The Year 1000 – Robert Lacey and Dan Danzinger (1999)

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Subtitle: What Life was Like at the Turn of the First Millenium.

Having read other really enjoyable history books by Lacey here, here,  and here, I knew that I was going to be in for another good read. Lacey is extremely good at writing about serious topics such as history whilst infusing his books with a great dry sense of humor every now and then which I particularly enjoyed…  (More so in his other books than this one, but it still pops up every now and then. Lacey has also made it on my Ultimate Dinner Party List for 2014 although that date and the complete guest list is still TBD. Just FYI.)

As the book description reads, “The Year 1000 is a vivid and surprising portrait of life in England a thousand years ago – a world that already knew brain surgeons and property developers, and yes, even the occasional gossip columnist…”

(Above) - Robert Lacey.

(Above) – Robert Lacey.

I really enjoy learning about social history of times past, much more so than the political and military side of things, and so this book was right up my alley. I don’t have much any background in Medieval history (apart from early junior high years and the endless watching of Monty Python’s The Holy Grail during the college years), but I did have a general idea of it being cold, dark and muddy. In reading Lacey and Danzinger’s book, I realized that it was a lot more than that. (Isn’t that usually the way?)

As it was such a great read packed with info, I’ve done this in note form of some items that were of particular interest to me:

  • The history of the half-penny: Back in these times, coin-making was a lengthy multi-step hand-made process which usually resulted in a probably thin coin called a penny. If an item cost less than a penny, then people would literally just cut the coin into half and so it would be exactly – one half-penny. (This might only ring a bell to English people of a Certain Age, but there you go…)
  • England’s system of geographical divisions into counties and towns started in the 10th and 11th centuries. To collect taxes, kings needed to have administrative centers in the middle of their areas (called shires) and so most counties with that suffix (-shire) were formed at that time. (For example, the county where I am from is called Bedfordshire and the town Bedford so therefore, it was coined at that time.)
  • Any English city name which ends in a “-burgh” or “-borough” (like Peterborough and similar) came about during the reign of King Alfred the Great (who was a really cool king, btw). Most of England at that time was rural in small villages, and with the Vikings on the invasion from the North, Alfred organized the villages into larger units for better protection and called them “burgs”. Now you know…
  • Living in Texas (as I do now), there’s quite a bit of talk about the sheriff, the title of which actually originated back in the tenth and eleventh century with the development of shires in England. Taxes and other administrative duties needed to be centralized and the sort of CEO in charge of each shire was called the “shire reeve” which developed into “sheriff”.
  • Here’s a probable history of the word “carpenter”: Going back to Roman times, Romans were generally in admiration of the Celtic-designed two-wheel carts common in those times which the Romans called a “carpentum”. Those who had the skills to make such a cart were thus called carpenters…. Huh.
  • When Romans first invaded Britannia, there were smaller settlements called “civis” (from the root word civilization). People who did not live in these contained communities were literally “uncivilized”… (Those Romans were very fact-based…)
  • One of the common punishments for a thief caught in the act during the year 1000 was to have to hold a red-hot poker in his/her hands and then walk forward for nine excruciating steps. His wound was then dressed and left alone for the period of one week. If, at the end of that time, the dressings were removed and the wound was healing and coming along nicely, then that suspect was an innocent. If, however, the burn was infected on his/her hands, then that signaled a guilty verdict and punishment was meted out accordingly. Thus, the term “red-handed”. (Punishment was, at that time, sentenced to hang until you die.)

And just an interesting point: close to the English town where I grew up, a village called Caxton used to have a historic reconstruction of a reputed old gibbet (where people would hang as punishment for crimes committed), and as it was on the same road that our family took to Grandma and Grandpa’s house, we would always look out for it with ghoulish glee as it meant we were that much closer to tea-time. (This particular gibbet was mostly used for highway robbery, I think, but still theft of one kind or another. This location was also reputedly used for the “cage variation” of the gibbet, whereby live victims were placed in a small cage hanging from the top log and the victim would stay there until they died from starvation, dehydration or exposure. Bodies were kept there after death as a warning to passersby.)

“Come on now. Don’t mind the old instrument of death — let’s have a cup of tea, dear…”

🙂

caxton-gibbet

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