Feb 192009
 

As I sit here and listen to an enterprising builder outside whistle an excellent rendition of Grieg’s ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King,’ my thoughts turn to halls, and kings, and naturally thence, to the Middle Ages.

With my intellectual cap on, as opposed to my professional one, I am a medieval historian and have collected degrees in the subject in the same way that others might collect da Vinci sketches (i.e. expensively). In the hallowed drinking establishments of the world’s foremost institution of learning, I have pondered with fellow medievalists what it might have been like to live during the Middle Ages.

And, despite speculations about the scholarly aestheticism of monastic existence, or the bellicose excitement inherent in noble birth, we decided that it would have been utter shit.

So why – and I have seen this flagged up on Tim and the Landed Underclass already today – are there people, bred in luxurious modernity, who want us to go back to it?

Monty Don, the former BBC Gardener’s World presenter, said the UK could run out of food “within weeks” because the country is so dependent on imports and it was essential for the country to grow more of our own food.

He urged businesses around the country to follow the lead of the National Trust: “If every household, business, office or factory dug up a patch of land there would literally be millions of allotments made available. This is just the start of something really big.”

I will tell you when we really will run out of food, and that is when we stop depending on imports. In the Middle Ages, when importing food was impractical due to the obvious problem of it rotting in transit, local growing conditions meant the difference between a full belly and death by starvation. With the succession of overly-dry and overly-wet summer growing seasons Britain has experienced in the past four years, had we relied entirely on local produce, we all would have starved.

The other problem with eating only local produce is, of course, that delightful as these shores may be, we’d all be eating nothing but turnips and parsnips from November to March. A four-month diet of root vegetables might solve the nation’s obesity problem, but the incidence of malnutrition (particularly things like scurvy) would soar to fifteenth-century levels.

Dame Fiona Reynolds, Director General of the National Trust, said it was not just the recession driving demand for land to grow food but the desire to “reconnect” with the soil.

“More and more people want to grow their own fruit and vegetables,” she said. “This isn’t just about saving money – it’s really satisfying to sow seeds and harvest the fruit and veg of your labour.”

Oh, indeed – it’s very satisfying to till the soil and eat the fruits of one’s labour, as long as one doesn’t have to do it from sun-up to sun-down eight months out of the year, and as long as the fruits of one’s labour are sufficient to keep body and soul together. As the Landed Underclass points out, subsistence farming is hard on the body and, unless one has the luxury of farm-labourers and a horse-drawn plough, unlikely to generate enough produce for actual, y’know, subsistence.

But perhaps in addition to sharing allotments, we will all have the privilege of access to the village horse. It might even be better to have a system wherein the municipality’s food is grown entirely on common land, the care for a strip of which is allocated to every resident. Then we can all reconnect with the soil, and our roots, and our ancient heritage. While we’re at it, we can reconnect with bathing in the freezing rivers and defecating in buckets!

Christ, haven’t these people learned anything? If living off our own fucking local food was so great, our ancestors wouldn’t have escaped in relief from doing it as soon as conditions made it possible. Pardon me while I descend into teleological historicity, but isn’t one of the purposes of chronicling human development to avoid past mistakes, rather than to do the same stupid shit all over again?

  26 Responses to “Life in the Middle Ages”

  1. I don’t grow my own vegetables for the same bloody obvious reason that I don’t iron my own shirts. Substituting time I could spend writing software for time spent hoeing weeds or doing housework is squandering my comparative advantage (not to mention violating the cardinal principle of increased productivity: division of labour). If my cleaning lady could write PHP code, I wouldn’t be earning ten times as much as her.

  2. An idiotic idea:: a commentor ot the link noted that if allotments were such a great idea then there must not have been a need during/after WWII to import any food.

    But: modify this a bit –
    “Mr Don even suggested every politician could have an allotment …” Change first “could” to “must” and add “must spend at least two hours per diem personally tending same” and perhaps a few less daft laws would pass.

    Oh, wait, no – laws these days are the province of the EU, Parliament is just a private club paid for by the public.

  3. Plenty of vitamin C in carrots, parsnips, potatoes, and cabbages. You wouldn’t get scurvy, just depression.

  4. And of course, in perfect harmony with this allotment-based agricultural revolution [‘revolution’ in the pre-Marxist sense of cyclical history and returning to some previous arrangement of society and power] we have the political revolution whereby we are governed by an inter-married elite that is exempt from the petty powers of local administration and national practise, and whose international connections and privileged status above the common herd put them beyond even the justice which they mete out to the rest of us.

    Normans, Plantagenets…say, didn’t we have a civil war or something to define what our rulers could an dcould not do to the rest of us?

  5. Your ‘luxurious modernity’ has been founded upon and maintained by someone, somewhere doing the back-breaking toil to provide your goods – it’s never been purged from the system, just from your conscience. Now that’s stupid shit.

    David Gillies, try eating your fundamentally worthless PHP code when the global economy finally tanks (next month perhaps?). Something to reflect upon as your cleaning lady is hanging you from the nearest lampost with your (unironed) shirt.

  6. Do you know what your problem is? You’re not looking at this issue through rose tinted glasses. Once you do you’ll realise that everything would be great just like in News From Nowhere.

  7. Why all the hysterics because someone has suggested more people contribute to their diet.It was an idea NOT an order.People actually enjoy growing things to eat and do not see it as beneath them as you seem to.
    The health of the country improved immensly during world war 2 due to a simpler diet with less junk food.No one has ordered you to stop eating it if that is how you live.We grow a greater variety of foods than they had in medieval times and have more know how.To compare now to then shows how ignorant and distanced you are from the food you eat,and to say we would only survive on turnips and parsnips only confirms your ignorance and naivity about the subject you are commenting on.

