…the Viagra of the year 1000…

What a 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: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World and this one doesn’t have recipes). (And why not, I ask? Hmmph.)

The authors take something called the Julius Work Calendar, a medieval reminder of work and faith with wonderful illustrations at the bottom of each month’s page reproduced at the beginning of each chapter of the book and explained in the following text, to illustrate life in Anglo-Saxon England. Did you know July was called “the hunger gap” back then, because it 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’d 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 is able and vivid, and you can see the twinkle in the writers’ eyes, as in excerpts from a First Millennial (caps are mine) medical book called Bard’s Leechbook (I want my own copy) 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 as “insufficiently virile” — and if boiled in Welsh ale, it was described as having exactly the contrary effect.

although later they 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 eyewitnesses. About the easiest way into medieval studies I’ve ever stumbled across.

Book Review Monday Chatter

Dana View All →

Author and founder of Storyknife.org.

1 Comment Leave a comment

  1. Trying to decide just how much time I want to devote to learning (Possibly Latin) the language of Bard’s, because I found a pdf version! Daughter Margaret was fluent in Latin during her University time – Anthropology major – but that was 23 years past. She does mumble imprecations, but I think that is either Greek or Old Sam.

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