Reader Request Week 2011 #3: Middle Ages Me

Charles asks:

If you were born in the dark ages, and couldn’t be a writer, how would you earn a living? Technology related jobs are out, because remember it’s the DARK AGES. I don’t see you as the farmer type, so what would you do?

Well, first, I’m not 100% behind the phrase “dark ages,” which implies, basically, that from the collapse of Rome until roughly the time of the Renaissance, there wasn’t a whole lot going on in Europe, intellectually and culturally speaking. This is not entirely true, as any student of European history will tell you. Likewise, as French historian Jacques Le Goff reminds us, “Those who suggest that the ‘dark ages’ were a time of violence and superstition would do well to remember the appalling cruelties of our own time, truly without parallel in past ages.” Look at the last century and see if you can disagree with this point.

As for technological advances, there was a lot of them about, actually, but in a manner we don’t much think about. The development of the heavy plow, for example, was literally cutting-edge technology in the 7th Century; sure, it doesn’t look like much next to your shiny new iPhone, but on the other hand your shiny new iPhone can’t break up the heavy soils of Northern Europe and lead to massive advances in the ability of the people there to feed themselves. If you’ve got any ancestors from above the Danube, you might be glad one of them thought up the heavy plow. Add in the horse collar, which arrived in Europe in the 11th century or so, and suddenly those same farmers could plow the same fields in half the time. No, they couldn’t play Angry Birds. But back in the day, they had real angry birds. Stealing grain. So there.

Be that as it may, the question remains: What would the John Scalzi of, oh, let’s say, 1011, be doing with his time?

To begin, if he was my current age of 41, there’s an excellent chance he would already be dead. Infant and child mortality killed off a large number of folks who would never see the other side of a fifth birthday; add to that the general less-than-advanced state of medicine of the eleventh century AD, and there’s a good chance that either disease or injury would have claimed me by now. And even if it had, I would still be old at 41; it seems unlikely I’d have many of my teeth still, my various injuries and years of almost certain hard physical labor would have taken its toll on my body, and so basically I’d probably be hunched, creaky and gumming my food.

And what would my job be? Easy: Peasant farmer.

Which, I know, Charles, suggests he doesn’t see me as. Thing is, in 1011, pretty much everyone was a farmer. Yes, there were other jobs, and other social strata, but if we’re looking at actual statistics, guess what? Odds are, you’re probably a peasant farmer. And certainly in my case it seems to be likely. Look at my last name: Scalzi. In Italian, it means “barefoot.” Tell me that doesn’t just scream “hardy peasant stock.” So, yes, if I’m in the eleventh century, and still alive at my advanced age, then I’m almost certainly a farmer. And I probably think it sucks, but then, it’s not like I have all sorts of options.

That said, there’s a small possibility that at an early age someone saw some small spark of intelligence in me, in which case there’s a chance that might eventually find my way into a religious order, which given who I am today might seem somewhat ironic and amusing, but in the eleventh century might strike me as a pretty good deal, all things considered. If I joined an order that followed the Benedictine Rule, I would have some access to reading and the intelligence of the time, and would be in a community of like-minded individuals, and in any event knowing me I would prefer that life to looking at the ass end of an ox for most of my days.

In either case I probably wouldn’t have become me — that is, the witty, snarky writerly type you all know and appear to tolerate. But we’re talking the eleventh century here. It was not a quality era for snark. I do imagine that in my village or order I would be known for my quirky sense of humor, but I also suspect that’s about as far as it would go.I suppose there’s some very small chance that I could be something along the lines of a wandering entertainer, going from court to court with my tales, perhaps with musical accompaniment. But I don’t exactly see that as a good life, in 1011.

But let’s suppose that in my 11th century character creation mode I rolled all natural 20s and ended up having the option of being anything I wanted to be. What then? Well, my first option would be not to be born for another 958 years (or so), because I like me some air conditioning and Internet and human rights and modern medicine. Barring that I would go for, oh, I don’t know, a royal court historian somewhere; a gig that keeps me out of having to take an arrow in the thigh (or alternately, running someone through with a pike) in a war, or watching an ox’s ass while it pulls a plow, or in fact very many of the really stinky and inconvenient aspects of life in the 11th century. What about being a prince or a knight? Yeah, no. Lots of wars. Lots of death. Lots of being away from family for years while you fight for a boggy chunk of land. Pass, thank you. Court historian will suit me just fine.

