The Midwife's Apprentice takes place in the last years of the thirteenth or the first years of the fourteenth century. This is not stated explicitly but is easily established by internal evidence. References are made to "Summer Is Acoming In," a Middle English lyric written down in manuscript after 1240 and before 1310, and Edward Longshanks, the first of eight English Kings to bear that name, who reigned from 1272 to 1307.

From the first sentences the world of medieval England bursts to life not just as a physical landscape against which people struggle to survive but almost as a character in its own right: "When animal droppings and garbage and spoiled straw are piled up in a great heap, the rotting and moiling give forth heat. Usually no one gets close enough to notice because of the stench." The pungent description of the dung heap in the nameless village where much of the story occurs immediately establishes—to our modern sensibilities and frames of reference—the incredible intimacy that people lived during this period with all that came from and disappeared into the land.

To a degree almost unimaginable to us today all but the richest lived in the closest daily contact with the earth. They of necessity embraced it and were embraced by it. They cleared forests, wrestled rocks from stony slopes, broke the root-gnarled ground, sowed seed, fought off marauding birds and foraging animals, and finally harvested what was left. The...

(The entire section is 537 words.)