Let’s time travel back 600 years

What Is

Let’s take an imaginary trip back 600 years. This would put us toward the end of the “Middle Ages.” Let’s go back to some arbitrary place in Europe. We could go back to Asia or Africa or even the Americas, but the history of Europe at this time is a little less unfamiliar.

And now let’s imagine what life is like for the typical human being of, say, 30 years of age. (There were not very many people around in their 60s and 70s! Life expectancy at birth is about 30, though if you made it to 21 you are likely to live into your early 60s. The death rate for children is staggering.)

Let’s say you are a typical male, most likely a peasant farmer. Here are salient pieces of your life:

  • You are illiterate. And virtually everyone you know is illiterate. Language is oral. (At least there was no email.) 
  • On a typical day you will not venture very far from where you sleep.
  • Most days you will not meet anyone whom you do not know by name. Actually, you know a lot about the people you deal with every day. You meet very few strangers and do not trust those you do meet.
  • Death is common. And so is suffering. Children die all the time. If you are 30 you have probably lost one or two of your own. There are no antibiotics, no surgery, no pain killers. For that matter, there are no eyeglasses or dentistry. Indeed, if you live in Europe in 1500 you live in an area that had recently been depopulated by one third by the bubonic plague. 
  • When you do meet people from some distance away, say a village 20 miles away, you may have a bit of trouble understanding what they say. Your accent and dialect mark your social class and location. 
  • The local parish church is a center of communal life. You do not know anyone whose religion is other than yours. 
  • You believe that human beings have existed for a few thousand years. You know nothing of other continents and have no sense of the earth as a sphere. The earth is the center of the universe. (Well, the “universe” is not a concept that makes any sense.) 

You get the idea. Today we literally live in a different world. Our sense of our place in the great scheme of things is completely different. We live longer. In an urban area we encounter (we don’t really “meet”) hundreds or even thousands of strangers every day. Not only is the earth not the center of the universe, the earth is an unimaginatively tiny part of that universe. 

So What?

As I look at fundamentalists still fighting the teaching of evolution, at millions of people in denial  about climate change and at the fact that a few years ago a quarter of Americans believed that the rapture (where believers get whisked up to heaven) would happen in their lifetimes, I am struck by how the ideas and stories that give people identity have not kept up. A huge number of people still live with a medieval world view. 

And while it is tempting to look condescendingly at their ignorance, in many ways our world is as mysterious as their world. I mean, can you actually explain how the GPS on your smartphone works? How much most of us really understand about general relativity and quantum mechanics? None of us has ever seen an electron or a quark or a neutrino. 

We have a foot in the medieval world of villages and a foot in urban world bombarding us with messages. So how do we find common ground? How do we create a common language? Quite literally, how do we keep from going crazy? And how do we create meaning for ourselves and relationships with our neighbors? 

4 thoughts on “Let’s time travel back 600 years”

  1. I worked at Colonial Williamsburg, Wmsbg, VA for 5 years as an 18th Century Sawyer and House Carpenter. As part of a crew we harvested logs from the nearby woods using hand axes and cross cut saws. We changed those logs into square timbers and boards using the tool that were used in VA in the 1700s. This was from 1979 to 1984.

    I can see how people, tradesmen, in 18th Century VA would have had many relationships in and around the village of Williamsburg. Many more so than I have now. I had more relationships then myself than I do now. More comradery. More daily interactions.

    How much have we gained today by losing what we would have had had we been born 250 or 300 years ago? What worth is a longer life if it isn’t any more meaningful than it might have been 300 years ago?


  2. This is a wonderful perspective, and so relevant to today. Our scientific worldview may be written in the books of the likes of Harari (Sapiens) where we learn that though actual hominids may be have been around for 50,000 years, vestiges of the species can be traced back as much as 1.5 million years. How intriguing, because I have friends who believe the earth to be no older than 10,000 years, and still look forward to the coming “Rapture”.


  3. I’m finishing Hillbilly Elegy, about Kentucky and how moving to Ohio changed a family. My Beloved World also speaks of tight communities in New York City and moving away. In my home town the Volunteer Fire Company is still hanging in there… but one by one the social institutions fade away and economic pressures put people on the move.
    One thing I’d like to investigate someday is the Canadian policy on milk costs. It was said that the subsidy “treaty violation” existed to keep small towns viable in Canada. I don’t know how that works, but it implies that public policy can grow or challenge community.


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