The past is another country –

they do things differently there.

                                          L.P.Hartley. The Go Between.


It starts with the cockerels; first one at the far side of the village, then others join the competition, the bird belonging to the guest hut calling loudly just below.  They soon set the dogs off.   A sow grunts nearby;  her piglet squealing in alarm.  Somewhere a buffalo bellows.  There is a gathering murmer of conversation – a musical dialogue interrupted with long high pitched notes of exclamation.  The cooks come in and rekindle the embers  by pushing the logs into the centre of the fire between the tripod of hearth stones.  Water is heated in the big black iron pot.   The smooth rasp of metal on stone is followed by a busy tapping as vegetables, fresh from the  gardens by the river, are chopped for breakfast.  The aroma  of fresh cut herbs mingles with the smoke which drifts upwards to the rattan roof and  escapes under the eaves.   Within a half an hour, the village has woken up.   

This scene has not changed for a thousand years.  People all over the world used to live and sleep in simple houses with their animals and cook on open fires, but it is something that has disappeared in Western  Europe.   Country towns in England seem so quiet and underpopulated by comparison.

But mediaeval England would have looked, smelt and sounded like rural Laos.  From our perspective, both seem crude, dirty, cold, disorganized  and violent, but they were not.  They were efficient, well regulated societies that by processes of convergent evolution born of necessity and practicality, worked in remarkably similar ways. 

Both communities were run locally with minimal input from central government.  The land and its resources were  owned by the community with usage decided by a committee of village elders.   The community as a whole is responsible for the honesty and good behaviour of the local people and effectively police themselves for most practical purposes.   Because everybody lived together, the community was transparent with little opportunity for secrets and subterfuge.  Both societies were more honest, open and trusting than current day society.  The village shaman or medicine man was  responsible for the health and spiritual welfare of the village and supervised arrangements for birth and death.  The identity of the community was reinforced by beliefs, attitudes and customs around eating, clothing,  marriage, and behaviour.   

This all seems so strange to us because we and our ancestors have witnessed a progressive erosion of community associated with migration to big towns and cities where services have to be organized on a much a formal and regulated basis to cope with larger populations.   Over the last twenty years, this migration has extended to the virtual world wide web of electronic communications.  Such monolithic regulation is achieved  at the expense of community, adaptability and the  kind of common sense that can evaluate every situation on its own merit.   

But things are changing in Laos.  There is a satellite dish and solar panels outside the largest bamboo house and the dark interior of the village store is illuminated by a bank of winking multicoloured lights of the mobile phone chargers.    

This week, as if by fate, my computer short circuited corrupting all my files.   Is this an opportunity?

The Time Traveller’ Guide to Mediaeval England by Ian Mortimer is not a dry historical treatise, it is a living account written as if you have just got off the plane to the middle ages.  No wonder it is so similar to accounts of more remote developing countriest like Laos.  We do, after asll, travel in time.