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The Year 1000

What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium

Robert Lacey and Dan Danzinger

The hundred most frequently used words in English are Anglo-Saxon ones - the basic building blocks of our language. When Winston Churchill wanted to rally the nation in 1940, it was to A-S that he turned: "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender." All these stirring words came from A-S except for the last - surrender, which was imported from French with the Normans in 1066. And another famous speech was all A-S as well: "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

By the year 1000, almost every modern English town or village already existed and bore its modern name. And these names can tell us whether the town was shaped by Anglo-Saxons or Danish Vikings. Places that end in ham the Old English word for village, are A-S, as are ing, stowe, stead and ton. Viking settlements end in by, which meant farm, thorpe, a plot of land, and scale, a temporary shelter.

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For crimes such as incest or major theft, if not bad enough for execution, felon sold into slavery. (Long term imprisonment not feasible until stone buildings and iron bars became common). Male became slave of the king, a female the slave of the local bishop. And some people surrendered themselves and family into servitude when couldn't provide. Today we consider slavery degrading, but in year 1000 very few people were free in our meaning of the word. Everyone was beholden to next person up the chain - it was impossible to imagine a life without a protector.

Farm animals distinctly smaller than they are today. The Romans selectively bred their livestock for bigger animals, but the A-S didn't bother. Archaeological excavations show bones of pigs, cows and sheep getting steadily smaller through the centuries, then getting bigger again as animal husbandry practiced again in the Middle Ages.

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They didn't have potatoes, tomatoes, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, runner beans or brussel sprouts. But biggest difference was lack of sugar. Honey only sweetener. A-S skeletons noticeable for lack of tooth decay.

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The years 950 to 1300 noticeably warmer. (The reason why the Vikings able to explore as far as N.America. England had vineyards - 38 mentioned in the 1086 Domesday Survey.

Politics in the year 1000 can be best understood in terms of a mafia gang. Though frightening to outsiders, the gang offers protection and sense of belonging. The gang operates on basis of fear, but it is less scary than the alternative of lawlessness and chaos. The leader provides the weak and needy with a form of welfare and security in exchange for loyalty. But not only did you have to serve, you were also responsible for the loyalty and service of your fellows - you had to report any breach of duty by them. The leader had to play the part of a ruthless gang leader, since his lieutenants were all gangsters themselves.

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A-S kings did not succeed by primogeniture. All the king's offspring were known as aethelings - throneworthy - and from this pool the family chose the one who seemed best suited for the job.

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King Canute's laws "If a woman commits adultery with another man ... her husband is to have all her property and she is to lose her nose and her ears." No penalty for the male of course.

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These draconian laws didn't outlast Canute's death. A-S attitude basically pragmatic - everything had its price in wergild. "If a freeman lies with another freeman's wife, let him provide another wife out of his own money." And it was based on the social scale. If a man lay with a virgin who was a royal household slave, he owed 50 shillings compensation; if she worked in royal mill it was 25 shillings, and if a field hand, just 12.

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