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Jesuit Father Myron J. Pereira, based in Mumbai, has spent more than five decades as an academic, journalist, editor and writer of fiction. He contributes regularly to UCA News on religious and socio-cultural topics.
What was life like a thousand years ago?
Today democracy has given everyone a voice, and human rights have become a universal standard
September 22, 2023 03:36 AM GMT

September 22, 2023 07:11 AM GMT

A thousand years ago, it was a different world from ours, and yet in many ways quite similar. So what was the world like at the beginning of the second millennium?

Two movements dominated the last thousand years, and they were both religious and feudal: Islam and Christianity. Each staked out an imperium and fought each other for supremacy.

At this time, the earth’s population was static, around 250 million, of which every fourth person was Chinese. The largest city in the known world was Cordoba, the capital of Moorish Spain, with 450,000 inhabitants.

Half the children in the world died before the age of five of natal infections, pneumonia, or malnutrition; and many were the young wives who died in childbirth of puerperal fever.

Hardship made many families sell their children into slavery. In England, one-tenth of the population was ‘serfs,’ a form of indentured labor for life. Africa was a large source of slave labor, first into the Arab world where most male slaves were castrated; and later, into the Americas.

Arab dominance

Trade increasingly moves ideas, and the Arabs were the world’s leading traders, moving courageously in their dhows from Andalus (South Spain) all the way to Penang, Malaysia; and by land across the Silk Road to  Khorasan (eastern Iran) even to the gates of Cathay (China); and across Africa to Timbuktu and Mozambique.

Arabic was the language of cross-cultural exchange.

It is Arabic translations of and commentaries on the Greek philosophers which were read by Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas, as Averhoes (ibn Rashid) and Avicenna (ibn Sina).

It is the Arabs who communicated to Europeans the Indian decimal system, which makes us still say, “Arabic numerals.”

But as the hegemony passed from Arab to Turk, and as Arab influence in the Islamic umma (community) declined, the young Christian nations of Europe rose to the challenge.

The big question: Muslim Arabs controlled the land and sea routes to the East. Could there be a way to outflank them?

The age of exploration

The age of naval exploration had begun. First, to find a sea route from Europe to India and then to circumnavigate the globe.

The names of these explorers are legion: Vasco da Gama and Bartholomeu Dias from Portugal; Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, Hernan Cortez representing Spain; Francis Drake from England; Marco Polo from Venice.

But it was not only Europeans. We remember also Ibn Battuta from Morocco; and the Chinese admiral, Zheng He from Nanking, who traversed the Indian Ocean from Malacca to Mombasa, and is still remembered in Kochi for his “Chinese nets.”

Religious energy

In the vanguard were Christian monks. Theirs was the spiritual genius and the intellectual energy to make things happen.

Bernard and the Crusades. Aquinas and the university. Francis and his challenge to early capitalism. Copernicus and his new geography. Luther and a new vision of faith. Angela Merici and her outreach to young women. Xavier and his zeal to save souls.

Religious men and women combined spiritual insight with the practice of welfare — orphanages, hospitals, and the ransom of slaves — in what was still a fairly brutish and feudal society.

And as the millennium continued into its final centuries, groups of nuns, pastors and priests brought education, scholarship, and social uplift into almost every country of the world."

They had an impact on peoples and cultures far beyond their numbers.

The impact of European ‘Christians’

By the 1800s, the Muslim world almost everywhere had yielded to Christian European colonial powers.

Except that these powers were ‘Christian’ only in name, but in fact espoused principles of military aggrandizement,  racism, and cultural and material exploitation.

The closing years of the millennium were never less ‘Christian’ in public policy and political behavior, and it is little wonder that it ended in two murderous world wars, an atomic holocaust and the genocide of millions.

The new millennium

True, this is not the whole story. The closing decades of the second millennium have also been years of comfort and hope, and many have seen their aspirations realized.

The application of science and technology to everyday life has made for an easier and more comfortable existence for millions of our contemporaries.

The poor and the marginalized, women, children and the outcast, never heard of at the beginning of the millennium, are no longer shunted to the periphery.

This is because democracy has given everyone a voice, and the acceptance of human rights has become a universal standard, even if not always followed.

Paradoxically, the second millennium which began with the rise of two great religions, and moved towards their slow decline, now sees the resurgence of all religions — in a violent, fundamentalist form — as people struggle with the meaning of faith in a world dominated by technology.

Not so long ago, a popular magazine presented the modern dilemma with a striking metaphor: a man with a watch knows what time it is, and he feels secure. But a man with two watches is never quite sure.

As the old millennium passes into the new, we look forward with hope and glance back with nostalgia. We’re never quite sure. This anxiety, this lack of confidence has become the hallmark of our age.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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