The Year 1000
A readable chronicle of what ordinary life felt like 1,000 years ago, in England.
A readable chronicle of what ordinary life felt like 1,000 years ago, in England.01/28/05
It is a commonplace that slavery made up the basis of life in the classical world, but it is sometimes assumed that slavery came to an end with the fall of Rome. In fact, the Germanic tribes who conquered Rome captured, kept, and traded slaves as energetically as the Romans did, as indeed did the Arab conquerors of the Mediterranean. The purpose of war from the fifth to the tenth centuries was as much to capture bodies as it was to capture land, and the tribes of central Germany enjoyed particular success raiding their Slavic neighbors. If you purchased a bondservant in Europe in the centuries leading up to the year 1000, the chances were that he or she was a "Slav"; hence the word "slave."
Slavery still exists today in a few corners of the world, and from the security of our own freedom, we find the concept degrading and inhuman. But in the year 1000 very few people were free in the sense that we understand the word today. Almost everyone was beholden to someone more powerful than themselves, and the men and women who had surrendered themselves into bondage lived in conditions that were little different to those of any other member of the labouring classes.
There was no spinach. This did not appear in European gardens until spinach seeds were brought back from the Crusades in the twelfth century. Broccoli, cauliflower, runner beans, and brussels sprouts were all developed in later centuries by subsequent generations of horticulturalists. Nor were there any potatoes or tomatoes. Europe had to wait five centuries for those, until the exploration of the Americas, and though the recipe books describe warm possets and herbal infusions, there were none of the still-to-be-imported stimulants: tea, coffee, or chocolate.