[from the stabenow.com vaults, 5/13/2010]
I just finished reading The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium, by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger. Don’t let the title scare you, because I have seldom read a more delightfully informative little book. I don’t know how they crammed so much information into just 200 pages (reminds me of Mark Kurlansky’s Cod in that respect, and this one doesn’t have recipes). The authors take something called the Julius Work Calendar, a medieval reminder of work and faith with wonderful illustrations, and use it to describe daily life in Anglo-Saxon England.
Did you know July was called “the hunger gap” back then, because July was right where the stores of last year’s harvest ran out, but before the new crop was ready to reap? Did you know that if you fondled a woman’s breast, uninvited, it would cost you a fine of five shillings? Did you know there were no surnames in the year 1000? They never left home, you were going to have the same name as your dad and your mom, so you didn’t need them. Did you know Benedictine monks, by oath silent most of their lives, worked out a sign language with over 127 signs? “One gets the impression,” write the authors, “that mealtimes in a Benedictine refectory were rather like a gathering of baseball coaches…”
The prose throughout this novel is able and vivid, and you can see the twinkle in the writers’ eyes, as in excerpts from a First Millennial medical book called Bard’s Leechbook, which conveniently lists maladies starting with the head and working down. Mid-body we find a cure for male impotence, or “…the Viagra of the year 1000 — the yellow-flowered herb agrimony. Boiled in milk, agrimony was guaranteed to excite the man who was “insufficiently virile” — and if boiled in Welsh ale, it was described as having exactly the contrary effect. Although later the authors do say, “Several of the Leechbook recipes would have done credit to the witches in Macbeth.”
The authors don’t idealize the Anglo-Saxons in the year 1000, but they respect them and their resilience and capability, and they have a knack for making the narrative sound like it’s all happening next door and all we have to do is stick our heads out the window to be eye witnesses. “Here is the earliest surviving example of an Englishman laying out life in a daily routine, juggling time, the schedule of the earth, and the life of the spirit,” the authors write. “These are people like us.”
About the easiest way into medieval studies I’ve ever stumbled across.
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.