Robin and his merrie men, not to mention the rest of Merrie Olde England, are the creation of Hollywood and other myth-makers. David Newnham finds a book that gets much closer to the truth
THE YEAR 1000. By Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger. Little Brown. pound;12.99.
Hark! What music drifts from yon castle window? 'Tis the jolly minstrels, and the music of their lutes doth echo all around the great stone hall where lords and ladies and the occasional cur feast upon ox and swan and spit-roast venison.
Welcome to Merrie Olde England, an all-singing, all-dancing theme park, located within the imagination of anyone who was ever exposed to Hollywood or sat through a score of lazy TV dramas.
Here you will meet the seventh-century King Arthur, travelling the Old Kent Road with a band of Chaucer's 14th-century pilgrims. "Prithee," they say, and "Woulds't thou?". These versatile folk all speak the language of the Jacobean dramatists, and in palaces of town-hall gothic you will find them dancing to the latest Tudor music. Theirs is a strange and hybrid land, loud and merry and fuelled by mead.
Robin Hood was my first guide. As an unquestioning child, I followed him willingly through adventure books and TV series. He and his brave band inspired in me a romantic love of the Middle Ages that, for all its questionable roots in Malory and William Morris, has never lost its sparkle.
It was a fringe French film about Sir Lancelot, however, that set me thinking seriously about our absurd, pot-pourri pictures of the past. It's the horses I remember most. They were everywhere, steaming and stinking in the raw air. Their constant needs filled the day as their snorts and snores filled the night. This was an agricultural England, muddy and menial, stripped of all its fanciful pageantry and devoid of every comfort. I knew, as I stumbled through the sub-titles, that I was possibly getting my first glimpse of the reality behind the gaily painted arras.
Possibly. For we can never be sure. It's that ever-present doubt that makes the past an intriguing country to visit. We can't know what sounds and smells would greet us if we could go back in time, let alone what assumptions and attitudes we would detect in the people around us. And whenever we shake off the cosy Hollywood vision and accept that the past was utterly foreign and unimaginable, then a surprising fact comes along to suggest that some things, at least, might be much as they are today.
In such a spirit - juxtaposing the alien with the familiar - have Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger put together The Year 1000, a book which, as the sub-title makes clear, explores "what life was like at the turn of the first millennium". Read any page and, unless you are already an expert on the period, you will be surprised to find how much has changed, and also how little has changed.
Transported to an age almost bereft of mechanical devices, you will notice a silence broken only by birdsong. And yet the Anglo-Saxons you meet in this quiet, predominantly rural place will be as tall as you, since only in the later Middle Ages did overcrowding begin to reduce the stature of western Europeans.
Surrounded by people speaking not Shakespearean English but something rather northern-sounding, you will see Viking dragon ships appear over the horizon (there's no evidence, by the way, that they ever wore those silly horned helmets). And at the very next step, you will see property developers and town planners who bear striking resemblance to their modern counterparts.
Lacey and Danziger are not historians with battleaxes to grind, but journalists who have sought out experts, pumped them for information, then set down this information in a form that's accessible without being either dull or dumb. They could have written "A Thousand Things You Didn't Know About the Year 1000", and no doubt somebody else will. Instead, they chose a clever and appropriate device around which to weave a proper book. That device is the Julius Work Calendar.
The calendar - an illustrated guide to the year's chores and celebrations - takes the name "Julius" only because it languished for years on a Westminster library shelf that bore a bust of Julius Caesar. In fact, it was made not in Roman times, but a mere 1,000 years ago, probably at Canterbury Cathedral.
Lacey and Danziger follow the calendar through the year, taking up the broadly seasonal themes of harvest and war (the first always had to be got out of the way before the second could begin), and arriving at December in time to question how widespread were those much-hyped millennial fears the first time around (not very, it seems).
Where material can be drawn in from the later Middle Ages or earlier Dark Ages, then we are allowed to wander where the fancy takes us. For the millennium, like the calendar itself, provides only a loose itinerary for this expedition into the past.
It is characteristic of their respect for detail that Lacey and Danziger introduce this calendar by describing the origins of its ink (an oak gall, crushed in rainwater or vinegar, thickened with gum arabic and laced with iron salts) and of the word "ink" (the acid, which bit into the vellum, was called "encaustere" after the Latin "caustere" meaning "to bite"). Such details matter. And if the inventors of Merrie Olde England had understood as much, then we might all have a clearer idea now of where we came from.