Two sunrises, one thousand years ago

During this millennium, Western societies have seen major changes in family life, brought about by shifts in inheritance practices, technology, industrialization, family law, and women's rights. Through it all, the nuclear family is said to have been the basic unit of human survival. Today, the Monitor looks at 1,000 years of domestic life.

Morning. In the cold darkness, she untangled herself from the snoring bodies of her peasant family. Rising from the shared mat of straw and heather on the earthen floor, she stoked the fire and pushed the goats aside.

A small, illiterate woman dressed in a rumpled woolen gown, she was unaware of time as something to be measured. The hint of light on the horizon was only the signal to rise and work.

Living 40 miles from London - which had an estimated population of 30,000 - the woman was only faintly aware that the year 1000 was a significant Christian reference point. Some church leaders were excited because they thought Jesus might return; but darker rumors persisted that his coming could mean a final, life-ending calamity. To express their Christian commitment to Jesus, the peasant woman and her family often fasted.

But her worries centered more on avoiding famine or thwarting evil spirits than on millennial fears or hopes. Her pleasures were found in laughter and gossip with other women, or simple games and drink.

In her short lifetime she would likely venture no farther than the next village. Of the seven children she had borne, three had died of diseases.

Outside, oxen and birds were stirring. The crude, thatched-roofed house made of sod had one small window, two rooms, and blackened stones for a fireplace. Breakfast might be black bread, gruel, and a spiced drink. Such foods as potatoes, oranges, tomatoes, and bananas were unknown in England. Spices such as cloves, sage, cardamom, ginger, and saffron were used even in peasant cooking to preserve and enliven foods.

In 1000, this woman and her husband - a carpenter and farmer - lived as taxed serfs under the protection of a lord or master. They were part of the reach of his feudal-like authority and extensive manor, which included a castle, church, village, and farmland, altogether a land grant from the king.

Many serfs in Europe were slaves, sold or traded as part of the accepted commerce of the time. And raids by Norsemen on vulnerable English coastal villages and inland towns were common under the rule of hapless King Aethelred II, who eventually paid the Vikings, hoping they would stay away.

As the light of dawn touched the lord's castle some 200 yards from the simple thatched house, a far more comfortable scene unfolded, illustrating the distance between the sparse life of serfdom and the elegance behind castle walls. The lady of the manor rose from a padded bed in a tightly woven gown of bright colors and undergarments of linen.

On the walls were tapestries for beauty and warmth. Farm animals were banned from the castle, but cats and dogs were allowed free run. Servants would already be up preparing the morning meal, cooking in a separate building as fires sweeping through kitchens were common. Meats such as duck, swan, venison, wild boar, and rabbit were plentiful.

Some castles had rooms near the kitchen where ladies of the house would bathe together. The lord of the house, in the bedchamber, would most likely enjoy a hot-water bath while seated on a stool in a wooden half-barrel.

"The lady should get up early in the morning," writes Christine de Pizan in "The Treasure of the City of Ladies: or The Book of Three Virtues" almost two centuries later about a woman's role back then. "In the establishment where the lady usually lies in bed until late, it is unlikely that the household will run smoothly."

Always subservient to men, the lord's wife was expected to supervise daily life beyond the kitchen if the lord was away. When Pope Urban II launched the first Crusade in 1095, attracting thousands of men into what he called a God-ordained armed expedition to drive Islam out of the Holy Land, the women staying behind were forced to defend manors from local raiders.

One gritty lady in France sent a warning to anyone with an eye on her castle, "... if you begin to break the peace or make war to get the place of me, I shall defend me. For rather I in such wise to die than to be slain when my husband cometh home, for he charged me to keep it."


An ocean and continent away, in the noon heat of a desert world unknown and unimaginable to lords and peasants, another small woman is at work. Dark-skinned, and almost certainly with muscular forearms, she is on her knees, grinding corn.

She is an Anasazi woman, considered by historians to be one of the earliest inhabitants of North America. Living in the Pueblo II period (900 to 1150), she and her family practice relatively sophisticated farming techniques, maximizing use of water and corn in a sparse land.

Historians have concluded that, unlike the peasant woman in England, in 1000 this woman was not abjectly limited by social or class distinctions, but lived as part of a clan or extended family in what is known today as the southwestern part of the United States. She is an ancestor of the tribes that today live in pueblos on mesas.