But in point of fact, what I’m rather more likely to be is a peasant farmer, and also, at age 41, stone cold dead. I’ll stick with the 21st century.

It’s not too late to ask questions for Reader Request Week — post your questions at this link.

72 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2011 #3: Middle Ages Me”

  1. if I’m in the eleventh century, and still alive at my advanced age, then I’m almost certainly a farmer

    On the other hand, if you’re in the 11th century, still alive at your advanced age, and in the general state of health you are now, then the odds are you’re already a priest or noble. No?

    (Yes, I know, I added an extra conditional there. Maybe I just like the idea of Viscount John the Barefoot.)

  2. The option of being either a poor peasant or a priest stuck around until well into the 20th century. At least that was the situation on my mom’s side of the the family until my mom. Her ancestor’s were basically peasant farmers in Northern Italy. If they wanted to get out of peasant farming, the only choice they had was becoming priests. I have two great uncles who are both fiercely intelligent men; between them they spoke and/or read at least six languages (including ancient Greek). They were also priests and in one great uncle’s case a missionary priest in Brazil.

    My mom got the option to be a suburban housewife. I went to university and am now a professional; my sister is an executive for a fortune 500 company. Modern times has it’s advantages.

  3. Another angle: born in the 10th century in the same place you were born in the 20th. You might have been a peasant fisherman!

    I might have been in the earthworks game (lots of mounds in northeast Ohio and my Dad was a clever maker type).

  4. Poul Anderson wrote an excellent, and extremely depressing, historical story about (basically) a science-fiction writer born in the wrong time and place. It was about a man named Tam who was a peasant farmer in the middle ages. He tried to entertain his family and friends with stories about fantastical things, but they weren’t interested in his unproductive babbling. So he got drunk a lot and beat his kids.

    It should be required reading for people who see things like the SCA as being historically accurate, rather than an entertaining fantasy about a time that never existed. Also, for any time travelers yearning to go to a “simpler time”.

  5. Ha ha… I’ve thought long and hard about this one. Blacksmith. Hard physical labor, sure, but it would keep me fit. And I’ve had a little experience to know it’s something I could both do and love. And it paid fairly well, if you were half decent about it. Plus, bronze or iron, there’s a long history of people needing metal bits pounded into specific shapes. Maybe I should go dig up those plans I made at one time to build a propane forge…

  6. I’ve done this sort of thought exercise in the past, and whatever era one imagines oneself living in, the conclusion is usually the same: “…and that would suck.” And then we’re all glad to be living in 2011 and get on with our lives.

    But presumably, at some future date, some mildly introspective nerd is going to do a similar thought exercise regarding our time, and conclude “Boy, living in the early 21st Century sure would suck. I’m glad I live in 3011.” Which makes me wonder…did 11th century peasant farmers think that their lives were awful? And if not, was it because they were unable to conceive of a better life, or maybe because they took what pleasure they could find in the lives they had. Maybe looking at the rear end of an ox doesn’t seem quite so bad if you’re used to it, and it’s what everybody else you know does all day too. And what the heck is so awesome about our hypothetical nerd’s live in 3011 that my office-job, wired-up life looks so crappy?

  7. “But we’re talking the eleventh century here. It was not a quality era for snark.”

    There are two pieces of a Bible manuscript made in Ireland that used to be next to each other. In the margins of one a monk wrote to another “It’s cold in here.” To which the other responded “no kidding–it’s winter!”

    For clarity, I heard this from a Dr. Robinson, who is a biblical scholar I once took a class from. I’ve also found other sources that support this story, and mentions that Irish monks are somewhat infamous for defacing biblical manuscripts with their notes to one another. I’ve always thought it was amusing that even medieval monks would complain about the weather. In the Bible.

  8. I’ve never been a big fan of hypothetical questions like this, because “me” in this world I’m trying to insert myself and the person I am now have to be so fundamentally different that they become unrecognizable, in which case the question becomes kind of moot. If I try and answer the question with the person I am now the answer is usually pretty boring, example; “What would you do in a post-apocalyptic world?” “Most likely I’d cry, poop myself, and then get killed by some Mad Max style cannibal in the first hour of my being there.”

