What images do the words "medieval England" conjure up? Bleak moors and dismal forests; clanking knights and fair maidens; windswept castles brooding over black moats; lumpish peasants in foul-smelling huts, and Death, like the black-robed figure in "The Seventh Seal," stalking the dank countryside, spreading the miasma of Black Plague.
Not exactly a click-stop on the dials of your time machine.
But beyond our B-movie sterotypes and snippets from World History 101, what do we really know about how people lived in those times, what they ate and wore, and what goods and services they produced without benefit of machines or sophisticated tools?
Dorothy Hartley supplies some fascinating answers to these questions in her "down to earth study of people, their animals, plants, and jobs, in the days when almost all of them lived on and from the land."
And what an appropriate book to read now, when the blessings of technology seem to have turned into millstones. We worry about getting along with less gasoline, less electricity and less buying power, yet medieval people somehow survived without automobiles, designer jeans and deodorant soap. Where did their basic necessities come from with no factories, no rapid transportation, no instant communication, with nothing we call "modern"?
Some commodities could be bought or bartered for at markets if one had the means, but most staples were grown, built, threshed, spun, woven and brewed on the spot. "Throughout the period we study," writes Hartley, "any strong, healthy person could obtain the basic necessities from whatever land he chose, even wild, untameable fen or marsh." But it took hard, unrelenting work, specialized knowledge and the stamina of an ox.
"A modern woman sees a piece of linen, but the medieval woman saw through it to the flax fields, she smelt the reek of the retting ponds, she felt the hard rasp of the hackling, and she saw the soft sheen of the glossy flax. Man did not just see 'leather,' he saw the beast -- perhaps one of his own -- and knew the effort of slaughtering, liming and curing."
Hartley never romanticizes these labors, never muses about the supposed joys of The Simple Life. (What is "simple" about plowing a field by hand, cutting firewood with a broadaxe, and tending sheep, pigs, cows and a kitchen garden?) Instead she uses a cornucopia of quotes, facts, anecdotes, verse and illustrations to create an absorbing social history of a people often dismissed as belonging to "The Dark Ages." And she reminds us that "from some huts came men of brains and brawn, who built bridges, made mills, dug dykes and worked out engineering problems. . . . They sang and cavorted and produced plays."
"Lost Country Life" begins with an informal outline of medieval society, discusses the appeal of early Christianity ("our earth-educated man . . . knew his body was made of the earth, came from the earth and would return to the earth. Christianity taught him his spirit was of God and would return to God"); analyzes the effect of feudalism on daily life ("every man knew where he belonged; knew who had the right to oppress him; and who must defend him"), and sheds light on everything from huts, hermits and the medieval church, to sex, slaves and miracles.
Hartley then turns to Thomas Tusser's 16th-century almanac of advice for farmers, using this as a guide to the seasonal activities of rural life. Each chapter is keyed to a specific month, prefaced by an extract from Tusser's "points of husbandry," his observations written in lively, rhymed verse, much of it as timely as when it was first set in wooden type in 1557. Here's Tusser in May: Take heed to thy bees, that are ready to swarm the loss thereof now, is a crown's worth of harm; Let skillful be ready, and diligence seene, lest being too careless, thou losest thy beene.
Still good advice, as any beekeeper will attest. Hartley expands on each month's activities, leading us through milking, calving, lambing, shearing, planting, carpentry, thatching, basketry and dozens of other skills that were an integral part of country life. One cannot read all this without realizing how curiously isolated and vulnerable we are by comparison, with our dangerous dependence on a maze of systems beyond our control and understanding.
This is a thoughtful and satisfying book, encyclopedic in scope but charming in tone, written by an expert on early English rural life. Not just another how-to book of skills for the would-be homesteader or an academic history. "Lost Country Life" is the chronicle of a resourceful folk possessed of "earth-inspired common sense."