As I drove home today, past fences and green orderly fields, covering 23kms in about 25 minutes. I wondered what I’d experience if I was suddenly whisked away and dropped onto the ground seven centuries ago, when walking was the most used transport, and my 25 minute drive would be a good day’s walk in the right conditions.
The 1300’s was not a kind century. In popular history the period is most infamous for the largest ever devastation of the European population by the Pestilence, or Great Mortality (as it was known at the time) of 1347–48. After a prosperous 1200’s, the new century got off to a grim start with unseasonably horrible winters and cold, wet summers, causing famines in 1304, 1305, 1310, and 1315 – 1317.
The Great Famine of 1315–17 (sometimes noted as only really ending in 1322) killed millions from Ireland in the west to Russia to the east. The Alps protected parts of some Mediterranean countries.
I imagine myself as born into a peasant family in what is now called France in 1300. My father – a serf for the lord of the manor – and mother, (if she didn’t perish in childbirth) strive to raise me and my siblings (if those children were fortunate enough to survive infancy). Today is May 1st, 1315, and I’m fifteen years old. Not a tall lad but solid and already used to the physical and mental rigours of the time. After a freezing morning in our stone Church on Sunday, I walk with my best friend along the edge of a muddy road, cut up and full of deep holes ready to swallow up overloaded wagon wheels. The day is cool but some sun shines weakly through the skating clouds over the medieval landscape. We’re heading for a local forest we both know well and a harvest of mushrooms.
What do I comprehend about my world? I suspect that France is nearly entirely populated by peasants like myself and my friend, Jaques, because they are the folk I mostly see. I know that God is in heaven looking down on each one of us, and that Satan rules in hell, plying his wiles amongst weak men and women. The loudest sound I’ve ever heard is thunder. I don’t know what causes such a boom but suspect God is behind it because such storms often presage omens for some kinds of ill. My friend and I are both lucky to have reached 15 years knowing many in our close community have lost children to diseases nobody understands.
Jaques and I wonder (being unusually free and independent thinkers with a tenuous link to the 21st Century) why God allows suffering in the world. Jaques reminds me of Original Sin. That we all have the choice to be good or to behave in a selfish and malicious way: thieving, coveting, hurting others for pleasure, being lazy, greedily taking more than our share – we both laugh at that one. We need to hold fast to our Roman Catholic Faith. It is, of course, the one faith in the country and the only guaranteed way to gain entrance to Heaven. I recall fabulous tales by troubadours, pilgrims and travellers, of our Christian Crusaders marching to the Holy Land: long lines of knights, squires, soldiers, attendants and leagues of baggage trains passing south to fight against the Infidel. I half heartedly say a short prayer for those followers of Islam who have felt the cold steel of our armoured knights, glad I follow the true God.
I’ve never personally seen such processions but their magnificent stories live on passed down generation to generation. Troubadours often sing of the Crusader’s heroic deeds a lifetime away across the earth. I’ve only seen occasional glimpses of a few knights and their bizarrely attired entourages visiting the Lord’s manor. I certainly wouldn’t be sneaking about trying to spy on them. I know my place in God’s scheme.
Neither of us have ever travelled far from our homes, let alone to Paris to see where King Louis lives. The strip of water, La Manche, that divides France from England is many days walk to the west I’ve heard. One day I’d like to see this ocean – it’s hard to imagine such a huge body of water even exists. Again, I’ve heard stories of frightful storms wrecking big ships on rocky shorelines from sailors passing through. I shiver imagining such events – I can’t swim. Sinking like a stone to remain on the floor of the sea must be a terrible way to die. Even worse, there are no underwater priests to give benediction to the drowning.
Big Time is chronicled by the Creation of the World, 4,484 years before the founding of Rome. Important dates are marked by papal reigns – something I’m very unclear on – though I’m well aware of our annual festivals, religious events and Saint’s Days. Each of our days is divided up by the times of prayer, not hours: sunrise, prime – the first daylight; vespers at 6:00 in the evening; compline at bedtime; matins at midnight and lauds at 3:00am. The opportunity to take the monk’s habit and rise twice in the depths of the dark to kneel on a hard floor does not appeal to me.
