The Real Life of Low Carbon-Footprint Locavores

by Don Boudreaux on June 14, 2008

in Books, History, Myths and Fallacies, Standard of Living

The late William Manchester’s 1992 book A World Lit Only By Fire provides a well-paced and vivid look at life in late-medieval and renaissance Europe.  For example, consider his description of the homes and some common experiences of peasants (pp. 52-54):

Lying at the end of a narrow, muddy lane, his rambling edifice of thatch, wattles, mud, and dirty brown wood was almost obscured by a towering dung heap in what, without it, would have been the front yard.  The building was large, for it was more than a dwelling.  Beneath its sagging roof were a pigpen, a henhouse, cattle sheds, corncribs, straw and hay, and, last and least, the family’s apartment, actually a single room whose walls and timbers were coated with soot.  According to Erasmus, who examined such huts, “almost all the floors are of clay and rushes from the marshes, so carelessly renewed that the foundation sometimes remains for twenty years, harboring, there below, spittle and vomit and wine of dogs and men, beer…remnants of fishes, and other filth unnameable.  Hence, with the change of weather, a vapor exhales which in my judgment is far from wholesome.”

The centerpiece of the room was a gigantic bedstead, piled high with straw pallets, all seething with vermin.  Everyone slept there, regardless of age or gender — grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren, and hens and pigs — and if a couple chose to enjoy intimacy, the others were aware of every movement.  In summer they could even watch…..

If this familial situation seems primitive, it should be borne in mind that these were prosperous peasants.  Not all of their neighbors were so lucky.  Some lived in tiny cabins of crossed laths, stuffed with grass or straw, inadequately shielded from rain, snow, and wind.  They lacked even a chimney; smoke from the cabin’s fire left through a small hole in the thatched roof — where, unsurprisingly, fires frequently broke out.  These homes were without glass windows or shutters; in a storm, or in frigid weather, openings in the walls could only be stuffed with straw, rags — whatever was handy….

Typically, three years of harvests could be expected for one year of famine.  The years of hunger were terrible.  The peasants might be forced to sell all they owned, including their pitifully inadequate clothing, and be reduced to nudity in all seasons.  In the hardest times they devoured bark, roots, grass; even white clay.  Cannibalism was not unknown.  Strangers and travelers were waylaid and killed to be eaten, and there are tales of gallows being torn down — as many as twenty bodies would hang from a single scaffold — by men frantic to eat the warm flesh raw [original emphasis].

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