  9. Tiny good-natured quibble–just because the average lifespan in the dark ages was pretty short doesn’t mean that a person of 41 would have been elderly or experienced accelerated aging. You might have aged faster from overwork and malnutrition, but if you stayed reasonably well-fed and disease-free, it’s possible you’d be in as-good or better shape than you are now.

    You know what’s funny? If you asked me the same question, I would have even fewer choices in dark ages Europe, regardless of wealth or social station. For a woman in that time and place, you got to be either a wife or a nun. The only variation would be how much allowance you get to spend on clothes. I think the smart money is on nun, because I don’t like the odds on surviving childbirth.

  10. By the way, my understanding is that “Dark Ages” was the time between Roman empire and middle ages, so that would be AD 500-700is, no? Same job choices, though, basically.

  11. I was going to point out what Catherine Shaffer did @14, but kudos for pointing out that the Dark Ages weren’t. There was lots of technological advancement between the fall of Rome and the accession of Charlemagne. But there were lots of jobs outside of peasant farming and being a monk. Look for Tony Robinson’s (that’s Baldrick) series on the worst jobs in history. Sure they sucked (and often involved urine), but they were there.

    Also, if you weren’t a soldier and your village didn’t get overrun by a war, once you made it to adulthood, 41 wasn’t all that improbable. Most of what drags down historical life expectancies is child mortality. 60 or 70 wasn’t unreasonable for someone who made it to adulthood.

    And if you’d gone into the clergy, maybe you’d have made Pope. Look how fast you made it to SFWA president. Pope John the Barefoot has a ring to it.

  12. Back then, I probably would have gotten myself killed because I’m such a smart ass. ;-)

    If not, I think I would have been drafted (at swordpoint) into someone or another’s army, because I have a chunky, muscular build. Maybe I would have become some kind of lower-order officer. I don’t have the ambition to be a great general or leader.

    At any rate, I would almost certainly be dead before my current age, because I’m 53.

  13. Catherine Shaffer:

    What’s “the dark ages” depends on where you are in Europe, and which historian one wishes to argue with. It’s also worth noting that these days “dark ages” is less about a time of backwards living and more about a time where there is a paucity of historical record.

    DemetriosX, Catherine:

    I have less than great teeth and at age 41 I already have an arthritic hip, whose condition would almost certainly be aggravated if I were engaging in daily physical labor; I also come from a family with a history of back issues. So, I’m pretty comfortable suggesting that I would be a pretty old 41 if I lived in 1011.

  14. If my memory’s correct, Fred Pohl did it in a short story called “Mute, Inglorious Tam,” about a medieval peasant with the soul of an sf writer.

  15. While being a peasant farmer might have been a likely occupation, it is by no means the only one possible. You could have been a craftsperson such as a carpenter, baker, butcher, blacksmith, bronze smith, fletcher, bowyer, dyer, potter, cooper, turner (a person who turned wooden bowls on lathes ), or stone mason, to name some of the occupations that society needed. As Catherine Shaffer has pointed out, if you made it to 41, there’s a good chance you were in decent physical shape and probably had most of your teeth.
    Of course, all bets are off if you were born female.

  16. I’d have been dead long before now, assuming a roughly similar medical history. Closed head injury at age 5, closed head injury at age 15, tuberculosis at age 16, acute gastritis at age 20, and cancer at age 43. Any of those would have killed me in 1011. So, yeah, hooray for modern medicine.

  17. I would be dead. When I was seven years old I got bronchitis, which lasted six months and was only barely prevented from becoming a nasty case of pneumonia. A thousand years ago, without that treatment? (Not to mention I was born prematurely and so jaundiced they considered a full-body blood transplant)

    That said, even assuming a more fortunate medical history, I would still be nearly blind without glasses, so my options would be pretty limited. But I would almost certainly be trimmer and more fit!

  18. Not only would I be dead already from asthma, but one suspects my ancestry would have been pruned for similar reasons, so I’d not even be.

  19. Given the near total absence of sugar in the diet, your teeth might actually be rather better than they are now.

    And a quibble with Catherine Schaeffer: medieval wives took on their husbands’s professions and, where they were guild wives, often the businesses if they died. Being a wife was a very different thing than it became in the nineteenth century, closer I think to business partner.

