I have been entertaining myself by watching a few videos on off-grid living – living without many of the amenities of modern living, or rather making alternative arrangements for toilets, washing, heat and light. And it has reminded me that the past was hard. The more extreme off-grid fans are effectively re-creating subsistence farming which is the way almost all of our ancestors lived and worked.
This is not supposed to be a criticism of off-grid living, or even a discouragement – off-grid living is not a full re-creation of subsistence farming; at the very core there is still a safety net provided by society. And providing the basic services of living is a great deal easier than it was in the past; solar power, composting toilets, and modern materials to build warm homes.
People do tend to look at the past through rose-tinted glasses and concentrate on the simplicities – none of the hassles of modern life. Well the hassles of modern life were missing, but there were other hassles …
Occupation and Education
Go back far enough, and women were pretty much limited to various forms of housekeeping or prostitution as a living. Men in theory had a much wider choice of occupation, but in practice men were limited to the occupation of their close relatives; which was almost always subsistence farming. A truly exceptional boy might be lucky enough to escape through some means or another, but most people were stuck with very little choice.
Education was perhaps even more limited, which whilst it was not intended as a limitation on freedom had that effect. Education was actually limited because it was too expensive. Any education that normal people might get was limited to the basics – reading and writing. Or if you were lucky enough to get into a craft guild (which was expensive at a time when peasants may well not have seen much in terms of money), would have been limited to education relating to that craft.
What healthcare? Well there was some healthcare, but it would have been limited to herbal remedies and words of advice from the local wise-woman (if the locals had not been dumb enough to burn her at the stake). Or in other words, you would have someone to hold your hand whilst you died.
Yes died. An awful lot of things could have been fatal – down to and including minor cuts. Take a look at your siblings and imagine that three-quarters of them succumbing to something or other before they grew to adulthood.
Everyone has heard of the Great Potato Famine because it was the last great European famine (excluding those caused by war), but there were plenty of other widespread famines throughout Europe before that one. And many of them were more lethal than the Great Potato Famine, including an earlier one in Ireland. And these are just the big famines; a little famine that nobody has ever heard of can be just as fatal.
In other words everyone was at risk of starving to death any year the harvest failed.
It was not uncommon to share houses with domesticated animals (cows not cats) for a variety of reasons, but probably the most significant was the lack of central heating. Of course they had wood fires for both heating and cooking, but fires are not necessarily very good at heating a whole house. Plus there is the problem of gathering fuel, and it is surprising just how much wood you need even for an occasional evening fire. And combined with the fact that all your neighbours are also looking for fuel wood, harvesting enough fuel was a lot of work.
Fancy an evening bath? That takes wood fuel to heat the water, so you’re likely to skip rather more baths than you’re happy with.
Oh! And don’t forget that the house you are likely to be living in would be more like a wooden garden shed than a modern well insulated house.
So winter in the past would have been cold; you would have most likely have felt cold from autumn to spring without break.
Perhaps I’ve made the past sound totally miserable which is a bit misleading – we would find the past totally miserable but our ancestors would be more accepting of the problems and would have tried to enjoy their life.