With year MDCCCCLXXXXVIIII (as Roman numerals were used in year M) yielding to year MM, give thanks for Arabic numerals. Consider also the texture of life when the first millennium ended.
There was disagreement about dating that end. Some people dated the beginning of the Christian era from the Resurrection, so 1000 was 33 years premature. Others said the beginning of the era was nine months before Christ's birth, on March 25, Lady Day, the day the Angel Gabriel told Mary she would bear a child. As late as the 1660s, Samuel Pepys in his "Diaries" honored Lady Day as the beginning of each new year because the Annunciation marked the first manifestation of the divine on earth.
The world, as an ordinary Englishman experienced it, was full of such manifestations in 1000, according to Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger, two British journalists who have turned a bright idea into a book, "The Year 1000." They asked a slew of scholars--historians, archaeologists, museum curators--what the world then felt like to those who experienced it.
The answers are often educated guesses based on other than documentary evidence, in part because Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries caused precious manuscripts to be burned, used as roof insulation, drumskins and beer barrel linings. But other evidence is articulate.
Human skeletal remains reveal widespread arthritis, silent testimony to hard manual labor. Workers toiled in a quiet countryside, where the only mechanical sounds were the wheezing of a blacksmith's bellows and the creaking of a watermill's wooden cogs. It hardly makes sense to speak of a "work ethic" in an era when indolence meant starvation. Work was hard and unaided by stimulants--there was no coffee, tea or chocolate in England then.
But, Lacey and Danziger say, life was softened somewhat by the sense that "you were not on your own." The message of Jesus's miracles and those of the saints was that God intervened in daily life, if asked persuasively. Persuasion included pilgrimages, as to the Glastonbury Thorn, a hawthorn tree which originated from Christ's crown of thorns. Or from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea. So 'twas said. In any case, it flowered every Christmas. Still does, and a sprig from it adorns the queen's lunch table every Christmas Day.
In 1000, forks and England's first recorded Caesarean section were five centuries away, so eating was messy and pregnancy often lethal. The criminal justice system was, shall we say, pre-Miranda. Gallows stood at the end of every town, their cargo left swinging until birds pecked the bones clean.
Slavery was common--in the 11th century, Dublin had Europe's largest slave market--but the difference between slavery and other conditions was not always dramatic. In 1000, before stone buildings and iron bars made prisons feasible, and when people had no money to forfeit in fines, their labor was what could be taken from them.
And an Anglo-Saxon code said that in time of famine "a father may sell his son aged under seven as a slave if necessity forces him to do so." But, Lacey and Danziger write, very few people were free, as we understand freedom: "Almost everyone was beholden to someone more powerful than themselves."
However, Lacey and Danziger discern in "the misty northwest corner of Europe" in 1000 early intimations of the culture that by 2000 would have spread to most of the world. The few surviving wills and charters show meticulous attention to precise accounting of estates.
So already in 1000 England affirmed the sanctity of property, an incentive necessary if enterprise is to flourish. And the peasantry used oxen like machines. From the resulting agricultural surplus eventually came cities, and hence urbanity, including liberty.
How odd of them, back then, to think smoldering goat's hair could cure lower back pain, but how incipiently modern was their quest to learn what could. How strange of them to think they could cure baldness with ashes of burned bees, but how timeless the male vanity that prompted the thought.
Modern people, having risen to reliance on rationality and Ritalin, and having put aside superstition and acquired psychiatry, may, from the dizzying height of their near perfection, exhibit what C. S. Lewis called the "snobbery of chronology"--the belief that because we live so long after our distant ancestors, we must be that much wiser, better and different. As an antidote, Lacey and Danziger offer this Old English poem from around the turn of the millennium:
Often and again, through God's grace,
Man and woman usher a child
Into the world and clothe him in gay colours;
They cherish him, teach him as the seasons turn
Until his young bones strengthen,
His limbs lengthen. . . .
The most important things abide.