If you were to meet an Englishman in the year 1000, the first thing that would strike you would be how tall he was very much the size of anyone alive today.3 It is generally believed that we are taller than our ancestors, and that is certainly true when we compare our stature to the size of more recent generations. Malnourished and overcrowded, the inhabitants of Georgian or Victorian England could not match our health or physique at the end of the twentieth century.
But the bones that have been excavated from the graves of people buried in England in the years around 1000 tell a tale of strong and healthy folk the Anglo-Saxons who had occupied the greater part of the British Isles since the departure of the Romans. Nine out of ten of them lived in a green and unpolluted countryside on a simple, wholesome diet that grew sturdy limbs and very healthy teeth. It was during the centuries that followed the first millennium that overpopulation and overcrowding started to aVect the stature and well-being of western Europeans. Excavations of later medieval sites reveal bodies that are already smaller than those discovered from the years around 1000, and archaeologists who have studied these centuries say that they can almost see the devastation of the Black Death looming in the evidence of the increasingly frail and unhealthy skeletal remains.4
Life was simple. People wore the simple, sack-like tunics with leggings that we laugh at in the Monty Python movies, though in colours that were rather less muddy. Despite the lack of sharp chemical dyes in the year 1000, natural vegetable colourings could produce a range of strong and cheerful hues, with bright reds, greens, and yellows. It was a world without buttons, which had yet to be invented. Clothes were still fastened with clasps and thongs.
Life was short. A boy of twelve was considered old enough to swear an oath of allegiance to the king, while girls got married in their early teens, often to men who were significantly older than they were. Most adults died in their forties, and fifty-year-olds were considered venerable indeed. No one "went out to work," but the evidence of arthritis in the bones excavated from Anglo-Saxon graves indicates that most people endured a lifetime of hard manual labour and the Julius Work Calendar shows the different forms which that labour could take. Across the bottom of January's calendar page moves the ploughman, slicing open England's damp and often clay-ridden crust with the heavy iron blade that had been the making of the country's farming landscape.
"The ploughman feeds us all," declared Aelfric, the Wessex schoolmaster who, in the years 987 to 1002, taught his pupils by getting them to observe and analyse the different economic activities they could see around them. "The ploughman gives us bread and drink."5
It looks so slow and primitive to us, the heavy plough dragged by the oxen train. But compared to farming technologies in many other parts of the world at that time, the wheeled and iron-bladed plough of northwestern Europe was supercharged, enabling just two men to tear up a whole acre of soil with the help of the beasts which not only provided the "horsepower," but enriched the fields with their manure.
The wheeled plough was the foundation of life for English people living in the year 1000. It opened the soil to air and water, enabling soluble minerals to reach deep levels, while rooting out weeds and tossing them aside to wither in the open air. It was not a new invention. In the middle of the first century a.d., the Roman historian Pliny the Elder described some such device in use to the north of the Alps, and the evidence suggests that this powerful and handy machine was the crucial element in cultivating the land cleared from Europe's northwestern forests.6 One man to hold the plough, one to walk with the oxen, coaxing and singing and, when necessary, goading the animals forward with a stick: this [created] furrows of freshly turned earth, the secret of how the soil had been tamed in the course of the previous centuries. It was the reason why, by the turn of the millennium, England was able to support a population of at least a million souls.
Copyright © 1998 by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of http://www.twbookmark.com. Click here for ordering information for "The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium: An Englishman's World" at Amazon.com.