A look back in time

I’m currently reading Thomas More‘s Utopia, translated by Paul Turner. I shall write more about it later. For now, a quote shall suffice:

According to their [the utopians’] historical records […] the original houses were merely small huts or cottages, built hurriedly with the first timber that came to hand. The walls were plastered with mud, the roofs ridged and thatched. But nowadays [that is, 1510-15 AD] every houses [the plural error here is from the original] is an imposing three-storey structure. The walls are faced with flint or some other hard stone, or else with bricks, and lined with roughcast. The sloping roofs have been raised to the horizontal, and covered with a special sort of concrete which costs next to nothing, but is better than lead for resisting bad weather conditions, and is also fireproof. They keep out draughts by glazing the windows – oh yes, they use a great deal of glass there – or sometimes by fitting screens of fine linen treated with clear oil or amber, which has the effect of making it more transparent and also more airtight.

In More’s version of the ideal society, people lived in (admittedly big) houses made out of stone and concrete. Not exactly something I would settle for, having been born a few centuries later. Well, how did most people in fact live back then? Don Boudreaux’s recent quote from William Manchester’s book A world lit only by fire gives us a clue:

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. […]

We’ve come a long way in those 500 years.

June 17, 2008 - Posted by | Books, History

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