Vikings plundered England. Hungarians sacked monasteries and villages across Europe. And Arabs invaded India, hacking the heads off statues and humans alike. Meanwhile, the average person slept with his livestock. Girls got married at 12. Castration was considered a good career move in some circles. And gruel was one of the main food groups.
Life sure was tough in Y1K, as U.S. News & World Report points out in a special double issue called "The Year 1000: What life was like in the last millennium." The magazine pulls out all the stops, with maps, beautiful art and more than 50 pages of articles. The result is an entertaining look at the ever-fascinating human species at one moment in its amazing history.
Some of this stuff reads as though it came out of one of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novels of magical realism. A thousand years ago, for instance, the West African kingdom of Ghana was so wealthy that the king "had a nugget of gold so large that he used it to tether his horse." And in Mexico, Toltec warriors built altars to burn the "blood-sticky hearts" of human sacrifices.
The story of King Olaf of Norway is too bizarre and baroque for even Garcia Marquez to have imagined. As a child, Olaf was captured by pirates and sold into slavery in exchange for a cloak. A relative bought his freedom and he was sent to live in the court of Russia's King Vladimir, where he dazzled people with his good looks, athletic ability and military skills. This led to a career of plundering and pillaging England, which he did so well that the Saxon king paid him to go plunder someplace else. Then Olaf was converted to Christianity by a holy hermit. After that, he spread the Gospel by torturing anybody who declined to accept Christ as his personal savior:
"One famed Viking lord, Raud, had an adder shoved down his throat when he refused to accept Christ; another, Eyvind Kinrifa, was tortured to death with a pan of glowing coals upon his belly."
This is probably not what the Prince of Peace had in mind for his missionaries, but it was undeniably effective.
People took their religion seriously in those days. Monks had a lot of power, which they sometimes misused. Tibet was tormented by a group of Buddhist monks who got out of hand: "These robber-monks kidnapped and killed men and women, ate them, drank alcohol and engaged in sexual intercourse."
Meanwhile, back in Europe, the Catholic clergy were regulating sexual activity very carefully, forbidding sex on Sundays or holidays or during daylight hours. A German bishop took this one step further, writing a book that codified illicit sexual activities in such vivid detail that he ended up creating what writer Carolyn Kleiner calls "some of the kinkiest literature of any time period."
In those days, eunuchs were in demand in the bureaucracy of the Byzantine empire because they couldn't have children and were therefore ineligible to become emperor. "Many noble families castrated their sons to improve their chances of becoming high civil servants, church patriarchs, or generals." You can just hear those parents: Now, son, we're doing this for your own good. You'll thank us for this someday.
People believed strange stuff a thousand years ago. The Norse thought the sky was the skull of a god killed in battle. Chinese astrologers believed the universe was an egg and the Earth was the yolk. Indians on the Great Plains of North America believed the sky was held up by a sacred cedar tree. Today, learned scientists believe the universe was created by a "Big Bang" that occurred billions of years ago, time moves at different speeds and there are black holes in space that swallow light. Also something about "quarks."
Reading this issue, I couldn't help thinking that Monty Python, the British comedy troupe, was pretty accurate in its comic depiction of life in the Middle Ages. English peasants lived in sod huts with no windows, sleeping with their sheep, drinking ale for breakfast and eating with their fingers. They played a primitive form of football using an inflated pig bladder for a ball and summoned witches to treat their medical problems by rubbing them with a dead man's tooth.
Across the Atlantic, Manhattan was a forest, and buffalo roamed in Chicago. The biggest city on the continent was Cahokia, located along the Mississippi River in Illinois and populated by more than 20,000 people. Every morning at dawn, the chief, who was known as the Great Sun, emerged from his bed and howled to his "brother," the actual sun, as it rose. Then he lifted his hand and drew a line across the sky from east to west, showing the sun which way to go. And the sun invariably did as ordered. What power!
Cahokia thrived for centuries until the residents built an elaborate stockade around the city for protection. It seemed like a good idea at the time. But cutting down thousands of trees leveled the local forests, chasing game away and causing floods. Soon the place was a ghost town. There's a lesson in there somewhere.
Actually, there are a lot of lessons in this magazine, all of them humbling: Nothing lasts. Powerful empires crumble like sand castles. The wisdom of one age is the folly of the next. And the progress of the human race looks more like a line dance than a forward march--two steps ahead, one step back and a couple of sideways skips.
Cover Line of the Month
Child magazine: "GET HAPPY! Why Giggling Is Time Well Spent"