Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium

This is a post in response to a request: my first on this blog, I believe. (But what Skepticlawyer wants, Skepticlawyer gets.)

What did folk want to read about in the year 2000? Apparently, life in the year 1000—Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger’s The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium, An Englishman’s World was a best seller.

It is easy to see why. Clearly and simply written, taking you through the months of the year based on the Julius Work Calendar, full of delightful vignettes of life a thousand years ago, The Year 1000 is popular history at it best.

For it is also good history: the acknowledgements at the end list almost two pages of academics who assisted the authors. This is up-to-date scholarly understanding rendered in very easily digestible form.

The first chapter starts with the details of creating a parchment manuscript: specifically the Julius Work Calendar, the oldest surviving document of its type, laying out the cycle of the year, both worldly and spiritual. North-Western Europe, but particularly England, is (along with Japan) the best historically documented region in the world. (Other places with longer histories of literacy have also had more profound institutional turmoil, with much destruction of records.)

Twelve chapters follow, one for each month. They discuss what was done at that time of year, but also connect things to events and the recording of events. So we get a discussion of the beginning of the hybrid English language and how differences between Norse and Anglo-Saxon led to simplification in plurals and loss of giving nouns genders (Pp33-4). Or that the King’s Council falling through the floor in 978 is the earliest written evidence of a building being more than one-storey high in England (p.36).

We find out that mead was the reveller’s drink of choice, being more alcoholic than wine—which was about 4% alcohol; light and fruity and mostly made to be consumed within the year—while ale was much safer than water (Pp62-3). The process of coin-making is described, Anglo-Saxon England producing far more silver coins than any other part of Europe at the time (p.70).

We then get the vivid comparison that the records pertaining to President Clinton’s sex life amount to 30 times the storage space of all the surviving Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. Sex scandals are a hardy perennial, however. When King Eadwig failed to turn up to his coronation feast he was found vigorously enjoying the charms of a young lady—her mother did not object, as she was cavorting in the same bed beside her. We just don’t do sex scandals like they used to (p.71).
England was an importer of silver (all those coins), a result of increasingly vigorous trading activity. In Pavia, English merchants had proved so violently obstreperous when searching of their bags was demanded, it was agreed they would forgo tolls and instead pay a levy every three years (Pp90ff). Those hooligan English!

The month when the gap between rich and poor loomed largest was July, the month just before harvest, when grain prices soared. Not only were people light-headed through hunger, ergot would bloom on the rye producing lysergic acid (LSD), a combination that produced mass hysteria and delirium (Pp101-2).

The first wave of Anglo-Saxon monasticism was wiped out in the first great surge of Norse (“Viking”) incursions. In the C10th, there was a rebirth of the monasteries, partly based on a solid alliance of Church and Crown. So much so, that in 973, King Edgar was anointed, a jealously guarded sacrament of the Roman Church (the Scots kings had to wait until 1331). This raised English kings to emperor status: the coronation of English monarchs ever since has been based on this 973 ceremony (p.108).

October was the preferred month for campaigning (the Battle of Hastings, the first time an Englisc army faced cavalry, was in October 1066). At that time of the year, the countryside was dotted with barns full of grain, hence it was the time for raiding and invading:
One serious autumn raid could mean ruin for generations to come.
It is hardly surprising that so many sports and pastimes related to war in the year 1000 (p.157).

Chess was the new craze, though the queen was not to become the superpower of the board until the C15th. There were no playing cards until the C14th. But games such as backgammon and tictactoe were played, while the Englisc loved riddles (p.158).

Anglo-Saxon was a fairly “non-sexist” language, the term ‘mann’ (plural ‘menn’) applying to both sexes—so the descendants of Adam and Eve were descended from ‘two menn’. Men and women had the same property rights—there are 30 surviving Anglo-Saxon wills, 10 from women and their wills read just the same as those of the men. Two powerful women—Aelfthryth, mother of King Ethelred and regent during his minority (after his half-brother King Edward’s mysterious murder: the prime suspect being the woman who became regent and her son king) and Emma, wife of Ethelred (and later Canute, who put aside his first wife to marry the English queen) and mother of both Harthacanute and Edward the Confessor—dominated English politics (Pp163ff).

That the House of Wessex did not use primogeniture—all royal princes were aethelings, “throne worthy”—but selected who seemed most capable gave the women who raised capable sons status and potential leverage. But it is hard to go past the history of Alfred’s daughter Aethelfraed, the “Lady of Mercia”, who built fortresses and (successfully) led armies as the epitome of feisty (and admired and respected) Englisc women . The Norman chronicler William of Malmesbury seems to find her achievements somewhat more surprising than the Anglo-Saxons did—after all, half the mixed sex religious establishments founded in the C7th were led by women. By the year 1000, however, there were no mixed sex establishments: the Church was “tightening up in matters sexual”. Until the mid C10th, married clergy were common, but church reformers began to enforce celibacy (Pp167ff).

