The good old days

Your parents insist that things were better way ‘back when’. Don’t panic, but they may well be right

Your parents insist that things were better way ‘back when’. Don’t panic, but they may well be right. 

mike hutcheson idealog​It is hard to avoid reading – and getting depressed – about the burgeoning threat to mankind of the rising obesity epidemic. Some have even postulated that there could be evolutionary consequences as we breed bigger and bigger offspring. Personally I don’t believe evolution works that fast; the impact of gastronomic over-indulgence will be evidenced long before evolutionary genetic change.

The real problem is the low cost of abundance. If we had to grow – or hunt and kill – before we could eat, those of us who survived would be a lot stronger and slimmer. We simply eat too much because food’s cheap, tasty and easily available, yet our physiology hasn’t changed since the days we had to work hard to survive.

I wanted some insights into how things have changed from past eras and that notion encouraged me to revisit a book I read years ago. The Year 1000 paints a very vivid picture of what life was like in Britain at the end of the first millennium. Its authors, Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger, make the observation that the Englishman circa 1000 was strong and healthy, “very much the size of anyone alive today”.

Nine out of 10 of them lived in a “green and unpolluted countryside on a simple, wholesome diet that grew sturdy limbs – and very healthy teeth”.

I’d always imagined our forebears to be smaller than us, but our impression of their stature is conditioned by the size of suits of armour, or the heights of doorways we have seen in castles – constructed by people living hundreds of years after the first millennium.

Indeed, from Medieval through to Georgian times men were indeed smaller than they are today, due largely to malnourishment. They had moved to crowded towns, away from the cornucopia of food and sustenance on the farms and in the villages of previous centuries.

A thousand years ago, lives were regulated by the seasons, rather than dates. Life was seen as cyclical rather than progressively linear. The methods of time-keeping were rudimentary and fixed by sunrise and sunset rather than any sophisticated timepiece.

It was a world lit only by fire. Daytime was a time for labour in the fields and night-time was given over to mythical creatures of the night and, when the occasion called for it, feasting. Banquets lay at the heart of Anglo Saxon life. Spit-roasted beef was the main treat, followed by pork. Venison was specially prized but rare, least favoured was mutton: “food for slaves”. Game birds, poultry and fish were also plentiful. This leads to some interesting nutritional observations.

“The relatively small amounts of fat on all these meats would be viewed by modern nutritionists with quite a kindly eye,” Lacey and Danziger wrote. “All Anglo Saxon animals were free range, and the Anglo Saxons would have been shocked at the idea of ploughing land to produce animal feed.”

Jenny Craig would have gone broke waiting for customers.

You would have taken your own knife to the feast to carve off chunks of meat or bread, and a wooden spoon would have been used to ladle out a vegetable gruel of some kind.

Spuds hadn’t yet arrived in Europe from South America and the notion of spearing anything with a fork also lay hundreds of years in the future.

A humorous lot, apparently the Anglo Saxons were quick with stories and riddles to help while away the nights. They weren’t altogether sober and responsible, either. Mead, the sweet and potent brew distilled from honeycombs was the drink of choice; ale and wine were plentiful but had to be drunk fresh as there were no stoppered bottles in which to store them.

There was a fair degree of indulgence in mind-altering substances as well, albeit inadvertently. Midsummer madness was common phenomenon. As the long summer nights wore on, say Danziger and Lacey, “people were light-headed through lack of food, and modern chemistry has shown how the ergot that flowered on rye as it grew mouldy was a source of Lysergic acid – LSD, the cult drug of the 1960s”.

Climatically, the world was warmer.

“Edinburgh enjoyed the climate of London, while London enjoyed the climate of the Loire Valley in France. Archaeological evidence indicates that the years 950-1300 were marked by noticeably warmer temperatures than we experience today, even in the age of ‘global warming’ – meteorologists cite it as the explanation of such phenomena as the Viking explosion into Russia, France, Iceland and the north western Atlantic.”

Hence Lief Ericson’s discovery of North America around the year 1000, and the reason he found vines growing in Newfoundland.

Here we come to the point [Ed: Finally!]. We may have more wealth, both personal and national, better technology and infinitely more skilful ways of preserving and extending our lives, even if we are getting fatter, but whether we today display more wisdom or common humanity is an open question.

The final word belongs to Danziger and Lacy: “What C.S. Lewis called the ‘snobbery of chronology’ encourages us to presume that just because we live after our ancestors and can read books which give us some account of what happened back then, we must also know better.” It’s pretty clear we don’t, at least when it comes to nutrition.

I’ll drink to that.