(Dr. W.) Compared
with the way things used to be, we have it so very soft today. It's
easy to take our modern conveniences for granted. We can fill
our days with leisure, bustle around in comfy autos, work only 40
of the 168 hours in a week, chat with therapists, read philosophy,
shop for unnecessary stuff to clog our closets and garages, climate
control our dwellings and complain about the softness of our mattresses.
In the year 1000, even when agriculture had been around for some
10,000 years, life was entirely different. In Anglo-Saxon society, a precursor
to the modern West, the possibility of famine was ever-present and memories of
the last one made dread and fear a part of everyday life. Looming natural
disasters were constant specters.
Domiciles were not the neat and clean hygienic environs we experience
today. They did not smell of disinfectant or exhaust from engines wafting
in the windows, but the exhaust from every manner of farm creature and humans
always hung in the air. Manure was everywhere with each one having its
characteristic bouquet of fragrance. The human nose in the year 1000 could
certainly not be so prissy as ours today.
Latrines were located at or near the back door and moss was toilet paper. Flies
filled the dank and earthen floor homes where there were few if any hard
surfaced utensils and there was no understanding of disease vectors or antiseptic. If
you dropped food on the filthy floor, you picked it up and ate it with relish. Five
baths a year for monks was thought to be fanaticism by Saxon standards of personal
In time of famine, their law code permitted fathers to sell their
sons aged seven or above into slavery. Infanticide was not a crime. Communities
of 40 or 50 starving emaciated people would join hands at the edge of a cliff
and jump. Some chronicles report that "men ate each other." They
would comb the forests for beechnuts overlooked by the wild pigs and would grind
acorns, beans, peas and tree bark into a flour to bake as bread. Hedgerows
were scoured for paltry herbs, roots, nettles and grasses. "What makes
bitter things sweet?" asked a Yorkshire schoolmaster. "Hunger."
A "crazy bread" of ground poppies, hemp and darnel gave
our poor starving ancestors some relief with visions of paradise. Molds
that laced the rye that was aging contained a variety of mycotoxins
(and lysergic acid [LSD], the psychedelic drug of the "60s)
that could not only make people appear mad but would severely weaken
the immune system, permitting disease to run rampant. (Note
that the cause of the great plagues and epidemics was not the disease
agent, but the fragile or non-existent immune system of the starving
and poisoned host.)
The church would help allay the pain by harnessing hunger to spiritual
purposes. Lent made virtue of necessity, coming as it did in
the final months of winter when barns and larders were growing empty. Feast
and famine were linked to spiritual purification and gave meaning
to hardship as well as hope for better times.
July was particularly tough since the spring crops had not matured
and the barns were empty from the previous year's harvest. Starving
was common in the balmiest month of the year when so much toil in
the fields was necessary.
Every single hour of the August harvest month was filled with urgency,
since everyone knew from the pains of July what was in store for
them next year if they did not fill their larders now. Work
was not a right, a place to lobby for benefits and ease. It
was a life and death struggle.
The contrast between then and now is astonishing. They were
on the verge of starvation; we are fighting an epidemic of obesity. They
might have to subsist for months on potatoes or stale bread; we have
a glut of food options at our instant disposal. They had shortened
life spans and were highly vulnerable to injury and disease. We
live longer but suffer cruel lingering degenerative conditions.
It is clear from a realistic view of times gone by that it was
not the advent of modern medicine that brought relief, it was, as
I mentioned in a previous article on SARS,
it was the plumber bringing public utilities and with that the possibility
of hygiene and the trucker distributing food supplies that brought
us our present long lives.
For them it was a daily struggle for survival. Necessity
and muscle ruled the day. It was the physical stress of enduring
cold, harnessing 8 oxen to a plow to break new soil, hand harvesting
and making their own way every moment of the day. It was the
true helplessness and victimization (unlike modern day contrived
social "victims" clamoring for rights and handouts) from
floods, droughts, winds and rain that could wipe out their only hope
to avoid starvation in the coming year. For us it is a surfeit
of choices requiring intellectual decisions – decisions that
make the difference between whether we experience full health or
its slow insidious ruination by mindlessly partaking of every offering
that promises yet more ease and flavor just because it is there.