The Year 1000

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An excerpt from "The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium: An Englishman's World" by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger

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England itself was a network of magical sites. The altar of every church contained the physical relics of at least one saint. The origin of the tradition whereby many modern churches are dedicated to a particular saint goes back to the founding principle of Roman church belief that a saint is intimately present wherever his or her relics might rest. Heaven was visualised as being something like the royal court. God sat there in judgement like the king, and paid most attention to those who could catch His ear. On earth it was the great warriors and magnates who enjoyed that access. In heaven it was the saints. Their holy lives and suffering on earth had earned them direct transfer from earth to God's presence, without any waiting in purgatory, while their bodies, or the body parts reposing in the altar of their church, were believed to be still living. Many were the reports of saints' tombs being opened and evidences of life being discovered growing hair or nails, or unperished limbs still containing blood — proof of the vitality and effectiveness of the Christian god. The churches whose saints proved particularly potent became centres of cults and pilgrimage.

When King Ethelbert of Kent received the first group of Christian priests who brought him greetings from the Pope in Rome in 597 a.d., he insisted on meeting them in the open air, so the wind would blow away any spells that they might try to cast upon him with their alien magic.12 Four hundred years later the Christian magic had all England in its thrall, and the shrines of its saints provided the nation with its energy centres. Up in the north were the relics of the Venerable Bede, cherished since his death in 735 by the monks of Tyneside and Wear. Within fifty years of his death his cult as a saint was well established by local testimony that his relics had worked miraculous cures, and the potency of Bede's bones was such that many laid claim to them. In the mid-eleventh century they were transferred to Durham. Down in Wessex, Glastonbury claimed some relics of Bede to augment the abbey's reputation as one of the most holy spots in England. According to later legend, Jesus himself had walked in ancient times at Glastonbury "in England's pleasant pastures," and St. Joseph of Arimethea had travelled here to plant the famous Glastonbury Thorn, which had been taken from the Crown of Christ, and which flowered every year at Christmas.13

At the heart of Wessex, in the great cathedral at Winchester, lay the body of St. Swithin, bishop of Winchester in the middle of the ninth century, and the object of a busy cult within a century of his death. According to Aelfric, the schoolteacher and great prose writer of his day, the sick flocked to Winchester in vast numbers to be cured by St. Swithin. "Within ten days," recorded Aelfric, "two hundred men were healed, and so many within twelve months, that no man could count them. The burial ground lay filled with crippled folk, so that one could not easily visit the cathedral."14

Aelfric was a teacher in the monastery school in Cerne Abbas, a few days' ride from Winchester, where he himself was educated, so it seems most likely that he was reporting from firsthand observation. Living and teaching for more than a dozen years in the shadow of the Cerne Abbas giant, the great pagan fertility god with rampant genitalia carved out of the chalk hillside above the village, it is not surprising that the ironic and quizzical Aelfric should have displayed a detached view of certain human claims to contact with the supernatural: "Some dreams are in truth from God, even as we read in books," he once wrote, "and some are from the Devil for some deceit, seeking how he may pervert the soul." But of the miracles in the crowded tenth-century cemetery of Winchester, Aelfric had no doubt: "All were so miraculously healed within a few days," he wrote, "that one could not find there five unsound men out of that great crowd."15

This was an age of faith. People believed as fervently in the powers of saints' bones as many today believe that wheat bran or jogging or psychoanalysis can increase the sum of human happiness. The saints had lived real lives. They had measured their principles fearlessly against adversity — and many had lived quite recently, since there was no formal process of canonisation as there is today. A beloved local abbot or abbess could become a saint in their locality within a few years of their death. Mass outpourings of grief like that which attended the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997 were the first step to sainthood in the year 1000. The next step was the testimony of the faithful to portents and miracles occurring.

You were not on your own. That was the comforting message of the little Julius Work Calendar with its twelve monthly recitations of saints' festivals. God was there to help, and so was a whole network of fellow human beings, from the distant past up to your own era. In the year 1000 the saints were a presence as vital and dynamic as any band of elves or demons. They were a living community to whom one prayed, and among whom one lived.

Source Notes

3. See Werner, p. 108, for a table of London body heights over the centuries, based on excavations going back to prehistoric times. This shows, for example, that the average Saxon male body height was 5'8", as compared to the modern average of 5'9" (and a Victorian male average of 5'5". The table also shows that, at 5'41/4", the average Saxon female was actually taller than the modern female Londoner, whose average height is 5'g3/4". The equivalent height for the female Victorian was 5'11/4".)

4. Ibid.

5. Swanton, Anglo-Saxon Prose, pp. 174,175.

6. Derry and Williams, p. 57; Daumas, pp. 468-470.

7. Bede, p. 186.

8. Ibid., p. 189.

9. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Macropaedia, vol. 3, pp. 595 ff., Calendar.

10. Farmer, pp. 339, 340.

11. Herzfeld, p. x.

12. Bede, p. 75.

13. Phillips, p. 40.

14. Aelfric's Lives of the Saints, quoted in Brooke, Popular Religion, p. 37.

15. Ibid.

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Copyright © 1998 by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of 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