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.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
John Harrison February 5th, 2017
Toilet paper! Come the apocalypse, stock up with loo rolls. Incidentally, you can use them to construct an ad hoc radiation fallout filter. 🙂
Dave Darby - repliedFebruary 5th, 2017
Nah – clay pot as low-tech bidet will do.
Not sure you’re completely serious about the radiation filter.
Peter Green February 5th, 2017
I think that is all a little idealistic. I would not accept warlords either! We have them now and look where that’s getting us…
As for solar panels and laptops etc, NO! No plastic, save for medical equipment and only if absolutely necessary.
We need to go back to being hunter gatherers with a very small amount of current tech.
I think even steel should only be used for special purposes – tools mainly.
I feel you are still hanging on to too many of the nasty things of the modern world through personal weakness. Maybe my weaknesses are steel tools etc, I guess we all have our weaknesses…
Dave Darby - repliedFebruary 20th, 2017
A few things: I don’t think that warlords would have asked permission to be warlords, whether we accept them or not. We have to organise ourselves in ways that keep warlords as far from power as possible – and of course you’re right, we’re still run by warlords – just warlords who prefer not to get their hands dirty.
Yes, I’m weak – I’d prefer anaesthetic if I need surgery or an amputation. And who gets to decide which current tech we can keep? That’s something that needs working on too – no structure, and people will make what they can get away with making.
But most importantly, campaigning on a platform of going back to being hunter-gatherers is going to be very difficult I think, and if you’re thinking of leaving it up to nature, then nature might have other ideas, and make us extinct – especially if we’ve already managed to kill off all the species we cold potentially hunt or gather!
Red Sage February 5th, 2017
just a few questions: 1. :how do you hypothetically plan to reduce population? 2. what would the lap top and solar panel components be constructed from? ie you didn’t mention mining…. and you said there’s no plastic (not even a mention of bioplastics) so what do you propose to make technology from including dental and surgical instruments? would they be branded ie who owns and controls the manufacturing process and the production cycle – from design to end of life? or would this be a one brand fits all (socialist /communist) scenario controlled by the government (heaven help us if that’s the case and you have all the inefficiencies and wastage of bureaucracy. if there were options to choose from, who would advertise or promote the advantages of one type over another? would that be the entity who controls the design and production? wouldn’t that create a natural competition to see who can design the best model at the best price? (sound familiar?) 3. if you can transport bananas what’s stopping you from transportation for technology? wouldn’t the shipping/export companies also compete? I think you are trying to eliminate human nature from the earth but still have humans. cake and eat it too?
Dave Darby - repliedFebruary 6th, 2017
Good questions, here goes:
Population: The birth rate is falling globally. However, unless we stop eroding soil and destroying ecology, nature will drastically reduce our population for us.
Plastics: It’s a problem we’re going to have to solve when the oil’s gone. You’re right I didn’t mention bioplastics, but this is a semi-comic, 1000-word blog article not a serious analysis. But yes, bioplastics. Or maybe wood – http://www.techfresh.net/msi-drops-wooden-laptop-beaver-and-woodpecker-approved/.
The rest is more complicated. I share your disdain for state control. The 20th century should have taught us that that isn’t the way forward. But I’m guessing you think that capitalism is. Two problems there – one, capitalism requires perpetutal growth, like a cancer, which on a finite planet is only possible until the host (soil and ecology) won’t support us any more. Two, capitalism concentrates wealth perpetually, and allows power to be bought, which prevents true democracy. So capitalism destroys our life-support system and prevents any attempts to do anything about it. Not a viable system, long-term.
But I’m a free-market anti-capitalist. There’s a system that doesn’t have to grow perpetually, and doesn’t concentrate wealth, but neither does it require the bureaucracy of a socialist system. It’s called mutualism. See http://www.lowimpact.org/mutualism-philosophy-changing-society-difference-implementable/. Copyright doesn’t exist in a truly mutualist system, and so any improvements in design would be shared. Competition would exist between, say, local (co-operative or self-employed) bakers – so if one of them doesn’t make very good bread, they’d better find a new job, because they won’t get many customers. But technological innovations would be copied. A tech company in China wouldn’t be in competition with a tech company in Europe – what would be the point of transporting goods around the world, adding to ecological damage, if new ideas are added to the wealth of human knowledge, not jealously guarded by the most powerful corporations? If you’re going to say that this will stifle initiative – think about it – do you only do creative things for money? Does anybody? Look at the open source / free software movement, which produces better software than extremely well-resourced corporations.
