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March 26, 2003

Book Review -- "The Year 1000"

Friedrich --

In my better-late-than-never campaign to learn a bit about British history, I just finished an excellent and entertaining book, Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger's The Year 1000, buyable here and rentable on audio here.


It's inventive and vivid popular history -- a horizontal slice through time, a look at  what life was like at the turn of the first millennium, an evocative  bit of this and an incisive bit of that. The reader learns about late Anglo-Saxon medicine (such as it was); the way Christianity was mopping up after its conquest of paganism (the authors compare the mania for Christianity to today's lust for inclusion in the European Economic Union); about food, drink, farming, coinage, and ways of doing battle. The authors have a lot of flair for the telling detail and the comparison that drives a point home. Opposing armies at this time, for instance, didn't wear distinctive outfits, so battle was like "a rugby scrum conducted without benefit of different-colored uniforms." They compare the politics of the time to to Chicago in the 1930s. I'd certainly never really registered that monks were bossed by abbesses -- ie., women -- before. Fans of the topic of global-warming (pro or con) will be interested to learn that the first millennium was a time when average temperatures were several degrees above what they are today, and that this wasn't a terrible thing for British agriculture.

The authors are also good on the topic of slavery,  a phenomenon that interests the crank in me because of my annoyance with the reverent (and misguided) way so many people treat American slavery as though it was unique in the world.  (In fact, the word "slave" comes from "Slav"; the Slavic lands for centuries supplied easy pickings for slave-traders.) They don't shy from other gruesome daily realities either. Flies were everywhere and people were riddled with tapeworm and fleas, though teeth and jaws weren't in bad shape; honey, the only sweetener available, was a luxury. Bathing? Perhaps a few times a year. You're left on your own to imagine the dandruff, lumps, crud, pimples, bumps, scaley patches, and stink that must have been routine. I marvel, not for the first time, that such unappetizing creatures managed to procreate.

All very enjoyable and informative. And, since I'm an arty-farty guy who tends to respond to almost everything in primarily literary and artistic ways, I'm also struck by the writing, and by the way the book is put together. Brit writers often have a flair for intelligent, informative history; keeping things fast, informal-seeming, and amusing seems to be a point of pride, and god bless 'em for it. "The Year 1000" is erudite yet, sentence by sentence, is presented in a tone of casual conversation; reading the book is like listening to friends talk wittily about a fascinating recent vacation. (Some excerpts from the book can be read here.)

As a piece of book-making (ie., as idea and structure),  it's also impressive -- prismatic, searching, and reflective, like a nonfiction version of a Calvino novel, though the authors would certainly laugh off the comparison and seem to have few literary pretentions in mind. In a way, it's a fast-and-easy demonstration that a modernist, anti-linear approach can supply worthwhile, informative and enjoyable payoffs. Still, I think that part of what made the book so enjoyable for me was its modesty. It doesn't claim to be a replacement for a traditional, linear treatement; instead, it's an enhancement, a fleshing-out. It makes helpful use of radical innovations while making none of the overblown claims that radicalism usually does.

I'm also fascinated by the fact that book held me. It's portraiture, not drama, scene-setting rather than storytelling -- something more like a couple of hours of Web-browsing than a typical grind-through-it book read. Yet, even so, it never seems like mere bathroom reading. Well, actually it does -- but it's ultra-high-end bathroom reading.

So how does it manage to hold the attention rather than falling apart into disconnected bits and pieces? Partly thanks to the flow and sparkle of the easygoing prose, but also thanks to its organization; it's really built. Lacey and Danziger solve the perpetual late-modern, how-to-organize-this-nonlinear-mess problem (usually handled these days by relying on theme) by making resourceful use of a concept. They make use of something called the Julius Work Calendar, a medieval document that visually detailed everyday life -- a series of illustrations of the work year. Lacey and Danziger use this calendar as their own book's backbone, taking off from a month's given image, looping their way through multiple, connected topics, before settling down on the next month's image, thence to take off again This strategy of piggybacking on a pre-existing structure enables them to be loosey-goosey, to make all kinds of oddball connections, and to do all sorts of ranging-about. Yet they don't stray so far off that they lose themselves. The result is a companionable and whimsical yet directed experience that zigzags around yet always seems to be going somewhere.

I enjoyed the book a lot and recommend it enthusiastically. I learned a lot, and it also made my head whirl the way good modernism can. Lacey and Danziger were wise to keep their book a condiment and not to try to compete with the main course; their modesty sets your imagination and pleasure-centers free. (It did mine, anyway.) Which is something I'd argue more generally: that modernism is a plus when viewed as an addition to the palette, and a disaster only when viewed as a replacement for it.

Which raises the question: what is it about modernism (and postmodernism, etc) that seduces so many into taking it exactly that way -- as a kind of one-size-fits-all religion?



posted by Michael at March 26, 2003


The book sounds very interesting. However, I'm even more intrigued with your phrase, "the crank in me," which certainly needs to be added to psychology's map of the human personality. How much of our inner life depends, one suspects, on such apparently irrational attachments to topics that often have only glancing connections to our everyday lives, or connections to our inner lives that are virtually impossible for anyone else to decode.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 27, 2003 12:22 AM

On a slightly different tack, what do you think of Harold Bloom? The intellectually hedonistic pleasures of reading are also his milleu.

Posted by: Michael Serafin on March 28, 2003 1:55 PM

Michael, I read this book and enjoyed it as well. I'm a sucker for popular histories. If you're interested in early-Medieval English history, I highly recommend Allison Weir's Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life As I believe they said in those days, she was one gutsy broad.

Posted by: Sasha on March 28, 2003 9:33 PM

I might read the book for the its discussion of slavery. Slavery is, if fact, a peculiar institution, in more than one sense. We know the numbers, and the numbers demonstrate that North American slavery was a remarkably benign system, compared to its rather lethal Latin Ameican counterpart and to the literal holocaust--annihilation, really--that was black slavery in the Islamic world.

Posted by: Lou Gots on March 28, 2003 11:07 PM

Ooops, didn't mean to suggest that the book goes into any depth on the topic of slavery. It's very clear-eyed, well-informed and level-headed, but only discusses the subject for a page or so, so it may not be the treatment of the topic you're hoping for.

Come to think of it, I wouldn't mind reading a general history of slavery thru history and worldwide, the easier-reading and more solid the better. What I've picked up about the subject has been in dribs and drabs, here and there -- pretty lame, really. Can anyone suggest a helpful title here?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 29, 2003 12:22 AM

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