It is little ironic that, given how advanced
we think we’ve become, no-one went to bed on December 31, 999 wondering what sorts of disasters they’d wake up to the next morning. It is also interesting to ponder, with little help from The Year 1000 by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger, the differences in the world at the end of the first and second millennia.
Overwhelmingly, the last half century of the second millennium has been lived in the marketplace, with the bloodiest battlefields moving inside to supermarket aisles. And the Third Coming has been the ultimate marketing opportunity for almost anyone with anything to sell, never mind the fact that the new millennium almost certainly doesn’t actually start on January 1, 2000.
In 990s England there was not, religion aside, much to market. Disposable income was topic of minimal concern. The concept of “leisure industry” would have baffled the finest minds of the time. There was certainly no “me” generation. The retirement market wasn’t big when few people lived past 40. The tourism market hadn’t been invented. If you took trip to another country it was usually, particularly if you were young, strong and/or nubile, on one-way ticket to the slave market in Dublin, with precious little prospect of sightseeing and sidewalk lattes.
On the other hand, the knowledge economy’s been around longer than many people realise. The reason Alfred burnt those cakes back in the late 800s was because his mind tended to wander some centuries ahead of himself. He was an advocate for universal literacy and he once said: “The saddest thing about any man is that he be ignorant, and the most exciting thing is that he knows.”
There was no known preoccupation with anorexia at the end of the first millennium — people were too worried about starving. Just as July 7 is dreaded by some today, the whole of the month could be life and death struggle as food supplies often ran out completely before the August wheat harvest. If the country festival revellers painted later by Brueghel looked stoned out of their Middle Aged minds, they probably were. They would have been light-hearted from lack of food, the mould on old grain was source of lysergic acid or LSD and they used to scavenge hedgerows for plants like poppies and hemp that, dried and ground, were used in appropriately named “crazy bread”. It was their compensation for not having regular welfare cheques and tastefully colour-coordinated WINZ office around the corner.
Today, the government department or company that hasn’t been restructured within the last two years is clearly slacking. But change, constant or even occasional, was not major issue in 1000AD. In England, nearly everyone lived in village and the physical and mental landscape stretched as far as you could see from the nearest hillock — the next village and, at the edge of most people’s known world, the market town five miles away. You and your neighbours had lived next door and worked in the same fields for generations. There was no need for surnames — you weren’t going anywhere, nor were the neighbours.
Service is something that is now talked about in inverse proportion to its actual provision. And the short-term contract has certainly honed the concept of short-term loyalty. But in 1000 faithful lifetime service to good master paid better dividends than any of today’s insurance policies. There was no fine print, and only partly because hardly anyone could read. There was web of obligation and mutual respect between many Anglo-Saxon lords and their villagers. And the droit de seigneur perk of local European lords to bed the young brides on their wedding nights was not considered cricket across the Channel.
Stress wasn’t problem around 1000AD. There was no need to worry yourself sick about redundancy or superannuation. You simply worked until you dropped. There were no companies or factories to downsize; there was no new occupation to retrain for. There was no angst about CEO remuneration; the best jobs were in monasteries and the emphasis was on heavenly rather than earthly rewards.

Ian F Grant is writer, publisher and company director.

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