One of the presentations that I do to introduce mediaeval life to young children, talks about the difficulty in of keeping your peasants active and involved during the quiet seasons. I outline for them a situation where a family of peasants would be living in a small, enclosed environment, for months at a time during the snow season. Then I get the students to identify the physical and emotional effects of this sort of isolation. They quickly realise that it’s important for your local Baron or Baroness to make you come down to the Hall two to three times a week to participate in dancing and exercise, social activity and team sports.
Such is life in a rural environment. Isolation is a bigger problem than the concentrations that you would get in big cities. By contrast, truly great monuments, are often the by-product of too much concentration of people.
Fantasy writer David Eddings, in his Belgariad series, discusses the winter camp of one of the great horse herding tribes in his world. They have built an enormous fortification, because there is little to do when gathered to the quiet season, except that the tribes to compete to see who can haul the most stone.
Consider the alternatives? You get a large group of people together in a small place, and give them nothing to do long periods. Thick snow on the ground means that outside exercise is very difficult, and there is only so much social interaction that can happen without consuming too much alcohol and making the situation explosive. If you gather enough people together long enough, with little enough to do, your basic result is going to be rowdiness - potentially leading to violence and crime.
So you have projects instead. Competitions to see who can build the highest walls would certainly be a good idea in areas that felt themselves under threat. (Take a look at the vast earthworks of Iron Age fortifications, to see how communities might have spent their time when not busy farming.) Certainly many impressive walls around otherwise unimportant settlements in ancient and mediaeval society’s, can be more easily explained by keeping people busy during the off-season, than by the sheer economic value of building such vast constructions.
Another approach, probably more significant in areas feeling themselves less under threat, is to make the project an exploration of religious values. We have good descriptions of the outpourings of enthusiasm that led to the erection of some of the great mediaeval cathedrals in Europe. There are even examples of stone, ferried by water or horse cart for many miles, being detached from its carriage and pushed bodily up the hill’s by enthusiasts in the throes of religious rapture.
The image that you get here, including the use of rollers to move the stones, immediately brings to mind some of the ancient monuments, which we still wonder about. Certainly the pictures that we assemble ourselves to demonstrate how the stones might be moved to the great pyramids, fit into the same mould. The latest research tends to indicate that the pyramids were not slave constructed, but were in fact produced by the local farming communities, presumably during the off season around the annual flooding of the Nile.
The research that I have seen on the building of the pyramids is unclear whether the issue was one of excess of religious enthusiasm on the part of Pharoes trying to absolve themselves of the earthly sins; or just a matter of ‘well what civic engineering project can we make them do this year to keep them quite’. I am sure all the components of the two overlapped very efficiently. After all, most rulers are willing to have a bit each way in the ‘satisfy your subjects and satisfy your God’s’ stakes. Certainly it is probably easier to get your peasants and labourers to work through their quiet season, if you can wave some religious brownie points over their heads in the process.
The issue of how to deal with excess population, or excess energy of otherwise underemployed population, has been a constant theme of history. I did an exercise during my postgraduate studies to compare a cumulative frequency graph of the Crusades, with the population graph for Western Europe. It would probably surprise few people to hear that the highest rises in population, and the highest numbers of excess sons to employ, coincided with the fastest frequency of crusades - both within and with out Europe. Indeed the most notable correlation was how a few crusades were run outside Europe once the Great Famine of 1314-5 and the Black Death reduced the need for foreign adventures. You still get crusades of course, but they are close to home where you have a chance of hanging on to some nice real estate. There is no longer the need for packs of younger sons to maraud through exotic foreign climes to establish their own principalities. (Benito Mussolini noted in the 1920s that Italy was having too many babies to support within the peninsulae. His solution of course, was to encourage people to have more babies, so that Italy could then conquer new lands to spread into.)
Central and South America could provide other interesting examples of this sort of social control phenomenon. Their version of the great pyramids included elements not only of a work for the dole scheme, but also of reducing population pressure in a far more direct manner. Once again there is probably no reason to doubt that’s the rulers in society’s like that of the Aztecs, would have been delighted to combine the civic virtues of religious piety, with the practical management skills of culling populations of unruly tribes and potential enemies – or just potential troublemakers.
It is even possible that many explorations of new lands, or inaugarations of new trade groups, could simply have been the result of needing to find a way of keeping obnoxious relatives, or unruly tribesmen, busy. Viking tourists in North America; Chinese silk traders in the Middle East; and Maori gourmonds in New Zealand; might all have been the result of frustrated matriarchs ordering the useless loafers to go on find something useful to do until planting time.
It is fascinating to wonder just how many of our man-made wonders of civilisation have been less to do with piety, or good urban planning, and more to do with “so how do we keep them buggers busy and out of trouble?”