The Year 1000

By Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger

The Year 1000 was the last time we had a millennium change prior to Y2k. In the lead up to 2000, these two historians decided to write a book about the last year of the last millennium. Clearly, there isn’t much written source material for the year 1000, so they rely heavily on what writing there is and archaeology. They found a calendar with pictures for each month that describe basically what is happening during that month for the people who used it, and that was their main source of organization.

The book is organized into “months” instead of chapters, and some aspect of the picture is used to determine what the authors will discuss for that chapter, although this can be rather loose. For example, in November, we conclude that we are yet to see an image of a woman on the entire calendar and thus we talk about why women were left off of the thing, and how they were seen by the rest of society. This is actually one of the most interesting chapters in which we learn that the word for “women” actually translates to “man who weaves,” meaning that her value is seen through her ability to provide clothing for the family.

In several months we talk about farming and what would be happening on a typical farm during that month. This seems to be the dominant story of people’s lives that far back in history. But we also talk about Vikings, Lords, the Catholic Church, and how people viewed the coming of a new millennium.

This last was in the December chapter, and we meet a couple of colorful Bishops who write sermons telling people that the end of the world will happen and Revelation come on December 31st, 1001. However, we counter that with the fact that people were still writing wills and acting as though they or their children will survive the year’s end. We don’t get an answer as to whether most people thought like the bishops or the lawyers, but perhaps there isn’t one to be had so many year’s in the future. The authors don’t point this out, but I recall a lot of people telling us that Jesus would come back on January 1, 2000, as well, and they were largely seen as crazies.

One of the most interesting things I took from this book is that people in the year 1000 were not substantially shorter than people are now. Apparently average height started out similarly to our own but then shrank in future generations because wholesome food was no longer available. However, in 1000, everyone was a farmer and everyone had access to healthy food. Although this was later contradicted when the authors talk about the month where the bread ran out just ahead of harvest and bread prices doubled in the markets.

Another vivid picture was that it was just assumed that people would be host to a variety of parasites, including the sinister maw-worm which could grow as long as 30 cm and migrate all over the body, including the lungs and liver. The maw-worm could emerge unexpectedly from any orfice of the body, including, alarmingly, the corner of the eye. I’m not sure why we don’t have these anymore, but I sure am glad that is the case.

Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested specifically in Britain at the turn of the first millennium, but I would caution anyone looking for information about the rest of Europe or extra-European information that it focuses only on the one island. It tries to take on the attitude of the English and as such has nothing good to say about the Vikings nor the Normans. If your persona is one of these groups, you probably won’t enjoy this book. I was hoping for a bigger scope and a larger picture of the world, but I definitely didn’t get that.