Revisiting the bad old days
All this talk about living in a brand-new century and how modern science is on the verge of unlocking the mysteries of the human genome is somewhat unsettling to this observer. It makes one wish we knew more about the past and could linger in it a bit longer before casting off and setting sail into the unknown world of the 21st Century.
As a way of stepping back into history, I started reading Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth. Within the first few pages, I found myself transported back to not-so-merry-old England in the year 1123. But, by the end of the first chapter, I was more than willing to return to the 21st Century.
Actually, the Dark Ages began about the 5th Century and, by the 12th Century, things were actually beginning to look up. Even so, there were terrible wars between nations. There were wars within nations to determine who would be king or queen. There were wars between local barons over land and who got to tax whom. And, that was even before the invention of the IRS.
There were wars between church and state, between town and country, between town and university and, as always, the over-arching struggle between the haves and the have-nots.
Of course, the serfs and peasants were at the bottom of the food chain and their suffering was constant. The higher-ups had better food, clothing and shelter; however, they were the ones who were most often engaged in the actual fighting.
The involvement of the masses in warfare is actually an invention of the 20th Century. Carpet bombing of entire cities is, we should be ashamed to say, a modern invention. Prior to that the dynastic wars were almost exclusively the province of the kings, queens, lords, knights and men-at-arms.
While the masses died of malnutrition and water-borne and pest-borne diseases, the upper classes often died of sword or axe or arrow wounds. Indeed, it didn’t take much of a wound to be fatal. Given the almost non-existent state of medical science, the slightest wound could result in death from gangrene or some other form of septicemia.
There were no medics with anti-biotics, sterile bandages, blood plasma or whole blood to administer. There were no medivac choppers to fly the wounded to M.A.S.H units. No wonder average life expectancy was about age 35.
With the span between birth and death so short, Salvation was a major concern and that was the province of the Church. Were people more religious back then? It is hard to say. But, early-on, they thought a lot more about death and dying and trying to find their way into a good place in the after-life.
As a result, whatever the Church wanted to teach about life, death and the after-life was taken, you might say, as Gospel. In the midst of the fighting, unarmed priests could walk around the battlefields, or anywhere for that matter, with little fear of physical harm. The most fearsome knight or man-at-arms would pale at the thought of a priest or a monk pointing his finger at them and condemning them to rot in Hell. What we call “moral suasion” today was at its all-time high back then.
These days, if a man or woman of the cloth were to confront a gang of druggers and suggested that their bad behavior would lead them to rot in Hell, the response would probably a fatal blast from an Uzi. So much for moral suasion in the 21st Century.
Even so, I’ll take the 21st Century over the 12th Century. We enjoy so much in the way of modern science, medicine, clean water, wholesome food, sanitation and convenience. And, if there has to be killing, we can always drop bombs on the hapless Bosnians, Croatians, Serbs and ethnic Albanians.
William Hamilton is a nationally syndicated columnist and a featured commentator for USA Today.