Robert Lacey &
Danny Danziger,
The Year 1000:
What Life was Like at the
Turn of the First Millennium

(Little, Brown & Co., 1999;
Back Bay Books, 2000)

The world didn't end with the turning of the calendar from 1999 to 2000. Even the much-ballyhooed computer woes failed to materialize. So, now that we can all relax, perhaps you're curious how people lived in 1,000 years ago, at the last great calendar shift.

The answers may surprise you. You can read them for yourself in The Year 1000: What Life was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger.

The book is organized in 12 chapters built around the Julius Work Calendar, a parchment book dated to around 1020 which details the daily physical and spiritual lives of the English. Each chapter begins with a drawing from the calendar depicting people in various activities, from plowing to feasting and cultivating grapes.

The men and women of the day were hale and hearty folk. While crowding, unclean living conditions and plagues would have a dramatic impact on the health and stature of people in later years, the mostly rural Anglo-Saxons of pre-1066 had not yet begun to suffer those effects. They were strong and had healthy teeth, although their adult lives began in their early teens and lifespans usually stretched only into the 40s.

The Year 1000 explores the importance of England's agricultural traditions and the importance they had in people's daily lives. We learn of the surprising autonomy some women had in those male-dominated days, how they lived, worked and worshipped, the status of education, slavery and service, and how the language evolved, particularly with the blending of Old English and Norse. It details surviving traces of paganism in their society and covers the importance of holy days and saints' relics, as well as the grim realities of Viking raids, taxes and tolls.

The book also gives the lie to the modern presumption that residents of that era were largely ignorant of the world around them. Scandinavian explorers reached North America sometime close to the year 1000, and British sailors likewise recognized the world as being round, not flat. In fact, England's King Alfred in the ninth century described the galaxy in three-dimensional terms (although he, like scientists for the next few centuries, placed the Earth at the galaxy's immobile center, around which everything else turned). The early Brits also had a remarkable knowledge of human anatomy and were apparently skilled in some forms of surgery (including trepanning) but were still fairly ignorant in the causes and treatments of disease.

The Year 1000 is not laugh-out-loud funny, but the authors' witty prose style is certainly not dry textbook reading, either. Lacey and Danziger present the people of England, circa 1000, with compassion and respect, detailing the potential joys and horrors of their lives with equal care. History buffs and anglophiles will find this a must-read, and it will engage the interest of even the more casual reader.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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