Jaques and I are disappointed there are just a few small mushrooms to be found, noting the unusually cold ground for this time of year. I look up at the watery sun as we give up our search and reappear out of the woods back onto the road. Heading home we bend our heads and hunch our shoulders against a hard rain. As the day nears evening we pass peddlers, a merchant’s wagonload struggling through the mud, a couple of scurrying couriers, pilgrims and monks making for the closest lodgings and safety for the night.
I bid my friend adieu and arrive home wet and frozen. In our small cottage without windows, my little sister and mother and father huddle close to the fire talking quietly. Smoke hangs in the damp air before a little of it drifts out through the small hole in the roof. After a spare dinner of vegetable broth and bread, the sun’s last light vanishes. We ration a weak candle to see our way into the one bed that serves all four of us.
I lie awake listening to their sleep noises. Outside, there are sounds of farm animals, men shouting in the distance, and other unidentifiable scary screams – I huddle closer to my family for warmth and protection. All magic is allowed in this land and time. I drift off with tales of goblins, daemons, ghouls, magicians and only God knows what other spirits whirling through my drowsy mind. I say a rote of prayers for Him to watch over us.
In the 21st Century I’m not able to inform my 14th Century self that this month is just the beginning of the Great Famine: continuous rain, severe winters and summer crop failures lasting the next three years that progressively weaken and reduce the population. Without harvests the seed stock is eaten in lieu. I hear stories of infanticide, the elderly refusing to eat to enable the next generation to live, and increasingly violent crimes as folk fight to stay alive. There’s even stories of cannibalism in other towns – surely not – I find such sacrilege hard to stomach or believe. The life expectancy during this decade is just under 30 years. If I’m fortunate enough to live through until 1322 the crisis abates somewhat, even stabilises.
When I’m 48, now with my own family – my wife and young daughter – the jongleurs, travellers and pilgrims passing through our town bring word of a new advancing enemy. One that can’t be killed. They talk of the End of the World. The Pestilence that is spreading north from Italy and Spain – already in the city of Avignon, the residence of the Pope – the plague kills multitudes, spares few. Nobody knows why this scourge has been sent or how we can avoid dying from it when it arrives, as surely it must. I hear whispers that this lethal sickness let loose in the world is a punishment for the profligacy, greed and selfish indulgences of the Church. Could that be possible? Of course, but how do I protect my wife and daughter from the oncoming black wave? Jaques and I talk quietly of what might be done. We conclude nowt can be. We pray to God. I wonder if He will hear our pleas and spare us. Stories abound of whole towns and monasteries being wiped out leaving just a few individuals, the good falling with the bad.
“While Divine punishment was accepted as the plague’s source, people in their misery still looked for a human agent upon whom to vent the hostility that could not be vented on God.”
Are we in the end times? Would God be so cruel to send such a ruinous plague? Jaques reminds me of the potential evil that increasingly proliferates around us. Groups of armed brigands, mercenaries and bands of disaffected men roam the countryside; raping and killing the weak, plundering and burning the towns. These soldiers are the left behind remnants of the interminable battles between France and England, or they’re just violent men who crave fighting and killing. Jaques thinks such a cleansing would be for the best. I agree with him out loud, but secretly have faith God wouldn’t permit such a wholesale devastation. I resolve to try everything in my power to save my family.
I can’t bring myself to inform my 14th Century self that the mean life expectancy drops to 17 in the years between 1348 and 1375 as the Great Mortality reaps its toll, subsiding in the winters only to spring back to life in summer to ravage the dwindling survivors of the preceding onslaughts.
Resources: from A Distant Mirror – Barbara Tuchman inc. quote; Wikipedia; A History of Britain – Simon Schama, Vol 1.