I’ve mentioned before that I always have multiple projects going at once to cut down on the possibility of boredom or burnout. Well, in addition to the usual UF stuff, I’ve been recently dabbling in YA high fantasy, and my decision to make my heroine an illiterate peasant in an Iron Age Near-East-like setting has led to some questions. Namely: what exactly would she do all day? How do you spin thread? How does a loom work? And what the heck is an adze, anyway?
Of course, once I started researching, it was hard to stop. It amazes me just how many skills people in the old days had … Skills learned in childhood, too, many of which most adults in modern western countries couldn’t manage to save their lives. Thoroughly informed and mildly ashamed, I present my reading list for Peasant 101.
All of these books are highly recommended, but two of them are out of print. That’s good for The Healing Hand, which is on Amazon for about four bucks plus shipping, but the cost for a good hardcover of Lost Country Life is a bit prohibitive. All links go to Amazon, but I recommend checking other sites like Alibris to get the best deal on these books. I am not making any money off these links, and all opinions are unsolicited and my own.
Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber — After finishing this book, I had the urge to go buy raw flax and let it rot in a kiddie pool, just so I could experiment with spinning the fibers. Unfortunately, the ladies of ancient Egypt had a resource I lack: understanding landlords.
Women’s Work is exactly what it says on the label. Dr. Barber’s lively, engaging book explores the roles and history of women in the ancient world via the medium of textile work–the one activity which was, more than any other, considered women’s work. Beginning in Palaeolithic times with two inescapable facts (children were easily damaged and needed to nurse a lot), work was divided into male and female lots, and women quickly came to dominate all forms of textile production. Far from considering it oppressive slavery, many women in the ancient world used this work to produce their own trade goods, make money, and even set up their own weaving shops.
Being an Egypt fanatic, of course, my favorite chapter was Chapter Eight: “Land of Linen.” The whole book, though, is absolutely worth the time. Dr. Barber skilfully utilizes seemingly commonplace or useless data to draw out fascinating information about how women lived, worked, and were viewed by the society around them. Chapter 7, “Cloth for the Caravans,” contains excerpted letters that paint a frankly awesome picture of an Assyrian businesswoman irritated with her good-for-nothing male associates.
(Just checked the tenants’ guide. Definitely no kiddie pools allowed. Dammit!)
Lost Country Life, by Dorothy Hartley — The book that not only told me what an adze was, but how many varieties there were, who used it, and what time of year it was most common. If you need to know anything about life as a medieval English peasant, Dorothy Hartley has you covered.
More than any other book on this list, Lost Country Life will show you just how much work it was to survive in a preindustrial age. Ms. Hartley categorizes the tasks of the year by month, using a 1600s poem about a farmer’s tasks as a neat little reference framework. In the process she discusses medieval customs, social climates, pervasive traditions, the evolution of the peasant class, and how we can know what we know about the old days. Skills examined in depth include: sowing, reaping, rope-making, dyeing, milling, cooking (mostly baking and butchering), hunting, ox-driving, ploughing, shepherding, beekeeping, candlemaking, pot-throwing (making pots, not hurling them around), thatching, sewing, shoemaking, and about ten thousand others besides. Clothmaking is covered, but Women’s Work addresses that more comprehensively, so if you decide to get either of these books I’d take into account whether you need a general survey or a more targeted work.
One problem with the book is that it assumes a certain level of knowledge a lot of us just don’t have any more. Ms. Hartley’s descriptions of sowing, harvesting, and landscaping are very detailed, but if you don’t already have a working knowledge of agricultural terms, you may get lost. (I sure did.) Her use of British English might also confuse an American reader: for example, the mention of corn crops threw me for a loop before I looked up its usage in Britain. It turns out “corn” is a general descriptor for cereals of all kinds. Learn something every day, me!
The Healing Hand: Man and Wound in the Ancient World, by Guido Majno — I first read this book last year, but I finally got hold of my own copy and decided to give it a reread. And I’m glad I did! The Healing Hand is occasionally graphic and not for the faint of heart, but holy frijoles is it informative.
There’s a chapter on Egypt, of course. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The history of medicine is pretty odd and patchy, and the history of surgery even moreso. Yet as Dr. Majno points out in the text, a complete work on the history of the wound would span numerous volumes and still never be able to cover everything. For The Healing Hand, he focused on surgery in the ancient world–a less commonly-explored topic, but also closer, as it were, to the bone.
Surgical knowledge in some times and places was remarkably advanced. Dr. Majno touches briefly on trepanation, but most of the cases he examines come from battlefield wounds and similar cases. Constant warfare in the ancient world meant that surgeons had a fairly foolproof way of figuring out what worked: if you did something wrong and the patient died, there was always another patient around. Practice makes perfect!
Like many good authors, Dr. Majno has a clean and dry authorial voice that informs without confusing or condescending. Conscious that he’s writing for a layman audience, he lays out the details of surgical procedures using simple language. And photographs. Did you know there had been scientific tests done to determine the medical efficacy of Egyptian eye paint? Or that honey is actually a somewhat effective natural antiseptic? I didn’t, but he did, and now I do too. Buy this book!