Friday, December 31, 2004

As the Millennium Turns (Revisited)

New Year's Eve seems a particularly appropriate time to revisit a book review that begins with the question, "What are you doing New Year's Eve?"

It's hard to believe, but six years ago, millions of people around the world were gripped with near-panic over the Y2K phenomenon -- the fear that, when the clock struck midnight+one second on December 31, 1999/January 1, 2000, computers everywhere would fail, airplanes would fall out of the sky, credit card accounts would disappear ... and on and on the fright night would continue.

In the months leading up to "Y2K," a readable and informative book appeared, which described the approach of the second millennium, the year 1000. I reviewed the book for The Metro Herald on March 25, 1999. Here is how it appeared. (One update: As you would expect, the book's ranking is no longer 100; as of today, it was listed as #633,893.)

As the Millennium Turns

Review of The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium, by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger (New York and London: Little, Brown and Company, 1999). $23.00, 256 pages.

What are you doing New Year's Eve? This question takes on new meaning this year, as excitement brews over the advent of the new millennium. Technically, of course, the second millennium -- and the 21st century -- will not begin until one minute after midnight on January 1, 2001. To admit this is not pedantic, it is simply acknowledgment that there is no Year Zero in the Christian calendar.

Still, the anticipation we feel about the calendar changing all four numbers in the year is unique. Neither our parents nor grandparents ever had such an experience, nor their parents and grandparents before them, nor their parents and grandparents before them.

No, to find anyone who experienced anything like this before, one must reflect on life one thousand years ago. One thing is certain: no one was worried about the dislocations caused by the "Y1K problem" in the year 999. In fact, few people in that largely illiterate an innumerate society even knew that a new millennium was about to dawn and, if they did, they had no microchips with date bugs in them -- they didn't even have Arabic numerals yet, and the abacus had not yet reached Central Asia, much less the Europe from which we inherited the bulk of our culture.

In this fascinating and readable look back at what life was like at the turn of the last millennium, British writers Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger help us to inhabit the minds and bodies of our predecessors in medieval England. Lacey is author of several books on Tudor history and biography as well as a profile of the current House of Windsor and Danziger is an award-winning journalist for British quality newspapers like The Independent and The Sunday Times.

Lacey and Danziger take as their starting-off point the "Julius Work Calendar," an illustrated document that shows a different scene of daily life for each month -- agriculture, commerce, feasting, religious observance, hunting, and so forth. Reproductions of the illustrations begin each of their chapters. This document is significant because it is "the earliest surviving example of an Englishman laying out life in a daily routine, juggling time, the schedule of the earth, and the life of the spirit."

The authors offer some surprising, unexpected tidbits of information. For instance:

-- "If you were to meet an Englishman in the year 1000, the first thing that would strike you would be how tall he was -- very much the size of anyone alive today. It is generally believed that we are taller than our ancestors, and that is certainly true when we compare our stature to the size of more recent generations. Malnourished and overcrowded, the inhabitants of Georgian or Victorian England could not match our health or physique at the end of the twentieth century.

"But the bones that have been excavated from the graves of people buried in England in the years around 1000 tell a tale of strong and healthy folk . . . . Nine out of ten of them lived in a green and unpolluted countryside on a simple, wholesome diet that grew sturdy limbs -- and very healthy teeth."

-- "It was a warmer world. Archaeological evidence indicates that the years 950 to 1300 were marked by noticeably warmer temperatures than we experience today, even in the age of ‘global warming.' Meteorologists describe this medieval warm epoch as the ‘Little Optimum' . . .

". . . During the ‘Little Optimum,' Edinburgh enjoyed the climate of London, while London enjoyed the climate of the Loire valley in France, a difference of 2 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit -- the equivalent in modern American terms of San Francisco's climate moving north to Seattle."

-- "There was no spinach. This did not appear in European gardens until spinach seeds were brought back from the Crusades in the twelfth century. Broccoli, cauliflower, runner beans, and brussels sprouts were all developed in later centuries by subsequent generations of horticulturalists. Nor were there any potatoes or tomatoes. . . . and though the recipe books describe warm possets and herbal infusions, there were none of the still-to-be-imported stimulants -- tea, coffee, or chocolate."

-- "The historian who would examine such a private subject as sexual behavior in the years around 1000 has virtually nothing to work with beyond a group of sentences in the Life of St. Dunstan, describing the decadent King Eadwig, who scandalised the great of the land by failing to appear at his coronation feast in 955 A.D. When Dunstan dared to enter the royal bedchamber, he found the jewelled crown of England disrespectfully thrown on the floor, and the king energetically enjoying the charms of a young lady who, for all we know, could well have been the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of a White House intern -- with her mother cavorting in the same bed beside her."

And so it goes. The Year 1000 is a joy to read. It is not written in a dense, academic style, but rather with the average (but curious) reader in mind. Lacey and Danziger anticipate the sort of topics that will interest a reader on the cusp of the 21st century, and address each one in turn. For those who find the book intriguing, a set of acknowledgments and extensive bibliography are available to aid further research. Perhaps these qualities explain why The Year 1000 is already ranked number 100 among purchases on

Be sure to visit my CafePress store for gifts and novelty items!
Read my blog on Kindle!

No comments: