Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millenium, An Englishman's World / by Robert Lacey & Danny Danziger

Common notions of early medieval life evoke images of people wearing robes and tights, daily toiling in the mud-caked fields, laboring behind horse-drawn carts, walking through villages and towns where buildings are constructed entirely of wood and thatched roofing. Or one might think of knights on horseback, kings and castles, ladies in waiting and customary ceremonies depicted in any number of mediums. In fact, though many of these allusions maintain some level of accuracy, daily life in England and most other parts of western Europe was far from the conventionally accepted model previously described. Though life was no picnic with sparsely-insulated housing, unpleasant hygiene, high mortality rates and the constant threat of invasion, "life was not all that bad" say authors Lacey and Danziger who base much of their information on one of the few documented transcripts of the period--the Julius Work Calendar circa the year 1000, as close a thing the first millenium Britons had to an almanac.
England in the year 1000 was still largely Anglo-Saxon. The Norman Conquest would not take place until 1066 when the entire social and demographical landscape would change permanently as the nobility and landowning entities would be transplanted by French-speaking invaders from nearby Brittany (France). Without a unified nation and with only a barely established monarch, Aethelred the Unready, ruling the larger part of the southwest portion (Wessex) of the country, the land and people were vulnerable but composed. There was peace and even prosperity during this period, larger landowners (still separate from the feudal system which would arrive with the Normans) orchestrating the cultivation of the land through peasants and lower level farmers. During hard times, towns and villages banded together and forged their way through it, while in better times the societies even thrived with frequent agricultural surpluses appearing on record despite notable accounts of scarcity and famine.
One thing both the authors and most people today would agree on is the correlation of illiteracy and superstition. The high concentration of pietist individuals, along with prevalent mystical interpretations of nature and reports of fantastical beings or supernatural occurrences could be directly attributed (in most cases) to a thoroughly uneducated populace. Only about 1 percent of the country could read, write or dictate early English, and few beyond that were able to read or write Latin. Consequently, records from the era are sparse, and that's being generous. Marginally few detailed transcripts, or personal accounts outside what the local Bishops and monasteries preserved have survived through the years. Though a decade removed from its initial publication, The Year 1000 is, more than anything, an entertaining read, more than worth it for curious history buffs or readers with inquiring minds.

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