Saturday, July 14, 2012

Life During the Middle Ages

Historian Ian Mortimer discuses what life was like in the Middle-Ages:
SPIEGEL: Readers of your book about the Middle Ages could be forgiven for coming away with rather starry-eyed images of the period you describe: The loudest noise to be heard was the chiming of the church bells, and stopping for a chat on market day was a firmly observed ritual. Was all well with the world then?

Mortimer: Well, it was also a time of death, disease, suffering and incredible violence. Both of us would probably be dead by now -- half the population didn't live past the age of 21. If you had a toothache, the doctors would explain to you that little worms were tunneling into the enamel of your teeth. On the other hand, this was also an age that saw the building of stunning cathedrals, and a time when Shakespeare took literature to new heights.

SPIEGEL: Your book, though, doesn't tell the reader much about those things. Instead, you give us an enormous amount of everyday detail about the Middle Ages. But why exactly do I need to know what kind of toilet paper a particular earl used?

Mortimer: It's about gaining an understanding of what the human race is actually like. I believe we can gain a much deeper understanding by looking back in time. Humans are unbelievably adaptable. As a group, we contended with the plague in the 14th century and with the terrible flu in the 16th century. We're extraordinarily creative, even under enormous pressure.

SPIEGEL: Still, humans themselves caused many of these crises, for example, with poor hygiene.

Mortimer: Absolutely. There was real filth and stench in the streets until less than 200 years ago. But people then were fussier than we imagine today. Bad breath was considered embarrassing beyond description, and 16th century people combated it with toothpowder or licorice lozenges. Good-manners guides were severe in their censure of belching, farting or even smacking one's lips at the table. Even in the simplest households, everyone washed their hands before and after the meal.

SPIEGEL: Conventions governing the other end of the digestive process, however, were not quite so strict ...

Mortimer: That's true. A man passing an acquaintance urinating by the side of the road would simply doff his hat in friendly greeting. Where else were they supposed to go? The flushable water closet wasn't invented by Sir John Harington until 1596 -- and for another 200 years after that, it was regarded as a useless curiosity. In a town, only the wealthy could afford to have a private cesspit emptied regularly.

SPIEGEL: Among the barbarous medieval behavior you describe were young men who banded together and committed terrible crimes. In comparison, today's young men are as docile as lambs.

Mortimer: The excessive violence was partly a product of the fact that adults in those days drank alcohol constantly. It was considered the only way to ingest liquids without poisoning oneself. And because of these marauding drunks, it was quite dangerous to be out alone. Women, in particular, almost never traveled on their own.

* * *

SPIEGEL: In their physical strength, as well, medieval men cut terrifying figures.

Mortimer: Men in those days were very strong -- as long as they got enough to eat. They may not have been bodybuilders, but they did hard physical labor out in the fields every day. Even young boys were good with weapons, such as the longbow, and were expected to play an active role in defending their communities. Many took part in life-or-death fights from a young age. Future knights received training from the age of six or seven. Jousting served both as sport, and as training for war, in which the aim was to unseat the opponent and break his neck.

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