Today, for a few hours, we have had no power. Not an unexpected power cut, this was planned. We were sent a letter weeks before – a temporary interruption for regular maintenance. It was to last from 12.00 to 3.00 pm.
I wouldn’t say this caused panic, but we filled vacuum flasks with boiling water for hot drinks and charged our mobile phones. We tried to think of something to do that didn’t involve using the computer. We even considered going out for the duration.
Then it struck me, this is a modern problem. Only a few years ago we would have taken it in our stride – I remember the seventies, with regular power cuts, the Three-Day Week. But look further back, before the age of reliable electricity, to how life was lived by most people throughout history.
There was The Hearth. I mention it all the time in my books. People huddle round it on winter nights, they cook food on it, they use it to dry clothes when they come in from the rain. Why else are a warrior’s friends called his hearth companions. But a fire (usually) means wood. Someone had to collect small twigs for kindling, chop logs. Probably a large part of the population spent most of their time at this job. Of course it was not the rich men who did this. It would have been the servants, the slaves.
Consider the slaves. How had they become slaves? Most people imagine someone beaten in battle, or captured in some raid, sold in some foreign market. Or perhaps you were the child of a slave and therefore a slave yourself. Surely no-one would willing become a slave? What about a poor man in a hut? He has a family, he works hard, growing crops, perhaps he has an animal or two, he collects wood for a fire, because without it he would die. He has an accident, or suffers some illness. What can his family do but ask their lord for help? They become slaves.
Gradually, land was enclosed. The old system of open fields, common land for grazing and woods where fuel could be collected. Of course, this was organised by the rich men of the village. They had their farms or large estates, but it left the poorest without the means of survival. They had a choice – they could work, for wages, on the farms, or in the big house, or they could leave. This was the time when towns began to grow. If you couldn’t find a job, you might turn to crime. If unsuccessful at that, you were caught, and your troubles were over. You would be executed or transported – somewhere warm!
Throughout history there have been Power-Full men (and they were usually men). The rest, the women, the children and the poor were Power-Less. Not because of money, land or status, but for what it provided; the life-giving access to a hearth or its equivalent.
We should be grateful that today, we have heat and light available at the flick of a switch. Without power I could not type out this post and send it to you, across the wires and through the air. In the past, if had wanted to tell this to anyone, I would have gone out and spoken to someone or sent a letter – if I could write. I probably wouldn’t bother. I’d be too busy – collecting wood.
And after all the preparation, the power was only off for half an hour – while we were eating our lunch!