The Church was expanding its control over life (“Nanny Church” in the authors’ nice phrase): particularly marriage, with adverse effects on the status of women. Anglo-Saxon marriage was a secular affair, with divorce an accepted institution:
though the record are scanty, thanks to filtering by the church in later years, it does seem that Anglo-Saxons separated and divorced when they had to, without any particular ethical complications. The only concern of the community was practical — the proper partitioning of property and the care of the children. One Anglo-Saxon law code makes clear that a woman could walk out of her marriage on her own initiative if she cared to, and that if she took the children and cared for them, then she was also entitled to half the property (p.171).
The law strove to protect the frailer sex in a rough, male-dominated warrior society. Men were waepnedmenn “weaponed-persons”, and women were wifmenn, “wife-persons”, with wif deriving from the word for weaving. Men protected and women provided clothes. But the increased Christian moralism was not good for women—Canute’s law code decreeing that a woman who committed adultery her legal husband got all her property and her nose and ears were to be removed: there was no similar penalty for a male adulterer. This law did not, however, persist with the law not treating female adultery so harshly until Cromwell’s time (Pp.172-3).

Anglo-Saxon law was fine (wergild) based, with men and women valued according to their social status. King Alfred’s code decreed that fondling the breast (uninvited) of a freewoman was a 5 shilling fine, throwing her down cost 10 shillings, rape 60 shillings (a huge sum). All these fines being paid, like all wergild, to her (p.172).

While marriages were negotiated between (male) heads of households, the morgengifu, “morning gift”, paid on satisfactory completion of the wedding night, was paid to the wife—which encouraged her to be virginal on her wedding night. Not that the law required virginity: if the husband did not care, the law saw no reason to get involved. But, if deception was involved, King Aelthelbert decreed the gift was to be repaid (apparently to stop husbands being saddled with the child of another man). King Alfred allowed men to fight another man found in bed with his wife, daughter or married sister or mother and, if he killed him, no retribution was liable. Wives were not held responsible for the criminal actions of their husbands, unless they were active accomplices (Pp.173-4).

It was also a time of trial by ordeal (asking God, the witness of all acts, to bear witness), which was not to be abolished until the Church withdrew its support for requiring miracles-on-order from God in the Lateran Council of 1215 (Canon 18 forbidding clergy to take part in such trials, which rather took the point out of them). The typical Anglo-Saxon ordeal being to hold a red-hot iron while walking 9 paces, having his hand bandaged for a weak. It was then inspected to see if it was healing: if not, he was guilty and the penalty enacted (for thievery, hanging). Gallows stood at every town and crossroads, with bodies dangling until the birds picked them clean; a grisly warning against law breaking (Pp.174-5).

As for worries about the year 1000 (or 1033) being the date of the Apocalypse, none of the wills composed in the 990s do other than assume that the world would continue as it had (p.186).

We get a nice excursion into the career of Gerbert of Aurillac, Pope Sylvester II—a widely read, quick-witted man of science and adviser to Emperors and Kings whose intellect and success inspired considerable envy, and dark claims of pacts with Satan. His re-introduction of the abacus was a major boon to Europe intellectual (and commercial) life. This in a world where Alcuin had claimed that 9,000 was as high as figuring could go—given Latin numerals were being used, so 9,000 was MMMMMMMMM, one could perhaps see the difficulty (Pp188ff).

The last chapter, "The English Spirit", contrasts amazing craftsmanship with a woman buried with the bones of the baby still trapped in her birth canal inside her. The authors note that England in the year 1000 would hardly seem much of a candidate for future greatness, there were plenty of more impressive societies around at the time. And yet:
all these locally dominant power structures were autocracies — and autocracy, in the long run, was not to prove the way ahead. It was inflexible and hidebound, fatally resistant to the spirit of innovation on which progress depends. The English may have looked foolish when they paid their Danegeld to the barbarous Vikings in the years around 1000, but at least they knew how to generate their money through enterprise rather than through crude conquest, and the taxes that were doubtless raised with great grumbling could only have been levied and paid over so repeatedly on some ultimate basis of popular consent.
Consent and social co-operation are among the most difficult elements to define in any society, but they were to prove crucial for the long-term future of the English way … The English described themselves as “subjects” in the year 1000, as they do today, but ten centuries of political development were to earn them rights and privileges that made them the envy of “citizens” elsewhere (Pp196-7).
Administrative weakness required consent to make up the gaps. This was to prove the basis of the medieval development of representative principle, from Alfonso IX of Leon and Castile asking merchants to elect delegates to discuss taxes and Simon de Montfort doing the same, and adding in elected knights of the shires, to justify standing up to the King’s ministers, followed by Edward I being clever enough to work out that taxes which are consented to are easier to collect and giving an avenue to listen to people’s concerns can avoid getting too badly out of touch, thereby avoiding his father’s problems.

But this was building on patterns that can already be discerned in Englisc society. This was a society full of latent possibilities—the first Arabic numerals turn up in a Western document in 976—one where rule of law and property rights were already considerably developed.

Lacey and Danziger make the society of the time more understandable without condescending. Their final words are warning against what C. S. Lewis called the “snobbery of chronology”, which our own time is rife with:
But whether we display more wisdom or common humanity is an open question, and as we look back to discover how people coped with the daily difficulties of existence a thousand years ago, we might also consider whether, in all our sophistication, we could meet the challenges of their world with the same fortitude, good humour and philosophy (p.201).

The Year 1000 is an excellent journey into a past made accessible through a happy melding of scholarship, clear and lively writing, and good sense.

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