The Snobbery of Chronology
As we crawl out from underneath the havoc wrought by Irene and as we stare at the newspaper headlines each day, I am reminded of the anxiety and angst that accompanied the new millennium in December of 1999.
Aside from the fact that Hebrews viewed January 1, 2000 as the date 5760 AD, Buddhists viewed it as 2544 and Muslims – the year 1420, the Western conceit that the year 2000 held grave significance for the rest of the world was both amusing and terrifying.
Y2K doomsayers and Armageddonists portended the end of civilization. During this time of great angst, a book authored by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger was unceremoniously published in England and simply titled, The Year 1000. The author, a medieval scholar, sought to offer the English public some perspective on the daily life of an Anglo Saxon peasant in the year 1000 and to consider the significance of one thousand years of “progress” in Anglican society.
The ability to piece together the daily thoughts, events and travails of those who labored over ten centuries ago would have been an impossible task had it not been for a diligent eleventh century monastic clerk who created a series of pictures and Latin narratives describing daily life known as the Julius Work Calendar. The calendar unlike many other narratives of medieval learning had a near death experience in the mid sixteenth century during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the Roman Catholic church and its monasteries. An obscure English historian discovered the documents risked death to preserve the strangely illustrated chronology documenting the lives of common as well as landed individuals.
The calendar became a distant mirror through which modern society could see its own reflections and those of our ancestors. The monk that painstakingly maintained the record of daily living in the year 1000, painted a picture of kings, lords, ploughman, women and children – – their triumphs and tragedies in a time when death, discomfort and disease were constant companions. It is believed to be the most accurate record of its kind in the first millennium.
Prior to 1066, Anglo Saxon England was a kingdom characterized by contradictions. It was an age of faith and fear. People lived in profound uncertainty. There was universal recognition that society could not survive without a profound faith in God. People were heavily burdened in this agrarian society. Devils and saints fought for the souls of each citizen of the realm. People took Satan seriously and often attributed unexplained phenomena and bad luck to the unholy evils that sought to inhabit the twilight shadows and the dark corners of men’s hearts. Elves, fairies, demons, trolls and goblins inhabited the uncharted lands and the superstitious recesses of people’s minds. The church fought to diffuse these influences with their own army of saints who offered their lives as an example of sacrifice and faith. Saints were thought to inhabit holy places and powerful spirits were believed to be embodied in relics that were stored at these sites.
Medieval Anglo Saxon England was characterized by strong individuals, fed on beef from lean, free range animals whose fat content was a fraction of today’s processed food. Life expectancy was short, only mid-forty; a fifty year old considered an elder. Boys, as young as 12, were expected to swear allegiance to King Ethelred and to be prepared to go to battle for the kingdom. Girls married in their early teens to men often two to three times their age. It was routine to lose more than one child to plague, famine or accident.
Villages functioned as tightly knit communities and were the central threads in a tenuous tapestry held together by hard work and a cunning to survive. People went by Christian names, not surnames. One’s vocation often became as significant as their Christian name. Surnames evolved out of the recognition of one’s parents, Michael, son of John – – Michael Johnson. Alfred, son of the Shepherd – – Alfred Shepherd.
The English arrival in ancient Celtic England coincided with the departure of the Romans after 400 years of rule. The swords of the Saxons, Angles and other Germanic tribes clashed and cast a new direction for England. In bringing some semblance of order, they brought their churches and the role that the church played as the chief interpreter of all that happened in the past, present and future. Village churches were the economic, social and spiritual hubs of these small societies. “God was King in Heaven and Ethelred was King on Earth,” remarked one scholar.
Living an honorable life among the various hardships was the ultimate measure of a man. As with today’s society, there were disparities between those with wealth and the poor but it was much less pronounced and it did not compensate to extend one’s life expectancy. Rich and poor were separated by the basic necessities of living – – stone and brick versus wood and mud. Lords offered protection to serfs in exchange for fealty and servitude. Virtually everyone was aligned with a powerful person and with this allegiance often followed a modest stipend or improvement to one’s quality of life. Society was more egalitarian than one might think. The fates were recognized and constantly acknowledged as life’s great equalizer.
CS Lewis was quoted as referring to the “snobbery of chronology”. Lewis’ premise was that as a modern society we tend to view anyone who lived before us with a degree of patronizing nostalgia. By studying our ancestors, reading about them and studying their lives we feel superior to them and in doing so, believe we must know more. We certainly have facts, science and fiber optic technology that have all shined a bright light deep into the recesses of our imaginations and fears and in doing so, dispelled myths and swept away archaic views. However, it also crowded out that critical need to believe in something greater than oneself to cope with the vagaries of an uncertain world.
We have extended our chronological lives and increased our material wealth but have we proven that we have more integrity, wisdom and humility than those that lived a millennium before? CS Lewis wondered that in times of great moral and personal strife, does modern day society’s sophistication enable us to face hardships and challenges with the same determination, grit, humor and fortitude as those who lived before us? Perhaps, 1000 years ago, people did not live longer or as well, but perhaps if we explored more deeply how they lived, we might develop a greater understanding of what it means to live more nobly.