Human nature is a big one. Many claim to know what it is, in defence of their political philosophy. Humans respond to the systems they find themselves in. A system can impose behaviour that is then interpreted as human nature. Humans can be kind, co-operative and honest, and they can also be cruel and corrupt. Who is to say which is true human nature? I’d say that most people are kind and honest, or at least try to be, within a system that rewards ruthlessness and corruption.
But ultimately, any system that requires constant growth, and destroys the ecology of its home planet is not a long-term system. Let’s hope we can introduce a sustainable, democratic system before nature’s had enough of us.
Andrew Rollinson February 8th, 2017
I agree with Dave on the appeal of a Saxon lifestyle. But, I disagree on a couple of points:
1. There is some scientific evidence to the benefits of blood-letting. It relates to the release of iron.
2. I’d be happy if I never saw an electronic gadget again.
I also agree with Dave about human nature. The idea of wanting to trade and compete feels totally alien to me. It is something which capitalist society has successfully indoctrinated into people. There is that story about Captain Cook landing at Botany Bay and writing that the aborigines had no interest at all in goods and trade. All humans need is companionship, warmth, food and the ability to use their creativity. After all, we can’t take any of this with us. All these artifical wants and needs are intentionally created. The current systems depends on public stupidity.
Look at that recent blog on here where someone was giving away a pizza van. At present it is up to 44 comments, many of which are people startled by the generosity and most are from people putting in a request to take the van. It was indeed a nice gesture, but why should we be startled by someone’s act of kindness? It is the most natural thing in the world to help others.
Rutger December 31st, 2018
Dave, I am a bit late to the party, but this article, is excellent. Most of the objections that people make about emulating the lifestyles of the past are based on fallacy and misunderstanding, you have to be very patient and motivated to seek out the truth. We do not get taught this stuff in school, perhaps for good reason, it does not make us into good worker drones and consumers, in other words it’s irrelevant! Events that led to the rise of warlords, despot kings and pandemics are nearly always taken out of context, place and time, and held up as reasons why we should never go back, we should carry on our path of progress and continue embracing technology no matter the cost. Relinquishing the control of centralised powers and state would be unthinkable for some, yet as you point out these are the reasons that environmental destruction on a global scale is possible in the first place.
I agree, that if most took the time to consider the harm that civilisation does, they would not be willing to participate in the system any longer, however, for better or worse, most are ignorant of other possibilities, or do not seek or care about truth as it would all be too painful and inconvenient to live with. The irony is always lost on objectors, which is a great shame. I have learned to ignore the opinions of such people, they cannot be convinced but I do not blame them. It is human nature that most are groupish and do not think for themselves. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective because if we were all thinking for ourselves all the time and going off in our own direction, we would have no stability and society would be in constant flux and at risk of failing due to unnecessary risk taking! Not to mention the amount of time and energy it takes to think about this stuff. No one would ever get anything done! We can’t all be thinkers. I guess that is why only a small percentage are capable of this kind of thought. We lucky few are here to think about and solve problems, the rest follow when we have proven we have the best way forward. That can only come in time, when the tried and tested path has demonstrably failed.
Only a small subset of humans are equipped to entertain such fanciful ideas that people in the past had it better. I completely agree that most people just follow and adapt to the circumstances as presented to them by the system. Call it pessimism if you like, but the system moves only in one direction, forward until it has no choice but to collapse, it cannot shift back, because the skills and infrastructure for the most part are abandoned, decay or are forgotten about once new technology and systems are adopted. They are not readily picked up again, it’s not impossible to move back, but it takes about as much time and effort to relearn what was lost as it did to discover the possibility in the first place. Not fast enough if we are in crisis.This is why I believe we will not sensibly transition to emulate sustainable lifestyles of the past. When the time comes, we will not emulate the Saxons by choice, but by necessity. It will not be until our social systems are compelled by outside forces (nature, or resource depletion, or both) to adapt to energy deintensification, it does not matter if a few pioneers make the changes in advance if the mass of society carry on. All we can hope for is a few foresighted individuals to take it upon themselves to relearn lost skills and provide a prototype for others to follow. (hint hint: That’s you here people reading this!) The Saxons are an excellent example of sustainable society.
