Comparing this year with the state of the world a thousand years ago
The first 17 years of the twenty-first century have been unprecedented as a dangerous time for man and the planet. War, crime, political instability, sudden deaths, natural disasters and other disruptions appear to be breaking all records. Most people will agree we live in truly dangerous times.
Meanwhile, for the past week, commentators everywhere have been busy reviewing the year just closing, and the reviews paint a grim picture. It seems there has never been a year quite like 2017 with so much doom, gloom, violence, catastrophes, and predictions of even worse to come. Apart from 2017, the record of the twenty-first century to date must also appears to be unprecedented. Many are asking, what is the world coming to?
To put 2017 and the twenty-first century into perspective, let’s roll the clock back 1,017 years, and look at the events recorded in The Concise Encyclopaedia of World History, Rodney Castlelton (The Book Company, 1998), from 1000 AD to 1017 AD. Where possible, the birth and death dates of individuals have been added, just to illustrate how short and cheap life was in those far-off days.
1000 Olaf I Tryggvesson (963-1000) is killed in a battle with the kings of Sweden and Denmark. Norway is left without a king and the Danes take over the country. Boleslav King of Poland (992-1025) unites Bohemia and Moravia. Ceylon is invaded by the Cholas under their King Rajaraja the Great (947-1014). Seljuk Turks occupy Transoxiana, the territory east of the Oxus River. Basil II (958-1025), the Byzantine Emperor, attempts to conquer Bulgaria again. In North America, the Southern Cult evolves in the lower Mississippi valley. Mexican influenced, the people make objects of carved shell, metal and pottery showing a preoccupation with death; they focus on such sites as Emerald and Grand Village. The Iroquois people in north-east North America live in villages and cultivate beans and maize. Ethiopia is almost overrun by non-Christian, non-Islamic people from the south. The Polynesians have reached New Zealand in the last stage of the greatest migration and navigational feat in human history. Their ancestors began this migration in about 1500 BC from the East Indies, reaching Easter Island and Hawaii by about 400 AD; they are now the most widely dispersed racial group on earth. Churches are built, especially in France and Germany, to express gratitude for the postponement of the Day of Judgement; Duke Stephen I founds the monastery of Gran. The Indian mathematician Sridhara recognizes the importance of zero. Duke Stephen, who has been in power since 997, is crowned first King of Hungary with regalia sent by Pope Sylvester II (946-1003). The Bridge of Ten Thousand Ages is completed in Foochow (China).
1001 The Mayan civilization in Central America is in retreat; overuse of land, soil erosion and malnutrition take their toll as the population levels drop.
1002 The Holy Roman Emperor Otto III dies of malaria at Paterno, aged 22, while on campaign against the Romans. He is succeeded as King of the Franks and Bavarians by his cousin Duke Henry of Bavaria (972-1024), who is now 28. The Vizier al-Mansur, chief minister of Caliph Hisham II of Cordova, dies aged 63, the Caliphate begins to decline without his guidance. The Byzantine armies of Basil II overrun Macedonia, defeating the Bulgarians at Vidin. Ethelred II (966-1016) orders a massacre of Danish settlers (racism is not new).
1003 The Danish King Sweyn (Forkbeard) (960-1014) ravishes the English coast and exacts tribute in recompense for the massacre last year. Thorfinn Karlsefni (980-1007) leaves Greenland with three ships for a three-year exploration of North America (500 years before Columbus). His attempts at colonization are unsuccessful. Pope Sylvester II dies (aged 57).
1004 Zhenzong, the Song Emperor of China (968-1022), concludes a peace treaty with the Laio empire of the Khitan Mongol nomads, which costs China 100,000 ounces of silver and 200,000 bolts of silk a year, an extortionate tribute many Song officials find humiliating and offensive. The Lombard King Ardoin is defeated by Henry King of Bavaria, who has himself crowned King of Lombardy at Pavia on 14 May. Ardoin nevertheless carries on fighting and much of Pavia is destroyed by burning and many of its citizens killed.
1005 Kenneth III (966-1005) King of Scotland dies and is succeeded by Malcolm II (954-1034).
1006 Muslims settle in northern India. Mount Metrop in Java erupts; Hindu King Dharmawangsa is killed in the eruption and the Temple of Borbudar, the largest temple in South-East Asia, is badly damaged.
1007 Ethelred II King of England pays the Danes for two years free of attacks.
1008 Mahmud of Ghazni (971-1030) defeats Hindu forces at Peshawar as he expands his empire. The Persian writer Al-Hamadhani dies at Harat (age 39); he invented the literary form called Maqamah, a cameo short story in rhyming prose.
1009 Egypt’s Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim (985-1021) destroys the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. There are demands across Christian Europe for a crusade to recover the Holy Land from Muslim control.
1010 Orders of King Rajaraja of Chola: Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur completed. Mansur Abu’l-Quasim Firdwasi The Book of the Kings written.
