Monday Books: 1,000 years of misunderstanding


David V. Barrett
Monday 22 March 1999 00:02 GMT

IF YOU think the Anglo-Saxons were runtish little guys (after all, average height increases century by century, doesn't it?), you'd be wrong. Their men were only an inch shorter than today's men and their women were, on average, slightly taller, by half an inch. And if you think that 1,000 years ago they were running around panicking about the end of the first millennium, that's another myth. Most people had no idea what year it was.

That last statement needs clarifying. The ordinary Anglo-Saxon in the muddy lane would talk of "So many years since the Great Storm/Flood/ Plague", and a fair number might think in terms of "the Xth year of King Y's reign". But the monks knew what year it was; 269 years earlier, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the Venerable Bede had popularised Dionysius Exiguus's Anno Domini system of counting the years. Such was Bede's influence that the cumulative Anglo-Saxon Chronicle took up the idea just over a century before the millennium.

So as the three zeros approached, was there fearful anticipation of the return of Christ? Perhaps, but very little, according to Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger in their thoroughly enjoyable The Year 1000. In fact, there was more concern over the year 1033 as the (supposed) 1,000th anniversary of the death and Resurrection of Christ: the real start of Christianity.

Lacey and Danziger, both journalists rather than historians, took an unusual approach to researching this book, which is subtitled "What life was like at the turn of the first millennium: an Englishman's world". As well as the usual reading, they interviewed more than 50 historians. This not only ensured factual material; it also provided a mass of almost anecdotal details, recalled from lifetimes of study.

For instance, you may think of July as a good month, but one historian calls it "the hungry gap", with last year's stored food exhausted and this year's harvest a month away. Even in a good year July was a time of hunger; in a bad year, it meant starvation. Was this made better or worse for poor countryfolk, already light-headed through lack of nourishment, by the fact that mouldy rye could produce lysergic acid diethylamide - LSD? The people seemed to know what they were doing: "Poppies, hemp and darnel were scavenged, dried, and ground up to produce a medieval hash brownie known as `crazy bread'."

Another popular misconception is that medieval England was heavily wooded. In fact, early Britons, Romans and Anglo-Saxons had all felled trees in order to plant crops. The countryside did not look too dissimilar to today's. Practically every village and town on modern maps already existed in the year 1000, under more or less today's name. Our language too, was already well-developed, a pidgin merging of two "similar yet awkwardly different" tongues, Anglo-Saxon and Norse. Grammatical differences were solved by "the rubbing away through day-to-day usage of complicated word endings". Yet, intriguingly, those words we now euphemistically call "Anglo-Saxon" were a much later import; there is no evidence of swear-words or obscenities in the "English" of the year 1000.

But popular myths live on. Every schoolboy knows exactly what happened two-thirds of a century later. Harold's army had just returned exhausted from fighting another campaign, William's troops were far better armed, and Harold died with an arrow through his eye. Wrong on all counts, according to Frank McLynn in 1066: the Year of the Three Battles, his thoroughly detailed study of the events leading up to the Norman invasion, and especially of the characters involved. The historical truth is far more complex and intriguing than schoolboy beliefs. In contrast to Lacey and Danziger's light history, McLynn's book is a more academic study, sometimes heavy going, in part simply because of the vast number of characters, many of whom have very similar names.

McLynn takes the three main characters of 1066 - Harold Godwinson, King of England only since January, Harald Hardrada, sole King of Norway for nearly 20 years, and William, who had been Duke of Normandy for 30 years before winning England. He examines in depth where they came from and how they gained their positions. The politics of northern Europe nearly a millennium ago were both complex and messy. As likely as not, you would gain power by the sword, and reduce your competitors by judicious use of poison. Alliances shifted like leaves in the wind; bravery there certainly was, and plotting, and intrigue and treachery too.

These two books could hardly be more different in style, though they deal with much the same period. McLynn's is more a traditional history, full of kings and battles and dates; Lacey and Danziger tell how life was lived by the ordinary villager or monk. Yet, taken together, they are beautifully complementary, and provide a superb insight into life as it was lived a thousand years ago.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in