  20. I’m another one of those that would be long dead at my current age of 40. I was diagnosed with diabetes just before my 25th birthday. Now admittedly, the extra exercise would stave off some of the immediate problems, but the odds are I wouldn’t have seen 30. As Matt (#23) says above, I also would be practically blind. I love visited my local renaissance faire, but I am very happy to live in modern times with modern medicine. (I won’t even start on the social advances — being a heretic is much safer these days!)

  21. See, it’s that whole, “I’d be dead before I reached age 41” thing that makes the Dark Ages name appropriate for me. I’d have been dead at age 2, then again from various flus and other junk between ages 6 and 15, then again from complicated childbirth at age 25. People ask me what I would like to be in history and I say, “Not born yet.” I see no problem in calling an age that’s a historical question mark the Dark Ages, even knowing that yeah, some folks did okay. I just don’t see the need to try to come up with some other name, and Tony Robinson’s history series about the multiple exciting career opportunities created by the remarkable chemical properties of pee, blood and poo do nothing to change that opinion.

  22. Robert Hayes @ 8 and Neil in Chicago @ 19: you’re both referencing the same short story. The title is “Mute Inglorious Tam”, written by Frederick Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth in 1974.

  23. John,

    I think you’d be a reader. If you’ve ever read Terry Jones’s “Who Murdered Chaucer?,” he posits the idea that reading was actually a very social activity, and that people who could read well and in an entertaining manner were somewhat in demand. A knight, a page, a common servant might be called upon to read someone’s book to a group of people in an evening. Most people who “read” a book, a handbill or a law had actually had it read to them. This wasn’t simply because of illiteracy; reading aloud was pre-digital entertainment, and a good way for friends and acquaintances to share the somewhat rare and expensive commodity known as the book. Anyway, I suspect you’d be the reader during mealtime, probably adding your own sound effects to the really good bits.

  24. I see myself as dead from overwork unless I could gravitate into one of two professions. 1) Tutor to the children of some royal or noble household or 2) a monk translating and/or copying manuscripts. And even then, I would probably be dead before my present age of 66.

  25. Look at my last name: Scalzi. In Italian, it means “barefoot.”

    Look at my last name: LoPinto. In Italian it means painter.

    And given my Sicilian heritage, I might have moved back and forth through the Muslim world where life was much better than in Europe at the time.

    I mighta been a troubadour pre-cursor if you take the painter moniker less literally…

  26. There’s a hell of a lot of worse places to be a peasant than Dark Ages Italy. From the departure of Belisarius and Narses to the arrival of the Normans, things were pretty quiet. It wasn’t Palm Beach, but it wasn’t Afghanistan or Scotland, either.

  27. “But we’re talking the eleventh century here. It was not a quality era for snark.”

    …Does that mean that your answer would be different if we were talking about the fourteenth C. CE?

  28. Folks,
    This is an interesting topic, which has a tendency to give one a bit of the willies when contemplating it for an extended period of time. After some though, I believe that not only would I be dead by now at the ripe old age of 48, but also in all likelihood, I wouldn’t have even been born during the Dark Ages. My Dad was 45 and my Mom 40 at the time of my birth. Bothe would have probably been long dead at that age in 1011 A.D.

    But say that they had lived and that I had been born. My Mom smoked (purists need substitute some other sort of health disorder here, such as malnutrition due to age related disease for 1011) during my prenatal months and I had a low birth weight. I’ve had respiratory issues most of my life. I most definitely would have died at five years of age, having contracted a severe strep infection that resulted in epiglottis, sealing the opening to my tracheal airway shut. Let’s face it, without modern medical science I, along with many other folks reading this blog, would be currently taking an extended dirt nap – probably several times over!

    Life expectancy in 1776 was 33 years. Life expectancy at the turn of the 20th century was a mere 47.5 years… as such, in 1900; I would already be living on gravy-time! It really isn’t until the last half of the 20th century that we saw folks living into their late sixties on a regular basis. That is why Social Security was originally set to kick in at 65! It was never intended to support people for 20 to 30+ years following retirement from the workplace.

    Fantasy novels and RenFests tend to romanticize the whole living in the “Days of Yore” shtick, but give me the good ol’ modern era any day.

