If you spend your life trying to promote low-impact living, you sometimes get asked the most ridiculous questions. More than once I’ve been asked something along the lines of: ‘you want to take us back to the Middle Ages, don’t you?’ Well, no I don’t – the Middle Ages were pretty horrific in many, many ways. But if you go back further still, to the Saxons – now that’s a different story. I’d like to take the opportunity to advocate a return to a Saxon lifestyle, as long as we can keep a few of the less offensive modern technologies. I think that would deliver a happier, healthier, more satisfying life to most people.
I read a book called The Year 1000 recently, by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger, from which I got a lot of the information about Saxon life; a cursory online search seemed to confirm most of it – and a lot of it is self-evident (e.g. they didn’t have plastics). But I get the impression that the authors wouldn’t agree with this article – they dropped several hints that they favour capitalism. I’ll let them off – I keep reminding myself that most pro-capitalists (at least the ones I’ve talked with) have never been exposed to the facts about the ecological damage that capitalism is causing, and I tend to believe that if they really understood what was happening, including the inevitable consequences for humans, they’d change their position. One can but hope, anyway.
The upsides of Saxon life…
Bones found in Saxon graves indicate that they were the same size as modern humans, just without the obesity and tooth decay. All their food was local and organic. And they didn’t have sugar, only honey, which was a rare treat – and of course there was no tobacco. Unpolluted rivers were teeming with fish. It was only in the Middle Ages, when people began to move into crowded, unsanitary towns, and when Norman lords squeezed more and more from their serfs, that people shrank in stature.
Animals were free-range or wild, their domestic animals were small and wiry, and their meat was very lean compared to today; and they didn’t eat too much of it – more reasons to believe that Saxon life was in many ways healthier than ours.
Almost everyone lived in a village, surrounded by nature, in a home made of natural, local materials that someone in their family built and they knew how to maintain. No-one had a sedentary life.
There was virtually no pollution – no pesticides, no fracking, no oil spills, no plastics, no heavy industry, and no overpopulation, crowded cities or congestion. The population of Saxon England would have been around the same as the population of Birmingham now – plenty of leg room.
Their clothes weren’t drab. They used natural dyes and were able to produce a wide range of colours, especially yellows, reds and greens. Clothes were made of local flax and wool, and weren’t made by children in sweatshops on the other side of the world – every family span and wove.
Women had much more freedom than at any time other than the present day. Wills showed that land and goods were left to both men and women. In fact, in documents of the time, males and females were both called ‘mann’ (as in human) – you were either a ‘weapon’mann (a man who used weapons) or a ‘wif’mann (a man who wove), later shortened to man and wife. Most monasteries, housing both men and women, were run by an abbess rather than an abbott, and there were some ferocious Saxon queens too.
… and the downsides
Here’s a list of the not-so-good things about being a Saxon. However, if you keep reading, I think you’ll agree that there’s nothing that can’t be put right by keeping some of the less offensive modern technologies.
They didn’t have buttons. No, really. They kept their clothes together with a range of different kinds of clips and clasps, apparently.
50 was really old. But that was mainly because they didn’t understand the link between hygiene and germs. They weren’t over-keen on washing, and didn’t understand that human faeces contained pathogens.
There were no surgeons, dentists or anaesthetists, and so you had to really hope that you never needed their services. Physical, outdoor work, lack of sugar and knowledge of herbal remedies helped in that respect, so you could realistically hope that you stayed well (until smallpox or plague got you, or you were eaten by wolves). Their physicians practised blood-letting, trepanning and searing with red-hot pokers. Of the three, trepanning might have actually worked – but the other two would definitely have made you worse. However, there were no estate agents, lawyers or telemarketers either, which must have made up for it a bit.
In some years, early summer was a time of famine, as the previous year’s crop had gone (or rotted away), and nothing was yet coming out of the ground. For that reason, I’d like to add refrigeration to my wish-list of things to keep.
But the big one – they weren’t degrading ecology
Well, they were a bit. In fact ever since the agricultural revolution, humans have removed natural habitat to grow crops and keep animals. Before agriculture, all parts of the world that were able to support trees were indeed covered by trees. Ecological damage accelerated whenever humans burst into new areas of the world that were full of animals that had never learnt about how dangerous humans were. The first human incursions into the Americas and Australia were accompanied by mass extinctions of large fauna. And by Saxon times, the removal of forests for agriculture, firewood and timber for buildings and ships was moving at a brisk pace in Europe.
