“The Past is Foreign Country”.

Posted: August 9, 2012 in Uncategorized
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By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

My specialty is modern history.  Just like anything, focusing only upon one subject, or time period, can get a bit staid.  So, I am always looking to branch out.  Recently I have had mini-obsessions with biblical history, the beginnings of civilizations, the history of science, and the history of religion.  Lately, I have taken some minor detours into life during the so-called Middle Ages.  The years 600-1300 of European history is one I could always use some brushing up on.  With this in mind, I devoured a book recently entitled The Axe and the Oath: Ordinary Life in the Middle Ages, by the French historian Robert Fossier.  As I read this book, I thought some of aspects of ordinary life in the Middle Ages was worthy of a blog post.  Here are a couple of my favorite bits of information about the time period in the words of Fossier.

Mathematical Knowledge:

  • “Worse, in all of the centuries of the Middle Ages, figures were not given their real arithmetical values….Figures had only symbolic value. One, three, seven and twelve were God, the Trinity or figures found in the Bible; and as for six and its multiple six times six, they were the sign of what cannot be counted with the fingers of one hand, thus, what surpasses immediate understanding…This disdain for figures affected measurement as well. Someone would sell ‘a wood’, bequeath ‘his land,’ and give ‘what he has.’” ( Page 28)

Early Death:

  • “As late as the fifteenth century, 42 percent of the ground space in Hungarian cemeteries was taken up by the graves of children under ten years of age…and 25 to 30 percent of babies were stillborn, a figure difficult to find today even in the most poverty-stricken lands.” (30-42)

Child Rearing:

  • “When a child reached the age of one, he was helped to walk with the aid of a walker, but anything like a playpen or crawling on all fours was systemically discouraged. The first may have been seen as a reflection of fetal enclosure, and the second as a return to animal life, condemned by God.” (48)

What they ate:

  • “….bread occupied too great a place in the diet. People consumed from 1.6 to 2 kilos of bread per day, and other foods were known as companaticum, ‘what you eat with bread.’ (61)

A time of kindness:

  • “…the house was the basic cell of life, a haven of safety, a space for sociability….Closed in and private, hence inaccessible to the Other, it was also an expression of charity – or of charity as it was conceived in those centuries, which was the alms of a loaf of bread or a bowl of soup offered at the door, for the beggar knocking at the door might be Jesus…that hospitality…was one of the natural paths to salvation. “ (109)

And of cruelty:

  • “…mockery greeted the gesticulations of the mute. As for the blind…their confusion was met with laughter, and nothing was done to aid the myopic…” (20)

The British novelist L.P. Hartley wrote  that “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”  From these short glimpses of the Middle Ages, we can see he was correct. But, by looking at the lives of these people, we can also see how life has progressed, and regressed.

How lucky we are to live in a time when graveyards are not being filled by children?  How amazing is it that our 8 year old children have more mathematical knowledge than medieval adults?  How heartwarming is it that the modern world attempts to help and be kind to its most physically disabled? But, how unfortunate that those most socially and economically disabled are now seen as being a drain on society that should be punished for laziness? How annoying is it that with all the wonderful, healthy foods at our disposal, 10% of our calories per year come from sugar and chemical filled soda? Lastly, how sad that we have such a lack of historical knowledge that we don’t appreciate how far we have come in our attitudes and knowledge?


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