully inoculated against all known medieval diseases yet, ironically, suffering from a mutated influenza which breaks out at her time of departure. The story then proceeds on two tracks, in two time periods 700 years apart. A quarantine is imposed on Oxford until a vaccine can be developed. Despite the best care, flu is still a killer and certain key people necessary for Kivrin’s safe return are unable to function. Mistakes have been made. Her tutor desperately works to save the situation and bring Kivrin back, until he also is struck down. Meanwhile, in medieval England, Kivrin survives her flu and is there for the arrival of the Black Death. Against that she is immune, but nobody else is.
Kivrin records her findings. It’s a nice touch. By folding her hands in prayer she can speak softly in an implanted recorder. She is creating her own Doomsday Book. Despite all that preparation, she is still not right for the period and some of the locals are suspicious.
The language isn’t the only thing off. My dress is all wrong, of far too fine a weave, and the blue is too bright, dyed with woad or not. I haven’t seen any bright colors at all. I’m too tall, my teeth are too good, and my hands are wrong, in spite of my muddy labors at the dig. They should not only have been dirtier, but I should have chilblains. Everyone’s hands, even the children’s, are chapped and bleeding. It is, after all, December.
Oh, and listen to the bells. Author Connie Willis rings them in twenty-first century Oxford, and in medieval England. The same bells have somewhat different meanings until a wonderfully suspenseful ending rings them all together.