Sun 13 Mar 2011
The images coming out of Japan in the wake of the devastating earthquake and tsunami are awful in both the modern and original senses of the word; they inspire both horror and a biblical, fire and brimstone sort of awe. It is amazing how quickly disaster struck, rocking Tokyo, buckling roads, carrying cars away in surges of seawater, and wiping entire towns off the map. With no warning, thousands died and thousands more lost everything.
Such disasters are thankfully rare in places like Japan or England or the United States. But sudden death and destruction were a regular part of life in medieval Europe. It was a blessed year when a village was not struck by plague, famine, or war. Between 1350 and 1700, plague was a regular visitor to Europe. Large cities that were open to trade suffered repeatedly. For instance, Augburg in Germany was hit by the plague ten separate times between 1626 and 1650. In smaller, more isolated towns, it was not uncommon for the plague to strike once every ten years or so, and each outbreak killed children, left behind dozens of widows and widowers, destroyed entire families, and sometimes erased whole neighborhoods. Even where the plague struck less frequently, fear of it was pervasive. And when they were not worrying about plague, medieval men and women were concerned with famine. Sudden dips in temperature or rain at the wrong time meant crop failures, hunger, and starvation. And there was little help when times were bad; lords took more than they gave, and local priests were often little better off than their congregations. Child mortality at the time generally hovered around 25%, but when food was scarce, the rate skyrocketed, reaching up to 50%. (By contrast, the worst rate in the world today is 20.9%, in Chad.)
Endemic violence, brigandage, and war added to the pervasive sense of insecurity. In many places, law was only weakly enforced and brigands dominated the countryside. Passing armies were even worse. At the first sight of approaching troops, villagers frequently destroyed bridges, barricaded themselves in their homes, or took refuge in nearby forests. Those who fled had their homes pillaged, but at least they were spared assault, rape, or murder, those favorite pastimes of medieval armies. This, then, was the world of the Middle Ages. Sudden death – whether due to starvation, plague, or war – was a regular occurrence. Fresh disasters followed one upon the other.
Our ancestors dealt with these many traumas in two main ways. First, they turned to religion, which offered at least one source of stability in a very uncertain world. The Church also provided the comforting rituals that helped people to deal with repeated loss. The result was a sense of faith that seems to have been more powerful than is common today, and which helps to explain the readiness of thousands of men to leave their homes and families for the First Crusade.
The second way that people dealt with uncertainty was through a very different approach to family and individuality. Because individual lives were so fragile and uncertain, emphasis was not put on individual success and achievement, as it is today, but rather on the success and longevity of the family over time. Individuality was downplayed. The most compelling example of this medieval mentality comes from Arthur Imhof’s study of the Vältes family in Germany. The Vältes farm in the north-German town of Leimbach was managed by someone name Johannes Hoos for six hundred consecutive years. The individuals changed, but the role and the name remained the same, even if fathers sometimes had to name several sons Johannes, just to ensure that one lived on to inherit the farm. Just as each Johannes Hoos took only temporary ownership of the farm before passing it on to the next generation, he only took temporary possession of his name before it too was passed on. These individuals did not have to decide who to be or what to do; instead they adopted a role that was stable across generations. Likewise, in navigating their social world, they married, raised their family, made friends, and ran their farm all with an eye not towards personal gratification, but rather towards the long-term prosperity and stability of the role they embodied.
The Middle Ages were a very different time, when decisions that we see as fundamental to self-becoming – what occupation to practice; what politics to support; what religion to practice – were usually not open to choice at all. Or, if choice was possible, as in the case of who to marry, it was a limited choice that privileged family security and stability over individual happiness. This medieval mindset – highly religious and family oriented – was the result of living in a world wherein disaster could strike at any time, wherein sudden death was an expected part of life.