Saturday, June 18, 2011

The year 1000

This was an interesting little book. It goes through the year explaining in much more detail than you usually get what was happening in England in 1000 AD. It was amazingly informative and fun. There are so many assumptions we have about this period of history and this rips a lot of them to shreds. The first one I had was that we didn't have a lot of information about this time period. And while we don't have the mountain of information that comes later we have enough for a good idea of how things were.

So many of the things we learn about how the people lived highlight how different our society is now from what the majority of human existence has been like. And how the privileged parts of the world have this distinct difference, there are still places where the change isn't as much as you would hope.
But in the year 1000 very few people were free in the sense that we understand the word today. Almost everyone was beholden to someone more powerful than themselves, and the men and women who had surrendered themselves into bondage lived in conditions that were little different to those of any other member of the labouring classes.
  In the year 1000 people could not imagine themselves without a protector. You had a lord in heaven and you needed a lord on earth.. . .It is a late-twentieth-century innovation to scorn the concept of "service." In the year 1000 every English village had its local lord who provided an umbrella of protection for his neighborhood, and that relationship involved a significant amount of mutual respect.
This jumped out at me because I have often wondered if the hostility towards authority or anyone in power above you inspires the anti-religious feeling in the West. As well as a lot of illogical protestations of independence. We are still tied to each other. Some have more power than others. In our "egalitarian" world those with power must disguise it. This leads to a lot of illegal and abusive practices. Would a toleration for more obvious power encourage transparency (that Shangri-La of all political watchdogs) or just more abuse?

Then we also have the notion of responsibility. As promises made to workers are broken and unions on the decline, will the businesses ever benefit the worker in the way that capitalism theory says they will? The idea is that it is good for a business to have healthy, productive workers, so they won't starve them into un-usability. We all know how that is working out. (Just to be clear here, I don't think a lot of those pension promises should have been made and I think that all-powerful unions are also bad, just look at Britain in the 70s.)

In a passage on the high point of the year in 1000, Easter, the author makes this point:
The Easter feast was appreciated the more by people who had encountered the reality of famine. Today we watch famine on television, but it is scarcely a source of personal anxiety to those of us who live in the developed West. It is another of the crucial distinctions between us and the year 1000, where the possibility of famine was ever-present and haunted the imagination.
It also occurred to me that the symbolism of Christ as the living bread and water, that would never run out had added potency to people in this time. Every year had a hungry time, between the end of one harvest and the beginning of the next. Famine wasn't just a occasional thing, but could happen every single year if conditions weren't plentiful. How little we care for all we have when we have always had it. Food comes easily. We might keep food storage and feel secure, but if the grocery store wasn't there, how would we really feel about living on beans and rice everyday?

After all that I loved the closing paragraph.
What C.S. Lewis called the "snobbery of chronology" encourages us to presume that just because we happen to have lived after our ancestors and can read books which give us some account of what happened to them, we must also know better than them. We certainly have more facts at our disposal.  We have more wealth, both personal and national, better technology, and infinitely more skillful ways of preserving and extending our lives. But whether we today 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.

1 comment:

jendoop said...

I like that last quote too. Paul would probably be interested in this book.