  8. @ John – When the global economy tanks and David Gillies the worthless code-writer is hung from the nearest lamppost, what is his cleaning lady going to eat, then? Her mop? For that matter, what are you going to eat?

    • @ John – Special enough that you’ve used a small bit of your precious time going out of your way to insult me.

      I know that the majority of human experience has been back-breaking toil; why do you think I want us to move further away from it, rather than back toward it? Do you really think anyone’s ‘elitist cultural and economic advantage’ is a wrinkle in the fabric of human history? What the hell has humanity been working toward in the past centuries, if not to provide that advantage to as many people as possible?

      I don’t care if people want to self-sufficient; but I will object to anyone who preaches it as some kind of moral good when it is both economically regressive and, in a tiny nation stuffed with 60 million people, impractical.

  9. @ dmc – Hysterics? And yes, perhaps the diet of the country was indeed simpler during World War II, but do you think perhaps rationing had something to do with that? And yes, we do grow a greater variety of foods than they did in the Middle Ages, but why do you suppose that is?

  10. This is very odd. How do you make the leap from ‘wouldn’t it be a good idea if we had more allotments to grow more of our own food’ to ‘cease all imports and return to the Middle Ages’? Yeah ‘hysterics’ is the correct word.

  11. Neal:

    It isn’t a leap from “wouldn’t it be a good idea…” it’s derived from the claim: “Monty Don, the former BBC Gardener’s World presenter, said the UK could run out of food “within weeks” because the country is so dependent on imports and it was essential for the country to grow more of our own food.”

    To those invoking WWII, where did all the Spam come from?

  12. @ Neal – I’m perfectly happy for you to point out my errors of logic or even judgment, but to label my state of mind when making them as ‘hysteria’ smacks a bit of the ad hominem, does it not?

  13. Everyone’s forgetting the £100 tomato.

  14. @bellagerens

    To suggest that, in a time of economic crisis, all our prospects would be enhanced with a little more self-sufficiency food-wise (from mop ladies to flaccid, know-all, libertarian, pseudo intellectuals) is blindingly obvious.

    If true self-sufficiency represents back-breaking toil, well, welcome to the majority human experience, now and throughout history. Your elitist cultural and economic advantage is transient and unsustainable – a strange wrinkle in the fabric of human history.

    Shame you wasted your share of it thinking you were special.

  15. John: wind your neck in. If my PHP code were ‘fundamentally worthless’ (and how would you know?) then no-one would pay me to write it. It’s the cleaning ladies of this world that have more to fear from an economic downturn than I do. My skill set is a lot less substitutable. I CAN iron my shirts. It’s just that it is not economically rational to do so (and is unlikely to be, absent an apocalypse in which irons, never mind software development, are a thing of the past). It’s a damn good thing I do have that comparative advantage because in doing so it increases the value of my time to the point where substituting capital for labour directly supports two further human beings (one of whom is at university, and not on a Domestic Hygiene Studies course, either).

  16. Some bizarre assumptions at play here:

    “What the hell has humanity been working toward in the past centuries, if not to provide that advantage to as many people as possible?”

    Why, NOTHING, of course. Or a great deal less than nothing if you look at the graphs. Did you not see the news last night? That progress thing was just a sales pitch/mass delusion.

    And the captain of the sinking ship was as venal and slovenly as the deckhand… in fact, here he is now:

    “If my PHP code were ‘fundamentally worthless’ (and how would you know?) then no-one would pay me to write it.”

    Pay is not comensurate with value. Pay is comensurate with good luck. Did you think we lived in a meritocracy? I’m so sorry for your loss…

    “It’s a damn good thing I do have that comparative advantage because in doing so it increases the value of my time to the point where substituting capital for labour directly supports two further human beings (one of whom is at university, and not on a Domestic Hygiene Studies course, either).”

    Hmmmm… so you’re supporting the little lady who irons your shirts are you…? Ah, bless.

  17. my plan is to hole up in my flat with my store of food until the hordes of rampaging cleaning ladies have reduced the national population to substantially less than 60 million, then subsistance farm 😉

  18. […] Life in the Middle Ages As I sit here and listen to an enterprising builder outside whistle an excellent rendition of Grieg’s ‘In […] […]

  19. Back-breaking toil? I grew some tomatoes on my balcony last year. It wasn’t that hard, all you’ve got to do is remember to water them.

  20. […] commented about this poor sad ill-educated Monty chappie on The Landed Underclass, earlier, but Bella Gerens does a better academic demolition job on him and his […]

  21. But Gardening is a pleasant pastime and quite possibly a necessary one.
    http://drjn.co.uk

  22. I also grew tomatoes on my balcony… wasn’t hard work, but then again wasn’t exactly going to provide me with a regular food supply either… this year i’m gonna do all veg and no ornamentals, just to see how much food it is possible to grow on a balcony. I’m guessing the answer will be: not much!

  23. Sez ‘John': “Hmmmm… so you’re supporting the little lady who irons your shirts are you…? Ah, bless.”

    Yes, John, you supercilious prick: I am actually underwriting her daughter’s university bills (in cash). But unless you are completely self-sufficient then someone is supporting you. Maybe you should show your employer such disdain. Let’s see how that works out for you, you malevolent, misanthropic twat,

    Personally, I wouldn’t cross the road to piss on your teeth if they were on fire.

  24. Leave ‘im, David, ‘e’s not wurf it. You nailed the whole thing in your first post with the phrase “division of labour”. This phenomenon alone has enabled more and more people to lead a life which is not “nasty, brutish and shorte”.

    These statist cretins are enemies of humanity, because taxation discourages the division of labour.

  25. Thank you Dennis; you are a scholar and a gentleman (and I couldn’t agree with you more).

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