Think this winter is harsh? Try braving it the way they did in the Middle Ages.
Back in 2013, a historical reenactment group recreated a 10th-century Russian farmstead for an experiment to determine whether or not a modern man could survive an entire winter living as they did 1,000 years ago, all while living as a hermit. The resulting footage was turned into a fascinating documentary, Alone in the Past, which yielded valuable data as to living conditions and practices, such as the durability of 10th-century tools and clothing, as well as the psychological effects of spending so much time alone.
The subject, Pavel Sapozhnikov, then 24, spent six months on the farmstead, which was constructed to medieval specifications by experts. The central structure comprised three rooms: a living area, a storage area, and an animal barn. Pavel also had access to an outdoor stove, a banya (a Russian sauna), and a centralized water well.
For the duration of the experiment, he had no access to modern technology, electricity, or any of the luxuries we take for granted every day. For the purposes of documenting the experiment, Pavel spoke to a camera for half an hour per day and was visited once a month by the organizers to ensure his health and well-being.
For food, Pavel was provided with a few goats and hens, which he could tend for milk and eggs, and he was also left with a supply of varieties of grain available in the Middle Ages. He was given no corn, as it was only brought to Europe by Christopher Columbus at the tail end of the 15th century. Pavel was required to hunt or fish for any food he desired, and he also gathered berries and mushrooms, which he could dry and store for use during the freezing months.
Sputnik News describes the medieval gear for which he traded his iPhone and pen knives:
A fire starter and flint, a fibula (an old type of brooch), a comb – to brush out the lice, he jokes – whetstones, spring scissors, a piece of wax to polish thread so that it goes through leather more easily and, most importantly, an axe.
While many of this generation may throw their hands up at the high hurdles of the past, Pavel had no time to lament the loss of his luxuries. He described his hermit life as a laborious one:
“I start my day by feeding the hens and goats, and milking. Then there is the stove to get started and grains to be ground into flour – enough work to keep me busy till lunchtime,” Pavel explained.
As one who had already taken an interest in historical reenactment and had worked in the field before, Pavel was not daunted by the tasks set before him; however, he did run into some problems. He was beset with a fever which would come and go and at one point he cut his finger to the bone while using his axe. He also noted that once the goats and hens were on a natural diet, free of growth hormones and antibiotics, they produced less milk and fewer eggs respectively.
Alexei Ovcharenko, head of the Ratobortsy historical reenactment club in charge of the project, described some of the aspects of medieval life that he hoped Pavel’s winter alone would illuminate:
“We were especially interested to see how a person could live through the autumn and winter, when food and water supplies are scarce and daylight is short.”
He said that there is much we don’t know, such as, “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,” He added, “Our objective is to see how the milk output and the size of eggs will change. Will the next generation of goats and hens be smaller? How will they be influenced by the free-range conditions and the chemical-free food?”
The experiment concluded as a success, with Pavel surviving and gaining insights into medieval daily life. He did note, however, that hermits were rarer in those days since communal living would lighten the work loads and allow better chances of surviving the coldest months.
On the topic of communal living, Medievalist notes that more people in the community meant less work for the individual and more time for religious worship. In fact, at Christmas time the custom was not to work for the 12 days from Christmas Eve until Epiphany. This would not be possible for a man living on his own, who would have to work every day just to provide his own sustenance. They write:
Christmas was the longest holiday of the year; there were twelve days from Christmas Eve to Epiphany (January 6) were no one worked at all. The lord would sometimes invite his villeins to dine in his hall for the Christmas meal. In some cases, a lucky peasant would be selected to ask two friends to come with him to eat and drink as much they wanted, and whatever they wanted for the duration of two burning candles (one after another). Other peasants were allowed to carry away as much as they could in their cloths.
If you’re interested in watching the entire documentary, you can find it below.