Compared with the way things used to be, we have it so very soft today. It’s easy to take our modern conveniences for granted. We can fill our days with leisure, bustle around in comfy autos, work only 40 of the 168 hours in a week, chat with therapists, read philosophy, shop for unnecessary stuff to clog our closets and garages, climate control our dwellings and complain about the softness of our mattresses.
In the year 1000, even when agriculture had been around for some 10,000 years, life was entirely different. In Anglo-Saxon society, a precursor to the modern West, the possibility of famine was ever-present and memories of the last one made dread and fear a part of everyday life. Looming natural disasters were constant specters.
Domiciles were not the neat and clean hygienic environs we experience today. They did not smell of disinfectant or exhaust from engines wafting in the windows, but the exhaust from every manner of farm creature and humans always hung in the air. Manure was everywhere with each one having its characteristic bouquet of fragrance. The human nose in the year 1000 could certainly not be so prissy as ours today.
Latrines were located at or near the back door and moss was toilet paper. Flies filled the dank and earthen floor homes where there were few if any hard surfaced utensils and there was no understanding of disease vectors or antiseptic. If you dropped food on the filthy floor, you picked it up and ate it with relish. Five baths a year for monks was thought to be fanaticism by Saxon standards of personal hygiene.
In time of famine, their law code permitted fathers to sell their sons aged seven or above into slavery. Infanticide was not a crime. Communities of 40 or 50 starving emaciated people would join hands at the edge of a cliff and jump. Some chronicles report that “men ate each other.” They would comb the forests for beechnuts overlooked by the wild pigs and would grind acorns, beans, peas and tree bark into a flour to bake as bread. Hedgerows were scoured for paltry herbs, roots, nettles and grasses. “What makes bitter things sweet?” asked a Yorkshire schoolmaster. “Hunger.”
A “crazy bread” of ground poppies, hemp and darnel gave our poor starving ancestors some relief with visions of paradise. Molds that laced the rye that was aging contained a variety of mycotoxins (and lysergic acid [LSD], the psychedelic drug of the “60s) that could not only make people appear mad but would severely weaken the immune system, permitting disease to run rampant. (Note that the cause of the great plagues and epidemics was not the disease agent, but the fragile or non-existent immune system of the starving and poisoned host.)
The church would help allay the pain by harnessing hunger to spiritual purposes. Lent made virtue of necessity, coming as it did in the final months of winter when barns and larders were growing empty. Feast and famine were linked to spiritual purification and gave meaning to hardship as well as hope for better times.
July was particularly tough since the spring crops had not matured and the barns were empty from the previous year’s harvest. Starving was common in the balmiest month of the year when so much toil in the fields was necessary.
Every single hour of the August harvest month was filled with urgency, since everyone knew from the pains of July what was in store for them next year if they did not fill their larders now. Work was not a right, a place to lobby for benefits and ease. It was a life and death struggle.
The contrast between then and now is astonishing. They were on the verge of starvation; we are fighting an epidemic of obesity. They might have to subsist for months on potatoes or stale bread; we have a glut of food options at our instant disposal. They had shortened life spans and were highly vulnerable to injury and disease. We live longer but suffer cruel lingering degenerative conditions.
It is clear from a realistic view of times gone by that it was not the advent of modern medicine that brought relief, it was, as I mentioned in a previous article on SARS, it was the plumber bringing public utilities and with that the possibility of hygiene and the trucker distributing food supplies that brought us our present long lives.
For them it was a daily struggle for survival. Necessity and muscle ruled the day. It was the physical stress of enduring cold, harnessing 8 oxen to a plow to break new soil, hand harvesting and making their own way every moment of the day. It was the true helplessness and victimization (unlike modern day contrived social “victims” clamoring for rights and handouts) from floods, droughts, winds and rain that could wipe out their only hope to avoid starvation in the coming year. For us it is a surfeit of choices requiring intellectual decisions decisions that make the difference between whether we experience full health or its slow insidious ruination by mindlessly partaking of every offering that promises yet more ease and flavor just because it is there.