One of the major problems I am working through in my thesis is access: to information, services, and expertise. In a previous post, I mentioned the fact that in the 12th and 13th centuries, access to physicians was actually pretty high, and actually at par with the modern world.
For the early medieval world that’s harder to assess, but the more I read about the Anglo-Saxon world, the more I’m surprised by how interconnected that world was. The king of Kent was married to a Frankish princess in the 6th-7th centuries, and Patriarch Elias of Jerusalem wrote a letter to King Alfred the Great offering him advice on medical problems. British and English bishops are mentioned at many of the major church councils of the early middle ages, even those which were not necessarily related to English matters. Silk was obtainable, to the point of being the substance of choice for sutures. The 7th century spokesman for the Italian court was Columbanus, an Irish monk who also established a network of monasteries in France before travelling south. Charlemagne’s famous literary and cultural renaissance was driven by Alcuin, an English monk and scholar.
Within England itself, trade and intermarriage was common. Artwork by the same artists can be found in geographically diverse areas. Although it may be tempting to see monasteries as islands apart from the secular world, they played host to a plethora of laymen, from the workmen who tended their lands or paid them tribute, to the people they healed. Robin Fleming points out that the bodies of people suffering from a variety of mental and physical disabilities, from a man with congenitally dislocated hips to a man with Down’s Syndrome, were found in the cemetery at the monastery of Nazeingbury. People also travelled extensively, both to and from the island. Aldhelm complains that English students were flocking “in swarms conveyed by fleets” to Ireland for their education. Benedict Biscop traveled extensively on the continent and returned with books. Archbishops of Canterbury traditionally traveled to Rome to be consecrated. One of the foremost Archbishops of Canterbury, in terms of both political and cultural impact, was the Greek Theodore of Tarsus.
For us, who rely on cars and subways to get us everywhere, it is difficult to imagine communication and access in a world driven by foot- and horse- power, and yet access and communication were actually far more free than we tend to think (how much more free is something I’m working on figuring out). It’s something worth remembering.