1011 Ichijo Emperor of Japan dies, aged 31, and is succeeded by his cousin Sanjo.
1012 Ethelred II pays the Danes another huge sum to stop them attacking England. ‘Heretics’ – Christians professing unorthodox beliefs – are for the first time persecuted in Germany.
1013 The Danes once more attack and conquer England; Ethelred II takes refuge in Normandy. Cordova’s Caliph Hisham II (966-1013) dies and is succeeded by Sulaiman al-Mustain.
1014 Henry of Bavaria the German King recognizes Benedict VIII (980-1024) as Pope and is crowned by him as Holy Roman Emperor Henry II on 14 February. Danish King Sweyn Forkbeard dies suddenly at Gainsborough and is succeeded by his son Canute (994-1035). Canute, who is 20, returns to the safety of Denmark as Ethelred comes back from Normandy to reclaim his throne. April 23: Battle of Clontarf: fighting rages all day between two Irish factions. The victorious Munster army is led by Brian Boru (941-1014), the 87-year old High King of Ireland; the other, led by Mael Morda King of Leinster, is aided by the Vikings. Morda himself breaks through Brian Boru’s bodyguard and stabs Boru to death. Morda is later tortured to death by the High King’s army. Basil II, the Byzantine Emperor, annexes part of Bulgaria and orders that the Bulgarian army is to be blinded.
1015 Olaf II (995-1030) of Norway re-establishes Norwegian independence. Canute returns to England and is recognized as King of Wessex.
1016 Sanjo, the blind Emperor of Japan, abdicates, aged 40, and is succeeded by Ichijo’s eight-year old son Goichijo (1008-1036). Ethelred II King of England dies, aged 48, and is succeeded by his son Edmund Ironside (990-1016), who is chosen by the people of London; Canute is chosen to succeed by the witan at Southampton. Battle of Ashingdon in Essex: Canute routs Edmund’s army but permits him to reign in the south until his death. Edmund dies later in the year, aged 26; Canute rules all England.
1017 Canute divides England into four earldoms for ease of administration.
Other research reveals that the year 1000 AD was a time of major upheaval and extraordinary suffering. For example, in France, the whole country was seized with panic and despair, people feared that the world would end during the millennial year. People went on pilgrimages, leaving their homes, crops and animals, throwing into chaos the normal course of living. Fields were unploughed, crops untended, and when the world didn’t end, there was widespread starvation, disease and death. Does that ring a bell with Y2K? Then there was drought in 1002 followed by unprecedented rain storms and flooding in 1003. The years 950-1250 was the period of Medieval Climate Optimum, a time of global warming, but inside the Optimum, 1000-1017 was mostly cold, dry and harsh, an abrupt and seemingly inexplicable climate reversal.
From 1004-1016 England experienced, ‘such a famine prevailed as no man can remember.’ Although the wars between Ethelred and Sweyn the Dane took the lives of thousands, famine took thousands too. Some authorities have estimated that England lost half its population during this period. In 1008 there was famine in Wales. In 1009 Italian troops had to march on frozen rivers. In 10111 the River Nile was frozen. In 1012 many European cities were flooded by the sea. In 1013 England had a hurricane, an earthquake, and severe flooding. The year 1014 was notable for many English towns being destroyed by the sea with the loss of many lives. The climate was erratic and unpredictable, just as it is now.
In the period 1000-1017, war, violence, and sickness were a way of life. Almost half of deaths recorded by early coroners were due to violence. But by far the greatest number of deaths were due to infectious diseases. Life expectancy from birth at the time was 20-30 years. From the birth and death dates for the famous people above, it can be seen how much longer the privileged classes lived, and even they did not live long by today’s standards.
A thousand years ago, crime was not a major worry to the citizenry at large – they just lived and died with it. Crime statistics and research data gathering did not start until much later, but there is anecdotal evidence of widespread crime a thousand years ago. It was a dangerous time to be alive. However, there is a discernible downward trend from 1300 onward in the European homicide rate and it is now barely 10% of 1300 rates based on the number of homicides per 100,000 population. In short, the world is not falling apart because of crime.
Whether we compare the world situation now with that of a thousand years ago, or of ten years ago, it will always appear to be worse now. But it isn’t. A thousand years ago there was no newspapers, radio, television or internet to prime the crime fear. A thousand years ago entire populations were illiterate. Ten years ago? Well, it’s not easy to remember everything from ten years ago, even many major events and experiences are lost in the mists of time.
Like the years 2000-2017, the years 1000-1017 were normal in their own wild and erratic ways, but we can be assured of some things; there is now less poverty and more security than a thousand years ago. We have welfare services, fair justice systems, education systems, and employment and business and leisure time opportunities like never before. More people now live full lives with secure retirements at the end of their days than ever before. But then, we wouldn’t be people if we didn’t have something to gossip or complain about, would we?
All in all, 2017 has been a good year, and I can’t wait for the sun to rise on 2018.