  29. Depends which side of the family you want to look at. Both sides came over “On de boat. Mit das shickens, unt das cabbaches.”[/heavy Middle European accent]. Dad’s side was mostly Germanic farmers and small crafters, ditto Mom’s family, but from a completely different part of the continent. I probably would have ended up being a small crafter myself. In many parts of the world, now, you get a wide variety of professions and intermingling (and improvement) in the gene pool. Many of us wouldn’t have had any chance of existing at all without successive waves of immigration and dispersal.

  30. wasn’t it actually dark during the dark ages? Like some volcano blew ash into the upper atmosphere and cooled the planet?

  31. #34 Prior to the establishment of the United States and the adoption of the novel concept of free speech being an unalienable right and the proliferation of said right in other countries, snarkiness had a tendency to result in keeping the average life expectancy on the rather low end…as it does in many places even today.

  32. Tracing my ancestry I find that 1000 or so years ago I would have been a hunter/gather/corn farmer (at least no days looking at ox behinds) or, going by names, a warrior. Given that my surname comes from a Celtic source, being a warrior at some time may have involved blue dye and little armor but things were better in the Dark Ages. Going a little farther back and I do have a claim at royalty. True, it was a Welsh king that is known today only because of surviving sermons about his drinking and whoring but you gotta take what socal status you can. I don’t think that living in a “castle” in Powys was much better than the average hovel.

    A bit of a comment on life lengths: The high rate of infant mortalty skews our perception of how long people lived. If ypu made it out of infancy and then, eventually, into adulthood, you had a good chance of making it to 50 or 60. Assuming that a plague, war, famine or accident did not take you out. And you would be pretty healthy since if you were not, you died, The main difference now is not that people are living longer but that more folks are living longer.

  33. Brian@10: Which makes me wonder…did 11th century peasant farmers think that their lives were awful?

    I grew up a step or two above peasant farmer. We had diesel tractors instead of ox. It’s not the same thing in some respects, but I’m going to guess, yeah, they thought it was awful, because, hey, scrabbling around, barely one step ahead of starving or freezing to death is not a fun place to be in.

    And I hope a thousand years from now they look back on us and thank god they’re not living here, because the alternative is that either the world doesn’t chagne for the next thousand years, or, it gets worse.

  34. There was slavery in the eras between the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and Charlemagne, all through Europe and the regions outside. There were many ways of becoming a slave. If you were a young and comely female your chances of being captured and / or sold into slavery were higher than for some other people.

  35. I’m healthy enough… teeth are ok, I have allergies, might be showing early arthritic symptoms but not a big deal.

    I destroyed my ACL when I was 18, but that was because of Astroturf, which fortunately didn’t exist in 1011. I could have damaged it in another way, but I’ll stick with the optimistic interpretation.

    All of that said, I’m tremendously nearsighted. I can’t focus clearly on anything further away than about eight inches, though I can read a lot of text out to about a foot. There’s nothing going to fix that, in 1011. I can see well enough to walk around, but I can’t see small branches until I hit them, etc.

    I’ve been a hobbyist blacksmith – I wouldn’t want to do it for a living, but it’s a living. I might be able to keep doing that despite being nearsighted. Most fine work you can look in close at safely. Metal colors, for heat, is more important than fine focus typically anyways. But it would make it harder.

    I’ve been a hobbyist sailor – and sailors had pretty tough lives in the times.

    I happen to know where some of my ancestors were and what they were doing in 1011. It involved a lot of fighting, in and around Normandy. Not sure I’d look forwards to a visit, much less living there…

  36. An interesting alternative for the 11th century would be “Muslim.” While a surprisingly large fraction of European life at that time did involve the ass end of an ox, the Islamic world was undergoing an exceptional flowering of art, science, commerce and culture right then. Even with crazy notions like medicine, regular bathing, and legal rights.

  37. #25 Farah–interesting point. In fact women experienced a regression of rights in the middle ages and rennaissance, compared to earlier centuries in terms of rights to own property, etc. However, saying that you have a profession because you husband has/had one seems like splitting hairs to me.

    John–Okay, I’ll grant that you would be a decrepit, arthritic little troll without the highly advanced technological machines and drugs that are even now keeping you alive. Happy? ;-)

    I did actually write an article once about the paucity of historical record in the Dark Ages. There’s pretty good evidence (aka tree rings) that some kind of huge catastrophe such as a meteor strike followed by a plague bigger than the Black Plague of the 14th century semi-wiped-out civilization. So dead is a good guess, actually…

  38. Anyone wanting a better idea of what life was like back then should read “The Year 1000 – What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium” by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger. In addition to the fascinating text, there are nifty woodcuts from 1020AD.

