Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The twelfth century and the nineteenth

In many ways life for most people continued remarkably unchanged from the Middle Ages until the nineteenth century.  Sure, there was now a whole New World full of new foods (corn, potatoes, tomatoes, turkeys, chocolate...), and books were printed rather than handwritten, and there was gunpowder, and more organized institutions meant more people got a basic education and were taxed more regularly, and the cities were bigger, and more laws got written down.

But in 1800 the majority of Europe's population still lived in country villages and farmed, using human power and animal power rather than mechanical power.  If they wanted to go somewhere, they went on foot or horseback, and the roads were unmarked and a muddy mess.  They heated and cooked with fire, made their own clothes, used latrines, and sent messages over long distances by having someone travel with the message.

Even though we now live in an age of rapid technological change (the web is only about 25 years old, and a generation ago no one had cell phones, much less apps), in many ways the nineteenth century has us all beat for rapid technological change.

The things we take for granted, the things that separate "civilized" life from "third world" in our thinking, are electricity, telephones, indoor plumbing with running water, and furnaces/AC, plus being able to get quickly down the road.  We also take for granted factory-made goods, from clothing to cell phones to cars.  These are all nineteenth-century inventions.  Before trains, before all the rest of it, the daily life of an ordinary person at the beginning of the nineteenth century would have been a lot like life in the Middle Ages.

But the twelfth century was also a great age of invention.  Architects were trying new and exciting techniques to build churches taller and lighter than they'd ever been built before.  Windmills and watermills revolutionized the grinding of grain and hence the ease of making bread, as well as performing other useful mechanical chores.  Cities and commerce grew rapidly.  Metallurgy was greatly improved, leading to better tools, weapons, and cook pots.  Advances in plowing and crop rotation increased agricultural yields.

But you'd still rather live in the nineteenth century than the twelfth, you say.  Or would you?  The twelfth century had a functional society.  It can't have been comfortable by our standards, and child mortality was high, and the food was awfully bland, and everyone probably smelled of wood smoke.  But there were support systems and a general knowledge of how things were supposed to work.

The problem with the nineteenth century is that it disrupted everything.  Monoculture agriculture, supposedly more efficient, led to such disasters as the great Irish famine.  There were multiple revolutions and the origins of communism as reactions to a perception that everything was getting much worse very fast.  The growth of cities and factories were a big part of it.  One can talk on an elevated level about the separation of the worker from the product of his work, but it was more simple than that.

People were crowded into cities with a level of unsanitary crowding that never would have been allowed in a medieval village.  (New York City had a problem with dead horses piling up in alleyways.)  People worked not out of the home but in the factory, where 16 hour days were common and the thought of safety devices on the machinery was laughable (to management).  Pollution filled the air and the rivers, again at a level that medieval people would never have allowed.

And I would think that for those who did not have running water or furnaces or electricity, when those around one did, life would really have been grim.  (I'm talking here about Europe--don't even get me started on the situation for slaves in the American antebellum south.)

The well to do did just fine in the nineteenth century, but I've got to think that for the mass of the population, those whose ancestors had been on the farm just a generation or two earlier, it must have been awful.  Cities promised a chance to get ahead, but most weren't able to get ahead, and it was too late to go back.

So would I rather live in the twelfth century?  Actually I prefer the twenty-first, but that's just me.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

For more on medieval life, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

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