The details of Anasazi daily life remain largely unknown. As they evolved from hunter-gatherers to farmers, and without a written language, the Anasazi have left puzzling remnants to decipher: decorated pottery, petroglyphs, inventive water-diversion methods, roads for unknown purposes, and amazing multilevel, pueblo-like dwellings wedged into cliffs. There is no evidence that they used metals.

Incredibly hardworking, the Anasazi built 240 miles of roads in and around Chaco Canyon, in what is now New Mexico, but with no large animals or wheeled vehicles in their culture, of what use were the roads? For runners to carry messages? As "spirit roads" for some kind of ritual? No one knows for sure.

In Chaco Canyon, some Anasazi structures have 600 rooms with no clear indication of how they were used. Also prominent in the culture were "kivas," large, partially underground structures used for community-wide gatherings and possible rituals.

"We do know that infant mortality was very high among the Anasazi, just as it was anywhere in the world at that time," says Linda Cordell, a professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado and director of the university museum.

"And we know that children were buried often with cradles or cradle boards, or rabbit-fur blankets," she says, "which suggests they were cared for in life as well as death."

Burial sites also reveal that the teeth of men and women were worn down, often to the gum line. "No cavities," says Ms. Cordell, "but when grinding corn on sandstone they tended to get grit in their meals, and this ground down their teeth."

So, at midday, this small Anasazi woman, probably wearing sandals made of yucca fiber and cotton clothing, was grinding corn while other women were weaving baskets or making pottery, or plastering the stone-and-mud walls of complex dwellings.

Although it is not known if men and women tended crops together, it is possible that on this day, along the nearby river or springs, men hunted deer or small game, or possibly traded goods with traders from other areas.

A short distance from the residential building was the midden, the prehistoric trash site. Artifacts found here by archaeologists are usually in layers, indicating time periods that offer clues to changing Anasazi life.

"Land then was sort of corporately owned," says John Kantner, archaeologist at Georgia State University in Atlanta. "At least, ownership of the productive parts of the land. The individual didn't have as much prominence as we see in our society."

But water did. With so much attention focused on collecting and using water wisely in a less than hospitable environment, water may well have been sacred to the Anasazi.

Some archaeologists suggest that the petroglyphs of birds flying upward depict prayers for rain, and horned snakes might have been celebrated as water gods because they knew where to find water. Duck-shaped pottery might have been endowed with the power to bring rain.

Of some Anasazi structures at Pueblo Bonito, with as many as 300 small rooms, researchers can only speculate about their use.

"These structures don't have much domestic debris in them, or hearths to have been used as residences," says Cordell. "It doesn't look like they were inhabited continuously, so they may have been some form of public architecture with religious significance."

Mr. Kantner and others have suggested that the Anasazi may not have been as passive as originally thought. "My general conclusion is that they had good and bad times, possibly including cannibalism," he says, "and at other times everything was relatively peaceful."

So much more remains speculative, right down to how Anasazi women cut their hair, or how decisions were made that shaped daily life, as well as the religious meaning of day and night, or a full moon, of rain or falling snow. "There are so many unanswered questions," says Mr. Kantner. "The next stage is to try to find out what happened on a daily basis in Anasazi communities at thousands of known sites."


Either in the countryside outside of London, or in Chaco Canyon, nighttime in 1000 usually meant gathering around fires for warmth and sharing. While family members weaved material, or worked on tools, perhaps the oldest members talked about the ways of the gods, or retold legends and myths about the world's creation.

Keeping harmony with the natural world was vital to Anasazi, but less so for common folks in medieval England, where the gods of commerce and aggression tended to justify spiritual or secular behavior. And medieval superstitions, such as the belief that disease spread by bad odors, or that diseases of the body came from the sins of the soul, were likely topics of discussion.

Around the crackling fire, rumors of witchcraft and sorcery may have held a power different than those told in daylight hours.

Clearly, the Anasazi people, without a written language, and the illiterate peasants a continent away, relied on the oral tradition of storytelling and ritual reenactments to mark place and time.

Speculative as it may be, the nightly gathering around the fire may have been just a prelude to rest, or the crucial point at which primitive imaginations reached out for a better world.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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