    A chapter devoted to illness and pestilence concludes, “As one studies the array of remedies and medical treatments that was available to the sick in the year 1000, one would hardly blame the patient who foreswore human intervention and decided to let nature take its course.” Good times.

  39. Seeing as how I was born premature and had terrible asthma as a child, I’d have been a mere statistic in those infant mortality rates. Had I lived, as oldest son of a peasant farmer, I might have had an opportunity to enter the clergy, especially if my mother, being the strong minded woman that she is had seen to it that someone of influence in the village would have noticed that I could read the Bible and scribble my name. There’s a fair chance I could have entered an order and spent my days illuminating manuscripts (I have a bit of an aptitude for drawing and lettering) at least until my eyes gave out which, at 33, they’re starting too already, so spending my days hunched over doing all those fiddly bits in the margins would surely have me blind before long.Wouldn’t have been a bad life, even for an avowed atheist. It’s not like all the monks and priests were super pious and stuck in some out of the way abbey in Ireland could have been a decent life. Of course, having been to Ireland and spent a week in November in a Tar House, wandering up and down stone steps in a drafty castle is not exactly a picnic. And that was with indoor plumbing.

  40. As I recall, Isaac Asimov was asked much the same question, and answered in much the same way. He pointed out that the chances were he’d be one of the downtrodden, illiterate, disease-ridden masses, rather than a king, courtier or poet (and given his ancestors, likely to be a victim of a pogrom as well).

  41. Which reminds me: Howcum people always seem to “remember their past lives” under hypnosis as having been much higher-caste than most people would have been?

  42. in which case there’s a chance that might eventually find my way into a religious order,

    You’d be Brother Cadfael!

  43. Female, age 31, Britishly genetic bad teeth, bad eyesight, possibly having infertility questions, kind of mouthy and intelligent…

    Odds are I’d probably have been drawn and quartered as a witch or a heretic. Not such a happy idea.

  44. #49
    I would surmise that said remembered “past lives” has something to do with the the term “Bovine Scatology”.

  45. The continued overuse of dark ages makes the historian in me extremely sad. For one, it’s not like any of the issues people talk about the middle ages having actually were exclusive to the Dark Ages. The high mortality rates continued at least until the industrial revolution, and the worst parts of the common image of the “Dark Ages” (plague and the inquisition) are both solidly Renaissance phenomenon. A prerequisite for the plague was relatively robust trade networks and urban centers as otherwise it could not have spread so impressively.

    On the potential life in the middle ages: there are at least two other prominent options given the Italian last name Scalzi, depending which part of Italy we are talking. Either an urban laborer or sailor could easily explain the name “barefoot,” and both are just as likely as peasant in a northern Italian setting.

  46. Wasn’t it an Golden Age in the Arabic countires during this time. If I had a choice I would want to be there during this time and a man. LOL

  47. “The development of the heavy plow, for example, was literally cutting-edge technology ”

    Well played, sir, well played.

  48. #17 John, your reference to being a very old 41 made me think of that scene in the first season of “True Blood”:

    Sookie Stackhouse: How old are you? Am I allowed to ask that?
    Bill Compton: I was made vampire in 1865, when I was thirty human years old.
    Sookie Stackhouse: Wow, you look older than that.
    Bill Compton: Life was harder then.

  49. One minor quibble – although wars killed more people in the 20th Century than in any other, the average mortality rate from violence was actually substantially reduced from the past, even counting in violent crime, government-sanctioned killing, civil wars, etc. in the 20th Century. The evidence is still spotty, but I understand that there has been a general reduction in the rate of deaths from violence over time.

    While we normally think of hunter-gatherer lives as relatively peaceful (except for the their prey), the known examples in the contemporary world are often quite violent. In Papua New Guinea, for instance, a hunter-gatherer tribal group recently was documented to have something like a 1 in 5 rate of violent death for adults. 20% of people were killed in inter- or intra-tribal squabbles, usually raids for women or pigs, or blood feuds created by those raids. That is an almost unimaginable rate of violence to our peaceful conception of the world.

