We’ve had a couple of incidents in the past two weeks that jolted our modern complacency a bit. We enjoyed a nine-hour power outage on a day where the high temperature topped out at nine degrees.
We burned a lot of wood in the woodstove, and reflected upon the fact that even a modest-sized modern house is too damn big. You can’t heat it all from one corner of the living room. The electric glass-top stove was out, so we cooked on a propane camp stove in the carport. Fun and games.
A couple of days ago, with the lows dipping several degrees below zero, our well pump went out. Initially it looked like the pump had failed, which would have meant several days without water. Fortunately, it turned out to be merely a frozen well head. A technician who had raised the pump a few feet last fall didn’t plug the heat tape back in. Oops. No harm, no foul.
We are pretty well prepared for such interruptions of normal, modern-day living. Lots of emergency food and plenty of wood. Last summer I picked up a 55-gallon water storage tank, which we would have tapped if the well pump had actually been fried. As it was, we just used a few gallon-size containers. You use more water than you think you do when cooking, washing (minimally) and drinking is all factored in.
These were not “survival” situations by any means, but they did give us a look at our preparations. Basically, we had plenty and we need more of everything.
Pavel Sapozhnikov laughs at our little “winter.” In 2013, the 24-year-old Russian engaged in an epic living history experiment, living alone in 9th Century style through the Russian fall and winter, until the spring solstice and a Slavic new year. It was called Alone in the Past.
I found out about this through medievalists.net, which is an excellent site devoted to life in the Middle Ages. I discovered the site when I was reading The Wake earlier this year. Still more detail is available at Sputnik News. It was a serious endeavor being run by a serious living history club, not a reality TV stunt.
The Ratobortsy Club organizers say the project is part of experimental archeology. It is one thing learning about early Slavs’ homes and daily life, and quite another trying to live like that, Alexei Ovcharenko told RIA Novosti.
“How often their woolen socks needed mending, how long their skis and knives would last, how durable their hide-covered roofs were – we’d like to test these kinds of everyday things in practice,” the organizers explain.
The poor bastard had no books, because, well… 9th century peasant. At least the Mountain Men who wintered in no less harsh conditions in the Rocky Mountains had reading material to share around. In fact, such winterings were known as Rocky Mountain College.
He did, however, have an ax. And he correctly points out that you can do most anything you need to do with an ax — or with something you can make with an ax. Should be properly considered the most important of all Frontier Partisan tools.
As medievalists.net points out, winter was a very dangerous time in the Middle Ages. And it was the same in the classic 18th/19th Century frontier era as well.
Winter was a frightening time for many people; if there was a poor harvest, you could starve to death, and there was always the chance of contracting illnesses that could easily kill you, such as pneumonia. Add to that, the onset of the Little Ice Age from 1300 until about 1870, and it meant surviving much colder winters. Winter was the most dangerous time in the medieval calendar year….
How did people stay warm in the dead of winter? Like us, they wore cloaks, scarves, boots and gloves (not the five fingered kind we know, but a more mitten like style). Homes were often smokey from a stone hearth fire that was ventilated by a hole in the roof. This provided warmth but not the kind we would be accustomed to for such cold temperatures. Indoor heating wasn’t exactly great, so many people wore their outer garments inside to keep warm.
We moderns are so used to the idea that we can walk around the house in jeans and a t-shirt when it’s 9 degrees out. Kinda crazy, really, when you think about it. Ol’ Jimmy Carter was ridiculed during the late 1970s energy crisis for turning down the White House thermostat and wearing a sweater. Americans don’t like being told we should cut back on anything, from food to energy use — but Jimmy was on to something. For most of human history, bundling up inside as well as out has been the norm. Maybe it’s just more in tune with nature’s way?
There’s nothing wrong with candlelight and sitting on the couch close to your wife, either.
Medieval people did many of the things we do: they played in the snow, they enjoyed sledding, and ice-skated (on pieces of polished wood or horse shin bones). Indoors, the most popular passtimes were games like chess and backgammon. If you were a noble, you might enjoy boar hunting. These activities were a welcomed respite from back-breaking labour, and cold winter nights.
Any and all of that sounds great. I used to play a lot of backgammon and should do that again. And I’m sure Rullman would be happy to school me in chess. Skating — check. And, yes, I really want to go boar hunting, though I’m too much of a gun nut to go full medieval and use a boar spear.
Nothing wrong with a little 9th Century — though I’d add 900 or 1,000 years to it so I can have my guns and books…
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the modern conveniences as much as anybody. Heating a bowl of chili in the microwave; a hot shower, flushing toilets right here indoors. But there’s something of value in reaching back and touching the way in which our kind lived for millennia. Hats off to Pavel.