As for the objectors, time in the distant past tends to be compressed by historians and the way they write about society, we are not good about thinking about deep time. The Celtic era lasted approx 750 years (that’s about 25 generations), and the Saxons another 600 (another 20), events like warlord incursions, wars, occupation by foreign king’s and pandemics, whilst traumatic were still rare when considered on a time scale of the day to day life. Most peasants were not troubled by warlords, or feuding kings, because those were fought by the kings their nobles, the peasants had little to lose in power struggles and stood aside, unless were called upon to fight. Most would live out their days in relative peace, providing they were fortunate enough to stay out of the path of maraudering armies. Not every generation experienced such events. Most pandemics that we recount today came later with the rise of industrialisation and the great enclosure laws. The Saxons, as you pointed out ate well and were relatively healthy. The worst disease only begin to arise when humans are cramped into urban environments without clean drinking water or sewage infrastructure. Pathogens did not make many incursions into rural hinterlands because the ecosystems were healthy and in balance. Traumatic events were perhaps not as common place as most would assume, some make arguments that make these seem like daily features of life, which I am sure they were not. Most probably had quite happy existences, and life was meaningful enough not to end it all with suicide, even if violence erupted from time to time. Again, how is that so very different to modern day? Even the Celts and societies of prehistory probably had it pretty good too, just much less complex society and tech, so too far removed for most alive today to even consider worth living (but why?)
If we have the luxury of picking and choosing what we can take with us into the future, personally, I would love to see bicycle manufacturing and some paved roads maintained. It would do wonders for mobility in an energy scarce world. A fit individual can easily travel 100 miles a day in the right conditions running on little more than a pocket full of starchy vegetables. I could travel 8 miles from my rural location to the nearest town centre in less than 35-40 minutes on the equivalent of a small potato. Losing the paved roads reduces top speed and energy efficiency considerably, but not so much to make the ride impossible. Even a trip to the coast from my inland location would be feasible!
Sadly, I don’t think I would be able to source replacement parts for my cycle, all of which depend on industrial manufacturing process. Rubber tyres, chains, cogs or brake pads constantly wear down and require replacing and regular intervals with my current mileage. So I accept that I will be limited to walking distance, except for special occasions when I might risk the wear and tear on my stead! It will be a great shift in thinking when people realise the limitations of non-oil era travel. Things that make sense now, including sourcing solar PV panel, batteries, and their raw materials and components, including transporting the assembled products will be next to impossible without fossil fuels.
If HGV trucks stop running as a result of a collapse in oil supply, we will have no choice in the matter. We simplify and localise, or we perish. No we can’t go back to the Saxon era, but if we act now we can pick and choose what tech and knowledge we wish to preserve in a managed descent, I’m not sure we collectively have that much foresight. It’s my expectation that the decent will be so mismanaged, on a part of the ignorance of the decision making elites that only widely disseminated knowledge and skills will survive. Anything that relies heavily on the globalised interlinked infrastructure will be lost in a short time. How many people do you know that can build solar PV and lead acid batteries? Modern germ theory and plumbing on the other hand, is widely practiced and available, in that I am much more optimistic that some mod cons can be maintained.
Enclosure of the land has robbed the vast majority of modern humans of a great deal, most importantly the skills we need to live off the land, arguably this is what we should be re-learning now whilst we have the chance. Most do not appreciate the significance of the shift to urban dwelling on deskilling ordinary folk. The longer term ramifications are staggering, it has rendered us all consumers of good supplied by the market for nearly all our needs and wants. For instance, for the majority, lighting our homes independently of the industrial-complex is considered impossible, even with solar, you are dependant on the system for wiring, batteries and PV sillicon wafer voltage controllers and the like.
You won’t be able to obtain replacement parts for your system once collapse sets in, so unless you plan on stocking up on those in advance, you’ll have to work out how to live without your electrical system eventually. I had a similar reaction when I first started considering what would come next and considered implementing an off-grid solar PV system at home. It would mean I could go on for few years after a grid down event with some lighting, but less energy would be available in winter when it’s needed most. The more I looked into it, the less it made sense to switch to off grid system. In doing so I learned it is actually more CO2 intensive than grid tied fossil fuel powered lighting. If we are serious about ecological collapse, it’s not morally acceptable to switch to off grid solar PV!
Well what did the Saxons do for light in the winter months? Rushlights and rudimentary candles of course.
USAF April 17th, 2021
i can appreciate youre trying to be jocular. But slavery is death dealing, as is starvation. The forced destruction of cultures is egregious and deeply murderous. The invading forces were evil, interested only in stealing land, raping, theft of valuables, enslaving living human beings for greed and profit. There’s nothing even slightly funny about any of that.And that’s not even referencing the personal stories of grief and madness the people concerned lived and died with.