Are we entering a new Dark Age? Is one at hand? We might well to look back to the last Dark Age, which beclouded Europe from the fall of Rome to the beginning of the brilliant Middle Age in, more or less, the eleventh century. Let us then, fix our gaze on the state of western Europe around 1000 A.D. What was our world like? And what were its inhabitants, the forefathers of most of us, like? …
…Our stay here was brief, our productive years few, for old age came soon. Menaces abounded- famine, polluted water, and tainted meat, infections of ill-tended wounds, and raging diseases, such as malaria, typhoid, diptheria, dysentery, tetanus, puerperal fever. Infant mortality was high, hence women were expected to be fecund, to marry at puberty and begin their proliferation, a hazardous process. They had to produce perhaps three times as many offspring as today, just to keep the population stable.
Death was a familiar in every household. Perhaps its near presence encouraged a prevailing callousness, or brutality. Monarchs set the example, with their blindings and removals of hands, testicles, ears, noses, and entire heads. Mutilation was a common penalty, for malefactors could seldom pay fines and there were no prisons for their confinement and correction. People regarded suffering as inevitable, indeed rather amusing, in others. The misadventures of the blind and the halt were a favorite subject for medieval funny stories. Of course, it was understood that a patient sufferer expiated his own sins and those of others.
Nature herself was more cruel than kind. She sent not only dearth and disease but floods and drought and bitter wintry blasts. People simply accepted her afflictions. Maybe they were tougher than we are; but we, too, can be tough if need be, as manifold wartime survivals prove. In the northern winters men hugged the fire, in a drowsy and probably malodorous torpor. Darkness, especially in the north, curtailed activity. There was as yet no glass, except in rich churches, and the householder’s windows were shuttered against the cold. Indoors, resinous torches or rank-smelling tallow candles cast a feeble gleam, so that women could spin and men whittle spoons, shape farm tools, or weave baskets. Then the story-teller or the ballad singer came into his own.