Out of this world

news: Out of this world

Skip Bandele reflects on life and his world – as he sees it.

I THINK it was President Harry Truman who said “you’ve never had it so good” during the early post-war years, yet many people remain convinced that we are living through one of the worst periods of our relatively short existence.

Are they right or are they wrong? Let us take a lightening tour of three different centuries and then pass judgement on the relative merits and disadvantages of our current state of evolution.

The Vikings

Contrary to popular legend, the Vikings of the 10th century were not as bad as they have been made out to be. They came, they saw, they…met a nice girl and settled down. The supposed illiterate, warring thugs in horned helmets, who arrived on Britain’s shores from Scandinavia in the 900s AD, were in fact far more civilised and sophisticated than once thought.

Latest research, combined with new archaeological discoveries in Cumbria, reveal an advanced society of men who integrated easily into community customs. The Vikings not only assimilated into British life, but also influenced and contributed to its continuing social and cultural development.

Leif Eriksson sailed to America during this time, a fact that was soon forgotten, but most of this bold, seafaring race concentrated on establishing trade routes all over Europe. They were merchants who became property owners and farmers. The portrayal of the Vikings as a race of “marauding invaders” hellbent on destruction was largely propagated by politically motivated propaganda written during that age. England’s population had grown to three million by the turn of the millennium and was easily capable of defending itself against gangs of sword-waving pirates. Instead, the tall, blond Norsemen did what all settlers do – they landed, adopted the host language and, over one or two generations, took British wives and became part of native society.

The “raping, looting and pillaging”, stereotyped in Hollywood films, does not tally with the high degree of development attained by 10th century Denmark and Norway from where the Vikings came. At worst, the odd foreign adventure was seen as a useful way to get rid of young men’s aggression in a controlled environment before settling down with a nice girl and starting a family – a sort of football hooliganism of ancient times.

Women were not despised or mistreated by the manly warrior traders, but valued and respected. As a whole, life in Britain during this era was hard, without any form of luxury, but relatively settled and peaceful. The permanence of the Viking “invaders” is illustrated by the fact that diluted Scandinavian blood is very likely to still be coursing through your veins if you hail from the east of England, from Essex through Norfolk, Suffolk, Lincolnshire and even Yorkshire. Across the Irish Sea, Dublin, like York in England, was also founded by the Vikings.

The Black Death

Four hundred years later, events did not look so rosy. In 1348, nearly half the population of Britain was wiped out in the space of just 18 months by the Black Death, a horror scenario mirrored all over Europe.

It is still unknown how the plague arrived in Melcombe, Dorset, that terrible June, but the most likely theory is that it was either a virus or a bacterium carried by human or rat fleas. For the victims, the first signs of contamination were swellings at the groin or armpit followed by a hacking cough.

Unlike modern-day Aids, the Black Death was mercifully quick. You coughed up blood for a couple of days, developed a fever and died. The disease was terrifyingly infectious, being transmitted by droplets of blood or mucus in the air. Anyone coughing or sneezing in a public tavern would clear the place in seconds.“The pestilence grew so strong that men and women dropped dead in the streets,” wrote a monk in Yorkshire.

When the plague reached London, 300 people died every day within the square mile of the city and it became almost impossible to find anyone to bury the bodies. And it not only ravaged the common people. Joan, the daughter of the then King Edward III, died in Bordeaux while travelling to marry a Spanish prince. Her distraught father asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to organise prayers against the disease, but the leading churchman in the country had already succumbed to it.

Scotland decided that this was a good time to settle old scores and attacked its weakened enemy. The invading army did not get very far, also falling victim to the Black Death, with a few survivors beating a hasty retreat and thus taking the fatal bacteria home with them.

The plague was a global disaster in the 14th century, which spread as far afield as India, China, Iceland and Greenland, recurring every 20 years or so after its initial outbreak.

The Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio, who lived through the plague in Florence, best summarised the extent of the apocalypse and the terror it struck into the hearts of mankind: “Brother abandoned brother and the uncle his nephew and the sister her brother and very often the wife her husband. What is even worse, and nearly incredible, is that fathers and mothers refused to see and tend to their children, as if they had not been theirs.”

There had been nothing comparable since the seventh century AD, when there was a huge outbreak across the Byzantine Empire and only the New World was worse hit in the 16th century when smallpox arrived on European ships devastating Mexico and Peru. In both countries, the populations were reduced by 90 per cent over two generations.

As if the plague was not enough to deal with for our medical predecessors, the 14th century was also a time of acute climactic change, bringing famine, endless armed conflict, crippling taxes and subsequent bloody social upheaval.

The Hundred Years War was waged against France, the prohibitive cost of which was largely made to be borne by the peasantry. Levies were imposed by both the Crown and local feudal lords, a burden that reached ridiculous heights with the additional introduction of Poll Tax, forcing a humble serf to pay the same amount as the wealthy nobility. This unbearable situation for the common people led to armed risings, which are referred to as the Peasants Revolt. Bleak times indeed.

Mayflower colonists

Recently, the 26-year-old building site worker, Paul Hunt, was persuaded to exchange the streets of London for a 17th century colonist’s life, similar to that which the Pilgrim Fathers were faced with upon landing in America aboard the Mayflower in 1628.

As part of the upmarket TV reality show Pioneer House, 17 people – three families and seven singles – were marooned in a remote part of New England with a small amount of basic foods, livestock and rudimentary cottages appropriate to the historical setting.

They were not allowed to bring any of the 21st century comforts they had come to take for granted. The only place to wash was the freezing Atlantic, the only toilets the woods, they had just the clothes they stood up in and the Bible provided the only form of entertainment.

The original Mayflower colonists died at an alarming rate in their first winter. Having escaped from religious persecution, more than half of the 53 men perished and only six of the 20 women survived. The re-enactment did not go quite that far, but illness and hunger formed part of the volunteers’ daily lives away from civilisation.

They were also assigned roles in keeping with the social hierarchy of the time, Paul finding himself toiling away as the servant to the settlement’s governor. Like the women, who cooked and cleaned while the men worked in the fields, he was excluded from all decision-making and initially found his new life excruciatingly harsh. Only when the Mancunian told himself to “just get on with it” did he begin to appreciate that the total absence of responsibility combined with good, honest physical labour made a refreshing change from the pressures and demands of his 21st century life.

There were no bills to pay, no commuting and no stress, although the underlying hard-line puritan principles, which formed part of the close-to-reality experiment, did cause some problems. “Scarlet letters”, such as p for profanity, were issued for misdemeanours, such as swearing or failing to observe the Sabbath, and had to be displayed prominently on one’s clothing. Some of the villagers were even put in the stocks.

For many of the participants, the ordeal became a life-changing experience. Since their return, they have re-evaluated what their lives are really about. A number came to realise that it is not so much about what they have got, but, more importantly, about how little they really need to be happy. The non-existence of any vestiges of the life shaped by material goods during their stay was able to provide some valuable lessons.

“In the evenings, we could sit around the table, look into the fire and actually talk to each other,” marvelled one girl raised on television soap operas. A realisation that shows that there are certain values from the past that can still contribute to the quality of our lives today.

But now it is your turn. Is our world in 2005, especially here in Portugal, really so bad or is it just what we make of it? Close your eyes for a moment and transport yourself back into one of the three periods of history I have just described. Choose!