Then in my quilt magazine, I read an article by a woman who organizes the largest quilting festival in Vermont. In the article, she says we mistakenly believe baseball is the national pastime, but it’s really complaining.
I do my share of complaining, and it’s definitely something I need to work on. This week, Ed and I finished watching a 6-video series of King Henry VIII’s wives. It is a PBS documentary, very well done. I’m somewhat of a romantic, and on occasion I have been known to daydream about what it would have been like to live in a certain historical time period. After watching this series, though, I think I will cut short my complaining and focus on how well we live today. Yes, even with gas prices, food prices, ineffective government, and unaffordable healthcare costs.
In the first place, I was reminded that women were thought to have no more rights than animals. Their sole purpose seemed to be childbearing, and not just any childbearing, but specifically son-bearing. Having a son born was a cause for celebration, and having a daughter was a disappointment, especially for a reigning monarch. On top of that, childbirth was extraordinarily dangerous, and many women were almost constantly pregnant, having several miscarriages and stillbirths, which weakened their bodies even more.
Then there were the infants who, even if they were healthy enough to be born after a full-term pregnancy, often died within the first year of life. One web site states that “out of all people born, between one third and one half died before the age of about 16.”
The Middle Ages are a dangerous time, and you'll need stamina and good luck to survive. One monkish writer, who compiled the Annals of Bermondsey, reckons that famine is so common that starving people resort to eating dogs, cats, the dung of doves and their own children.
The really bad news is the Black Death, the culmination of a series of disasters which begin in the early 1300s, when England is struck by uncommonly bad weather. A little ice age is followed by severe floods, failed harvests and livestock plagues. Famine hits hard in 1315.
The most common causes of death are unclean water and bad hygiene, especially in the crowded, dirty towns. Diet is another factor. Fruit is reckoned to be bad for you, and a low intake of dairy produce makes it difficult to resist epidemics.
Average life expectancy is only 30. Of the children born to medieval kings, less than half survive into their 20s. At Winchester College, a public school for 70 boys from prosperous homes who are well looked after, 12 die during 1401 and 20 during 1431.
King Henry VIII was ready at one point to have his last wife put to death because she dared to “instruct” him while debating a religious question.
Yet here am I in 2008, having had (by safe C-sections) two children, a precious son and a precious daughter, who lived to grow up and start families of their own. I can discuss with my husband politics, religion, or whatever else I’d like, and we can even agree to disagree. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live in a world where less than half of children survived into their 20s, a world where the man was allowed to have as many mistresses as he pleased, yet a woman could be condemned to death for adultery.
So even though the economy stinks and gas is outrageously high, I think I will take a week off from complaining. It’s poignant, but somehow after learning all this, I feel both very sad and very blessed, and at least just for this week, I think I’ll concentrate on what’s right with the world. It has definitely been worse.