But they weren’t destroying nature to the point that human survival wasn’t guaranteed. That is a truly modern scenario, and it’s accelerating. In terms of sheer numbers, 58% of all vertebrate animals have disappeared since…. when do you think? Since Saxon times? Since the Industrial Revolution? No – since 1970. That can’t continue, obviously, and there was nothing like it in Saxon times.
This is why a return to lives as closely entwined with nature as the Saxons’ were is essential. We can’t damage nature the way that we are today and not expect her to hit back.
How democratic was Saxon society compared to today?
Of course the Saxons were invaders who drove the Celts into the rocky margins, which isn’t a very democratic way to go about things. But that’s how the Celts relieved the prehistoric inhabitants of these islands several hundred years earlier, and it’s how the Saxons would lose them to the Normans several hundred years later. That was the way of the world. Thugs and warlords were in charge (also known as ‘kings’) – they just didn’t (thankfully) have nuclear weapons.
But do you really think it’s that different today? Instead of the ability to wield a battleaxe, the ability to make the most money puts people into positions of authority, and the circus of election campaigns every four or five years raises a convenient smoke-screen over the reality that money rules, and that those who pay the piper call the tune, without the inconvenience of having to stand for election.
Commons were commons – everyone was allowed to hunt in the woods or fish in the rivers. It was the Norman nobility who put a stop to that, and the budding capitalists who destroyed the commons altogether.
They also had slaves. Slavery didn’t end with the Romans. The Germanic tribes were particularly good at capturing slaves, and in fact it was one of the biggest reasons to launch wars. They took most of their slaves from among the Slavs of eastern Europe – which is where the word slave comes from (and in the same way, the Saxon word for slave was from the same root as the word ‘Welsh’). But again, I have to say that if you were working 15-hour shifts for just enough money to eat, in Asian sweatshops, you’d probably bicker with the idea that Westerners no longer have slaves.
The political system was one of warldordism – the biggest warlord in a given area being the king. However, in a time when thugs from other tribes were never far away – especially Viking thugs – it paid to put yourself under the protection of a strong lord. I don’t believe that many Saxon commoners would have questioned their fealty to a lord in terms of freedom. Safety was much more important.
What I’d keep and what I’d lose from the modern world
For sure I’d want to keep solar panels and batteries for electricity, laptops and the internet, surgery, anaesthetics and dentistry. Those might be the only essentials for me. Society would be organised so that everyone lived in a beautiful place, and everyone you knew lived within walking distance. Why not? Why would you want to go on holiday to a beautiful place if you already lived in a beautiful place? Sure, if you live in Swindon, you’re going to want to go somewhere nice on holiday. But if you live on a Greek island? Young people could go on a grand tour of the world, and they’d see a lot more of it, in more detail, because they’d be travelling by foot, horse, canoes and sailing ships. After you’ve seen the world, settle somewhere you like and never be a tourist again.
We could go back to getting all the essentials of life from our local area, with wind-powered cargo ships bringing over bananas, coffee and other things that can’t be grown here. All countries would produce their own solar panels, laptops etc. Consumer goods would never be transported across borders. And I’d keep refrigeration (see above).
Human waste would be composted. We understand now that human faeces contain pathogens, but we also understand that the composting process kills them.
Local blacksmiths would produce wood stoves for heating – by far the cosiest way to keep warm, and using local wood, that would of course be constantly replenished. Craftspeople would once again produce our made-to-last consumer goods.
So cars and aeroplanes would go, along with nuclear power, credit cards, shopping malls, supermarkets, motorways, and anything made of concrete or plastic.
Mark Boyle says that it’s not possible to have the good things without the wealth concentration and environmental damage generated by a modern economy. But I’m not so sure. In a capitalist economy, no – but what if we had a different, more mutualist economy? Why couldn’t a mutualist economy, with no route in for corruption by money, and a reduced population, not have that mix? It would cause some environmental damage, but if nature was given space to repair itself, the earth could manage, surely. Even neolithic technology damaged nature to some extent. One thing’s for sure though – we can’t carry on the way we are. That’s a path to certain disaster.
Let’s go Saxon, I say, as long as we can keep a few mod cons – just not the ones that might make us extinct. Let me know if you can think of any other pros or cons of a ‘Saxon Plus’ life.