Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Year 1000, Three points

So skipping merrily through three chapters, and finding three points very interesting...I'll just hit one of them today.

April is the month for Easter, and the Easter feast, coming after not only the Lenten fast but also the cold winter months, was most welcome. Yes, it was a time for celebrating that most wondrous of events, a time to party with everything you had. Not only that, but

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 the 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.

Piers Plowman, fictitious hero of the late medieval fable, said, "I shall provide...the necessities of life, unless the land fails." Do we in our enlightened, modern age even think of food as a necessity? It's a burden, costing too much and produced in ways that cause guilt for some of us. It's a joy, tasty, fun, an indulgence...until we realize it has landed squarely on our hips or bellies. But a necessity? And do we ever consider the possibility of the land failing? We have years worth of stuff put up in cans which we can subsist on, if the weather doesn't allow us to get much harvest from our gardens. Even if we grow gardens; how many just rely on Aldi, or WallyWorld, or Trader Joe's for our sustenance?

These people in the year 1000 worried year after year about the crops failing. People knew what year they were born based on which famine was occurring, or which drought. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded, in a yearly format, the events of the centuries leading up to 1000. Many of the listings say things like, "Came a very great famine...Here the great pestilence among cattle first came to England...In this year on St. Michael's Eve that great sea-flood came widely throughout this country..." Remember reading here about giving your head for food? These were those kind of years, when fathers could sell their children under 7 as slaves, when killing an infant (another mouth to feed) was not a crime, when cannibalism might have been a recent memory. People would devise suicide pacts;

Bede tells an affecting story..."frequently forty or fifty emaciated or starving people would go to a cliff, or to the edge of the sea, where they would join hands and leap over to die by the fall or by drowning."

Have you ever had to worry about that, just because TJ's is out of muffins today? Certainly not.

On the other hand, medieval people, maybe because they had these fears in the back of their minds, knew how to throw a party! Most of the action of the medieval poem Beowulf is set, like many other stories of the time, in a banqueting hall. Elaborate foods, beautiful serving pieces and drinking horns (no forks!) set the scene for dish after dish of mostly meat. Low-fat meat; grass raised or even wild game was the most prevalent. And the beverages...Milk was seasonal and perishable. It became cheese. Water was often foul, carrying who knows what pathogens from who knows where. Mead was the main event of the meal, a supersweet alcoholic beverage made from crushed honeycombs. Wine and beer were less common, and less alcoholic. In fact, their low alcohol content is just what made them so uncommon; they couldn't be stored long. Wine, at the time, was light and fruity, and drunk soon after harvest. Beer was also drunk quickly. Ale was the major daily drink of choice. It was boiled, killing some of the nasties that would contaminate the drinking horn. It wouldn't remind us of Sam Adams, though; it had a consistency more like a watery porridge.


Italicized quotes from The Year 1000, 1999, Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger.

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