Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium

55139

Rating: 5 Stars

Review:

The Anglo-Saxon world in England holds a special place in my heart and I am forever fascinated by the likes of Alfred and Aethelstan. It never ceases to amaze me how Engla-land is the same physical place that would in the future be ruled by the likes of Henry II, Edward IV and Henry VIII. This is a wonderful little gem of a book that did not disappoint, despite coming in at 200 pages. My concern with slim volumes such as this, especially when dealing with a topic near and dear to my heart, is the potential for lacking detail and misinformation - the gossip is always better than the actual story (at least according to the Dark History series, I suppose). I was pleasantly surprised by how much detail was included and the consistent referencing to contemporary sources provides further validity to the presentation. And of course, I was glad to see several appearances by Alfred, despite his death a century before.

The text begins with an explanation of the Julius Work Calendar - a calendar that has somehow, against all odds (and Henry VIII"s rage and ambition), come down to us from the year 1020. A photograph is also included of the January page, of which my only complaint is that it is in black and white and I'd very much like to see color photographs of the pages. The authors give a brief description of the calendar and its purpose - noting the abundance of holy days and high days marking the pages. They likely conclude this document was of most religious importance, and could have been an instructional manual for monks who had recently joined the order.

Following, the book is divided in twelve chapters, by month. The cover page for each chapter includes a reproduction of a drawing taken from the corresponding page of the original calendar. Again, in this instance I would have liked to have seen the actual page, to examine it in color. A particular instance I enjoyed in the January chapter included the discrepancies having to do with when Easter was to be celebrated and also the debate over dating the birth of Christ. It has never occurred to me before that idea of zero was not in use, as this was not needed in a world which still counted by Roman numerals. The authors point out that since zero was not an accepted concept, dating was off by a year due to missing that 12 months from 0-1. They the address how Dionysius then mis-dated Christ's birth, based on when Herod died, pointing out that Christ was likely born in at most 4 BC, perhaps further back. As a result, the so-called Christian calendar is slightly off, though I think at this point no one is terribly concerned about it anymore - can you imagine trying to change centuries of thinking? Quite simply, not possible. So we accept these inaccuracies while keeping the bigger picture in mind.

Something I have mentioned in previous books about this era include my interest in how words and names have evolved. This volume covers this as well, how Angla-lond/land evolved in to England, Angle-ish to English, etc. I also found this quote to be of interest:

"The Anglo-Saxons could swear to do something, or could swear by something, but there is no record of them swearing at anything at all" (page 31).

The author mentions with this that the curse words we know today likely came from Holland in the later Middle Ages - though I would like to know more about how this conclusion was reached and what documents might still exist to show this exchange of cultural information. He also says that no obscenities occur in Anglo-Saxon documents that survive. This is interesting to think about, but one must also consider the fact that of the documents that do survive, much of the material was written by scholars and monks. Curse would would likely have been at odds with the subjects they were writing about, though perhaps I am off the mark in my own conclusion? This is something I would like to learn more about and will be in search of information about this soon.

Another note on language - it was in this time period that all humans were referred to as menn and mann was the word for human. So, there are two conclusions we could draw from this. Either the Anglo-Saxons had a much better grip on gender-equality than we do today, or they were elevating the status of men over women and encompassing both genders into one term. It might be easy to dismiss this as the latter, were it not for the abundance of wills from this time period in which fathers time and again left money and property to maintain to eldest daughters. 

There are plenty of amusing details included here, such as the fact that even 1000 years ago, chicken soup was recommended for its "soothing and restorative powers." A-MEN! There's nothing I like more than homemade chicken noodle soup when I'm sick, how neat that this is something that has not changed since early times.

The authors also discuss life for the monks in the monasteries and daily life there. As monks were discouraged from speaking vocally throughout the day, they often communicated  during meals and such with a variety of some 127 gestures and signs. The monks are compared baseball coaches in our time, albeit asking to pass the salt instead of signaling to steal third. It is an amusing image to conjure, the men at their tables, hands waving about as they speak without speaking. I'd like to see the document containing all 127 signs, though many are described here in the text.

In all, this is neat month-by-month look at this far-away time that almost seems unreal now in its simplicity. I can't imagine living in a time without noise of a large city - though I would very much like to experience it. To have no traffic noise, no neighbors blaring televisions and music, no hum of a refrigerator. Life would certainly have been both easier and more difficult at the same time. Highly recommended read.

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