If our biggest fear about the approaching millennium is a pestiferous computer glitch, things could be -- and have been -- a lot worse, as historian Robert Lacey and journalist Denny Danziger make amusingly clear in their new book, "The Year 1000." According to them, a phantasmagoria of woes (stomach-twisting famine, crop-killing floods, marauding Vikings, evil spirits, rampant disease) characterized the English millennial world. It was also "perfumed by shit." Medical treatment might involve the application of hot pokers in "an excruciatingly painful form of acupuncture"; internally dwelling parasites could pop out at any time through any orifice, including the corner of the eye; and poverty-induced indentured servitude was a seasonal threat.
The main purpose of the book, however, isn't to highlight the horrors of life 1,000 years ago but simply to portray it. The authors perform this task well, fusing their respective talents as historian and journalist into a crisp, anecdotal style and cramming an astonishing amount of information into 200 pages. It's hard to imagine a better executed, easier-to-digest primer on the social, political and religious life of the age.
We learn that average people in 1000 dressed in the sacklike tunics with leggings that "we laugh at in Monty Python movies," were just as tall as we are now (they shrank later, due to malnourishment), lived in wooden houses with dirt floors, recognized every animal in their village and knew who owned it, had a 90 percent chance of living in the country and a 99 percent shot at illiteracy, used moss for toilet paper and died in their 40s.
"For the vast majority of ordinary people, life was a struggle in even the smallest respect," the authors write. They do a good job of describing the working life of the time, which revolved around the harvest and bowed to such "milestones of misery" as floods, disease and famine. They also lay out, concisely and memorably, the evolution of the English language and the history of the centuries leading up to the millennium.
A hint of a jingoistic smile creeps across the mugs of Lacey and Danziger as they recount all the things their Sceptered Isle had over other countries by 1000: enforced laws and taxes, effective county and national governments, wealth (thanks mainly to the export of wool), a working silver coin-based monetary system with more than 70 local mints, a tradition of learning and record-keeping and a legal system that gave women equal rights as property owners. "Consent and social co-operation are among the most difficult elements to define in any society," the authors observe, "but they were to prove crucial for the long-term future of the English way."
Finally, Lacey and Danziger draw some provocative parallels between the first millennium and the second. They note that by 1000 Christianity (brought to England in 597 by Benedictine monks) had decisively defeated paganism and become the dominant religion in Western Europe, just as the battle between the "two mighty ideologies" of democracy and communism has now been decided. And just as the fringe societies of Europe then flocked to Christianity, so have the former Eastern Bloc countries embraced democracy. More chillingly, then just as now, "a new element of puritanical asceticism [was] claiming control of religion."
Times have changed, but human nature, clearly, has not.