Monday, November 3, 2008

Imagine how different the world was.

No photographs. No recorded voices. No twenty four hour news feed. No global geography worth the name. How limited knowledge and how awkward its diffusion. How poor its chances of survival.

The fact we even know there was a woman called Godgifu seems miraculous.

Unless you were a member of the court, you wouldn’t even know what the king looked like. The possibility of hearing his biological voice would be minimal. The families settled around Coventry would know the Earl and his wife, but that would be familiarity. How important context would be. How crucial the personalized links that verify your identity. Why your social role was such a definition.

And then think of how strange the world. Imagine distance measured by effort and time with no global context and no predictability. Drop an educated person down on the world somewhere and tell them where they are, and they’d have a sense of what lies in each direction. But for someone in Coventry? If you went that way you reached Winchester, or London, and if you kept going, the coast, and France and then the pilgrim routes. That way, north, York, the sea lanes to Denmark. Vague cosmologies; detailed where the route is personally known, vague where it’s only hearsay. And the world beyond the known route, fading into vagueness. Peopled by strange possibilities.

Everything passed by word of mouth and stored in human memory. So the man who tells you about the things he saw when he was traveling, passed on in a game of Chinese whispers, with no way of checking the truth or the source.

The traveler who comes to your monastery and says…have you heard about the Earl’s wife. Have you heard what she did over in Coventry?

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