  50. Well, since only one grandparent is of European stock, I’m going to go with who I would be in 1011 in Northern Mexico. I am decended from the Tarahumara (Rarámuri) and Yaqui peoples. While they lived in different types of areas (lowlands valleys vs. mountain ranges) their lives were pretty much the same.

    I would be a farmer (corn, potatoes, beans) or small animal herder and of course, a mother. As a Tarahumara the highlight of the year would be religous festivals and the foot races which, oddly enough, co-incide. (For those who don’t know the Tarahumara are known for their distance running.) It’s a pretty limited set of choices, but then again, I think that’s something most of us share in this little exercise.

  51. Add me to the ranks of bog-trotting peasants/hunter-gatherers, living somewhere between Ireland and Germany, or in Australia, depending on which bit of the family tree I picked. Although, being quiet and bookish, I might have made it into a nunnery, assuming I survived being born 2 months premature.

    I prefer the related game, though, of “if I had a time machine … ” I’d hit Mantua in the mid-15th century, with a supply of anti-malarials and enough cabochon gems and silk to set myself up for life. Mantua wasn’t invaded or sacked, despite being between Venice and Milan, until World War 1, and under the Gonzaga it was a cultural and social jewel. It was also a major stop on the trading routes to Northern Europe, so my stash would be relatively easy to offload.

    And then I’d hire an assassin to kill Savonarola in time to stop the Bonfire of the Vanities, and invest in a few saved Botticelli nudes. Good days, good days.

  52. #55 “The development of the heavy plow, for example, was literally cutting-edge technology ”

    Well played, sir, well played.

    Hmmm…that being the case, would the invention of le guillotine be considered “bleeding edge” technology?

  53. Dude, you rock.

    I had an apendectomy in my 30’s so put me on the dead subsistance farmer list. This assumes that none of the many cavities I have had filled didn’t abcess and take me out long before my 30’s.

  54. I apologize for my pedantic geekery but one rolls d6’s at character creation, not d20’s.

    Being epileptic I wonder how I would have fared in the Dark Ages? I know in Roman times being an epileptic was considered an affliction from the gods, something that Julius Caesar overcame, if he indeed was a sufferer. Of course a noble family and connections to money can do that. And in the Victorian era epileptics were often institutionalized and forcibly sterilized. But I have never run across any references to epilepsy in the Dark Ages, I assume there would be some sort of superstitious overreaction along the lines of, be careful that one has demons,” or “be careful that one has visions.”

    In the end, I am just bitter that I was not born into the sweet, sweet future where I could upload myself and my epilepsy into a giant robot body… no wonder the future will see 2011 as The New Dark Ages.

  55. the question is ridiculous…the whole point of the (real) Middle Ages, as opposed to the Lord of the Rings version, is that you knew what you were supposed to do because you were born into it. Lords were born lords, peasants were born peasants, and parents apprenticed their children out without consulting the children.

  56. I find our continued existence in spite of our harsh history to be a good reminder of just how hardy as a species we actually are. It seems to me that everything short of nuclear holocaust or massive asteroid we’ll be able to manage.

  57. Those like #24 and #42 who fear their asthma or allergies would have done them in early might consider the growing hygiene theory that indicates that these are, not entirely but substantially, first-world illnesses. Allergies, asthma and many other auto-immune diseases like Crohns seem to respond well to parasite therapy – essentially infecting the patient with intestinal parasites. The theory is that our immune systems co-evolved with these parasites in a never-ending battle of one-upmanship (parasites secrete immune-supressing chemicals to protect themselves from the body’s defenses). Without these suppressants in the system, the immune system essentially becomes an out-of-work but fully armed mercenary with nothing to do but make trouble at home. It is noted in these studies that there are few if any cases of life-threatening allergies or asthma in places where such parasites are still fairly common in the population. So, as in the case of John’s bad teeth, you might have been better off in the back-when.

  58. If you want to know what Scalzi would be writing in the Middle Ages, you might want to listen to the Chaucer’d version of Old Man’s War Or rather, Olde Mannes Werre by Iohannis Scalzi as translated by Michael Livingston, award-winning SF author and medieval scholar.

    “I kan tak a shote,” quod Watson, lookynge right over his rokke. “Graunte me striken oon.””

