Viewed through the prism of what we like to think of as our standards, the horizons of medieval men and women can seem cruelly limited. How, we ask ourselves, can they possibly have lived out their spans inside something so small?
Very few people wandered any more than a few kilometres from the place where they had been born. Travel was exclusively the purview of the hyper-rich. A lucky few might get to undertake a once in a lifetime pilgrimage to some centre like Rome or Santiago di Compostella, but for the most part, everybody stayed put. The drunken pilgrimages to Spain or Mexico, which so many in our culture consider an annual rite and right, would have both bewildered and horrified our medieval ancestors.
Our medieval forebears had plenty of other things to concern themselves with, of course. There was the seemingly ceaseless drudge of crop cultivation and harvesting, oppressions from this or that noble liege (that’s ‘robber baron scumbag’ to you and me), bad diet, mother and infant mortality and the periodic recurrence of plague.
They faced, we are told, a plethora of local and often life threatening concerns which left little or no scope for the contemplation of what, if anything, might be going on outside their village.
Even so, I’ve often found it fascinating to wonder just what went through the mind of a medieval person when, through some accident or kink in the daily routine, they found themselves free for a few hours to indulge in what used to be known as ‘wool-gathering.’
I’ve tried fruitlessly casting myself into the mind of a medieval Joan or Wat in moments of excruciatingly rare idleness. Perhaps she took advantage of the break to go off on a bit of a wander, explore some previously unknown nook of nearby territory. Maybe she found herself on the prow of some hill, gazing down at meadows and forests shrill with birdsong.
Perhaps she wandered into the wood shaded bend of a nearby river, finding, by accident or design, a space that allowed for some form of transcendent contemplation, however limited we might consider such a thing today. What passed through her mind in the course of those few hours?
If it is a modern article of faith that all sentient beings, at times of ease taking, enter some Joycean stream of consciousness, then what were the most notable features of Joan’s stream?
Sadly, this is one of those components of the past now entirely lost to us. The chances are that Joan never wrote down what she thought (she was almost certainly unable to) and unless she went on to experience some form of direct visitation from a God or Angel, nobody else took the trouble to write it down either.
Those most private and arguably distinctive thoughts of those souls who walked the land under our feet are thus forever gone from us. Perhaps they were sublime in spots – exotic in ways we can only guess at – perhaps they were merely silly, but they are gone, like the information physicists once thought entirely lost to the Universe when it crossed the event horizon of a black hole, at least until the discovery of Hawking Radiation.
But while we have no real idea what thoughts furrowed the brow of a Joan or Wat during their precious solitude, we can at least make some educated guesses as to what they didn’t think about.
Joan or Wat, it seems fairly clear, never felt moved to worry about world affairs. Joan never thought about the French advances into Italy or the succession to the Spanish throne. The idea of worrying over who might or might not be the next Pope or what would happen if the Duke of Buckingham died without male issue would have been utterly alien to her.
Joan or Wat never participated in the ritual of world opinion, for the very good reason that, outside of a few tiny medieval courts, world opinion did not exist.
The forces beyond their ken were literally that. Don’t worry about what you can’t control. Don’t even think about that which is no concern of yours.
I’m not the only person to wonder if – apart from all the plagues, constant threats of mortality and frankly limited social life – Joan or Wat might have enjoyed a quality of life, or at least mental ease, superior to ours, their wired up but no less befuddled descendants.
Imagine if you’d never heard of Donald Trump or Cristiano Ronaldo. Imagine if you’d never heard the word ‘Syria’ and had no idea what North Korea was. Imagine if you’d never seen a picture of anyone named Kardashian. Imagine if you didn’t know what ‘fake news’ was, or for that matter, what ‘real news’ was either.
Imagine if you didn’t have to listen to advertising or interviews with so called experts spelling out in gory detail the latest way you’re shortening your life. Imagine if you didn’t listen to other ‘experts’ pointing out all the different ways you’re failing as a parent. Imagine if you’d never heard of ‘fat shaming,’ and indeed felt pretty good about that extra layer of lard under your bodkin, since it meant you were more likely to be able to fight off the next inevitable attack of plague.
Just close your eyes and think about how all this would feel. You’ve turned off the news. You’ve resigned from the body of world opinion. Feel better? You’ve also stopped playing along with the pretence that so called ‘entertainment’ or ‘advice’ shows are there to do anything other than sell you shit.
John Lennon once said everybody in the world should go to bed for a week, just to see what would happen. What if everybody turned off the news for a week, what unknown wonders would we encounter?