Written by
Craig Ruff, Public Sector Consultants Inc.

Mankind stands at a crossroad. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness; the other, to total extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly.

–Woody Allen, commencement speech

Americans have been astoundingly sluggish in planning for the millennium. Our passion seems to begin and stop at the Y2K computer problem. Inasmuch as humans are the only species that cares a whit about the calendar, the approach and passing of the year 2000 ought to inspire a bounty of reflection and celebration.

To begin with, let’s consider the way we will identify time in the wake of the millennium. We call the year preceding the millennium “nineteen ninety-nine.” Past centennial years we know as “fifteen hundred,” “eighteen hundred,” or “nineteen hundred.” What then should we call the year 2000? Simply “two thousand”? I think not. The word thousand is never sounded out in the naming of years. For consistency’s sake, we should refer to the millennial year as twenty hundred, though most people probably will use the phrase “two thousand”; similarly, when speaking of the year 1000, we should call it ten hundred.

We call this decade “the nineties,” and frequently we refer back to “the twenties”or “the sixties.” What shall we call the next decade? A number of ideas are circulating, though no consensus has emerged. New York Times columnist William Safire suggests the aughts, which means “the zeros.” In the past, the firrst decade of our century was called similarly the aughties. Another New York Times columnist on language, Jack Rosenthal, thinks that this term sounds creak and old-fashioned. Rosenthal favors the ’OOs, pronounced ohs. Soon we may be forecasting the aught-two or oh-two gubernatorial election, as you please. We could be prophesying the economy of the aughts, aughties, or ohs. The choice is yours, or yores.

The millennial marking of the year 2000 A.D. results from the Christian dating of time from the birth of Christ. Religion contributes the marking of time in most other major civilizations as well. As in so many other areas, the various religions do not bother with cross-cultural consistency. Counting from the year of creation,1 or 3761 B.C., Jews number the Christian calendar’s second millennium as the year 5760, a number which lips to 5761 on Rosh Hashanah. Islam’s calendar begins in 622 A.D., the year of the hegira, or Mohammed’s migration from Mecca to Medina; hence Islam dates the upcoming millennium as 1378 A.H. (anno hegirae). Muslims in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and several other areas of the Persian Gulf stick strictly to a lunar year, celebrating 1420 A.H. in 2000 A.D. Buddhists commemorate the year 2543. In China, each cycle of 60 lunar years is divided among twelve animals, 2000 being the year of the dragon. (In a rare 0t of tolerance, Chinese communists in the late 1940s permitted use of both the lunar and Gregorian calendars.) But for those using the Christian-based calendar, the end of the century and the new millennium is an appropriate point to consider how far we have advanced as a civilization. To do so, we might examine the state of Western civilization in the year 1000—the previous millennium—as a means of measuring this progress. This entails picturing a world in which words such as “newspaper,” “mail,” “concrete,” “fork,” “spoon,” “sewer,” “clock,” “button,” “cotton,” “windmill,” “compass,” and “dictionary” have no meaning. The task is not an easy one.

I have learned much from and been greatly entertained by several particularly excellent writings on the period, which are listed at the end of this essay. These sources are Eurocentric because much of what we know in the West about civilization in 1000 A.D. is confined to European experience. Asia, most particularly China, was thriving culturally but isolated. Little has been written in or translated into the English language about everyday life there. The same holds true for the heavily populated African continent and sparsely populated North and South American and Australian continents.

The lack of information in the West on everyday life in the many cultures outside Europe in the period is particularly vexing because the Chinese, Mayan, Aztec, Ghanaian, Byzantine, and Islamic cultures of 1000 A.D. were indisputably more advanced than the cultures of Europe (at least of Western Europe). Many of the intellectually and economically wealthy of the eleventh century were the artists, artisans, politicians, inventors, scientists, scholars, traders, and educators living in parts of the globe we now condescendingly describe as the “third world.” China’s industrial technology surpassed Europe’s even into the fifteenth century, and its consumer goods included things utterly foreign to most Europeans in 1000: cast iron, fans, umbrellas, rich clothing, lanterns, napkins, playing cards, money, and toilet paper.

This is not to suggest that there is an excess of information on European culture in this period. It is not easy for scholars to research and reconstruct a period of time in which virtually nothing was written down. Original writings and sources from this period are quite rare. Here and there, we have a person’s will. The epic poem Beowulf and Icelandic sagas are useful resources, but as Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger explain in The Year 1000, the translation of everything written between 500 and 1000 A.D. would not fill one carton, whereas the Starr investigation produced thirty-six cartons of material.

In comparing the research and 0ndings of various scholars, hordes of inconsistencies arise. For example, Cordoba, Spain, was Europe’s largest city in 1000, but its population could have been anywhere from 250,000 to 750,000, depending on the source of the information. England’s population was 4.5 million in 1000, according to William Manchester’s account of the period, A World Lit Only by Fire; yet the Domesday Book, an early property census, recorded only 275,000 heads of household in 1100, just a century later, suggesting a total population of only 1.5 million to 2 million. Qualitative descriptions, too, are plagued with ambiguity and dissonance. For example, scholars debate whether most European villages had names. As historians Will and Ariel Durant wrote, “History is mostly guessing; the rest is prejudice.”

All things considered, in the history of the planet, a millennium is a dot on the timeline. Proportionately, 1,000 years on the continuum of geologic time would represent far less than a mile of a trip around the entire world. The earliest life on Earth dates back at least 4 billion years. The earliest discovered remains of human ancestors date back 4 million to 6 million years. The species Homo sapiens appears to date back as far as 250,000 years. People—as we now recognize them—go back 11,000 years. The agricultural innovation of plowing was developed just 5,000 years ago. It is sobering to think that many geologists view these past 11,000 years as the single longest stretch of human-compatible weather on most reaches of the planet. Humans have overstayed the Earth’s welcome by about the same 1,000 years that we currently commemorate.

1-So far, the dating of the earliest known living things on Earth takes us back at least 4 billion years. If anyone strictly adhered to the march of time, the year in which we happen to live (counted from the years since creation) would be at least ten digits long.

A copy of the full report is available below.