Saturday, January 7, 2017

One Thousand Years Ago

The Middle Ages can seem very far away.  Let's set the way-back machine for 1017 and see what's different.

For starters, you wouldn't be reading this on a screen but on parchment.  Plus you wouldn't be reading it in English, a language that only slowly emerged out of a fusion between Anglo-Saxon and Old French, as I have discussed elsewhere.  And then you probably wouldn't be able to read at all, since most people in the eleventh century were illiterate (including most of our ancestors, in spite of our best efforts to claim descent from kings and knights and princesses).

If you're in the US, you're in a building that certainly didn't exist in 1017 and, most likely, not even before World War II.  (I take this back if you live in a pueblo.)  You have electricity, modern plumbing, and most likely a furnace or heater that can keep you warm without an open fire.  Almost certainly today you ate some processed food, like cereal or chips or store cookies or anything made with flour or sugar, or consumed coffee or tea or chocolate or potatoes or tomatoes or anything made with corn, all foods unknown in the Middle Ages.

You would neither own a gun nor worry about gun violence in the early eleventh century, for the excellent reason that there were no guns.  Gunpowder only appeared in Europe in the fourteenth century (China had had it earlier but used it for fireworks, not killing people, at least intentionally), and for several centuries it just used for cannons, not handguns.  (Medieval people did of course worry about violence, but it was more the up-close-and-personal kind.)

You rely for entertainment on things reaching you from outside--radio, TV, streaming broadcasts.  You travel by bicycle or car or bus or train or plane, not by horsepower or on foot.  You communicate with your friends by telephone or Facebook or email or texts.  You took a nice bath or shower in the recent past.  Your clothing was probably made by someone you've never met, most likely in a different country.  Now imagine not having any of this.

And yet in many ways there are strong similarities between life a thousand years ago and now.  The dominant religion was Christian, in spite of minority populations of Jews and Muslims and atheists, as is the case in the modern US and western Europe (not so many Hindus, however).  Muslims, in the abstract, were considered scary by people who didn't know any, as now the thought of "Islamic terrorism" lurking among refugees can now send shivers of fear.

Towns then, as now, were the centers of trade, commerce, and opportunity (or at least the hope for opportunity).  Northern Europe's cities were just starting to grow in 1017, but Italy already had cities, and cities had mayors and elected city councils.  Almost all of modern Europe's cities are in the same place as medieval cities, usually with the same names.  Modern Dijon, for example, was Divionensis in medieval Latin, probably pronounced something like "Divion" or "Dijon" by people who lived there.



Speaking of Dijon, the above is one of the carvings in the crypt of St.-Bénigne of Dijon.  It was brand new in 1017, and you can still go see it.

Europe's countries were taking shape in the eleventh century.  England and France were more or less where they still are.  Both Spain and Italy were divided into smaller states, but in both cases their peninsulas had a certain cohesion (complicated in Spain because the southern half was ruled by Muslims).  Germany thought of itself as a country, though it sort of wandered off to the east.

Most people paid rent for their housing to landlords.  Much of the rent was paid in labor or produce rather than coin, but they still had coins for some things.  In their houses, they did the same things we do, eat, sleep, store their possessions, relax after work.

People lived in families a thousand years ago, a mother and father, who were supposed to be married to each other, trying their best to raise the children and teach them what they needed to succeed.  Although there were not yet any public schools or universities, there were plenty of places to get an education, either in a monastery or cathedral school, although only a few could take advantage of these.  Parents loved their children and got exasperated by their teenagers, just like today.  And they worried about and took care of older relatives.

(Note, I seem to have pulled together in this post a lot of earlier ideas.  If you haven't been following my blog all along, click on the links to learn more from earlier posts.)



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