  59. Well said Mary. Be sure to get Mr. John one of those balled hats and a puppet on a stick.

  60. John Scalzi wrote: Look at my last name: Scalzi. In Italian, it means “barefoot.”

    Frank wrote: Look at my last name: LoPinto. In Italian it means painter.
    And given my Sicilian heritage, I might have moved back and forth through the Muslim world where life was much better than in Europe at the time.

    Uhm! Not exactly, if I remember correctly in those times (1000 … 1016) the norsemen were busy kicking the arabs out of Southern Italy and taking their place as new rulers of those lands. Lots of small wars and raids from both sides.

    By the way, according from the Gens Labo site (type your last name in the “cognome” field) and to the site ( for “Lo Pinto”
    and for Scalzi) …

    The Scalzi last name originates either from nearby Catanzaro (Calabria) or from Caltanissetta (Sicily), and even if it literally means “barefeet”, besides meaning “poor” sometimes it was used as a nickname for families working for or tenants of a convent or cloister of either the “Agostiniani Scalzi” or the “Carmelitani Scalzi” religious orders.

    Lo Pinto is more complex to explain, it originates mostly from the Pantelleria island, from nearby Palermo and from Lazio, but it doesn’t mean “painter”, it means “painted” as “sun tanned, dark skinned man” like fishermen and farmers working a lot of time under the sun, but it could also be of spanish origin like my last name.

    That’s because a few centuries later the spaniards invaded Italy multiple times for a reason or another and lots of italian people with a spanish soldier as an ancestor has something spanish in their last name (sometimes a real spanish last name, but most often a nickname or a term of spanish origin).
    The nickname as last name thing happened because, before it became mandatory to register all births with the father’s last name, in small towns with lots of people with the same family name it could happen that babies got registered with the father’s or mother’s nickname to avoid confusion.

    For example my last name (Micheletto) originates from the miquelet flintlock gun and/or from the miquelet spanish infantry.
    So it is very likely that one of my ancestors was a spanish soldier (or served in the spanish infantry) and/or one of my female ancestors was a camp follower that later settled someway in the swampy lowlands of Veneto and/or one of my ancestors had a really bad reputation (some miquelet variations had derogative meaning in venetian dialect) or all of the above.

  61. We wrote the Byzantine empire out of popular history, but they were still there in the Middle Ages, still reading Greek and Latin classics in the original, still living in one of the largest cities in the world, still sitting on the western end of the Silk Road, and at Constantinople still behind the largest, tallest, and thickest city walls in Europe.
    When every civilisation on earth collapsed (bad weather) around 530, the Byzantines survived. The city walls held out both the Bulgars and the Persians and food continued to arrive from the islands of the Mediterranean.
    The dark ages weren’t dark in Thrace.

  62. Fascinating topic. If you want to read about historical England, very well-researched, read Bernard Cornwell’s fiction:The Archer’s Tale, Agincourt or his “Lords of the North” series. I doubt that I would have escaped farming, since my mother grew up farming with mules (and died last year in the Internet age) but, But entertainers were enjoyed in those days, if you were funny, could sing well, or knew how to flatter members of the nobility. Traveling enertainers needed to provide gossip of the day-funny how human nature hasn’t changed much-.
    The down side was, as Louis L’amour noted, family bards accompanied their Lords into battle. Not a lot of fun there, but, hey, everyone needed protection back then.

  63. But we’re talking the eleventh century here. It was not a quality era for snark.

    Oh, I beg to differ! There was some great snark in the eleventh century. The Chanson de Roland, for instance, has some magnificent snark. As does the Tale of Genji.

    As for the “people’s teeth were better before refined sugar” thing, eleventh-century books on medicine certainly suggest otherwise. Sugar is not the only thing that promotes tooth decay; so do honey, and high-acid food (vinegar, frex), and exposure to lead. Remember that lead acetate was used as a sweetener pretty much everywhere in the former Roman empire until cane and beet sugars became widely available.

  64. Late to the party, alas, but still chiming in re: medieval snark:

    I know it’s historical fiction, but try reading Godric by Frederick Buechner (

    The Godric character is true to the period, and just very “real,” if you know what I mean.

    If a book starts out, “Five friends I had, and two of them snakes.” – and he means literal snakes – how can you go wrong?

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