Tense shoulders, strained eyesight and sore backs are not an invention of the modern world. This became clear when I time-travelled back to the Middle Ages at a French village festival recently. Watching demonstrations of medieval crafts and pastimes I saw how easily these everyday activities could lead to poor body use.
The village was a stronghold for Knights Hospitaller from the 12th century onwards, so the first person to catch my eye was the maker of chain mail. He let me feel the weight of a square he was constructing. This really was heavy metal – ten to thirteen kilos per suit – and hot, absorbing the heat of the sun when outside. Each suit took three months to make, working eight hours a day. Foot soldiers were protected from head to hips, but the full metal jacket for knights on horseback weighed more heavily, extending as far as the knees.
In the history of metalworking, chainmail preceded full body armour. It was cheaper to make and allowed more flexibility. But with all that weight it would have been difficult to keep upright and breathe without restriction. Using a sword was hard, according to my knight in shining armour, as the padding under the mail restricted movement in the wrist.
I moved on, taking in the breezy walk of a man carrying a large leg of ham, while the signwriter patiently finished his work before the tavern opened. The blacksmith wielded her hammer with balanced ease in the heat of the portable forge, and I dodged down a side street to watch the patient skills of the lacemaker.
Wearing glasses and working confidently in bright sunshine, she talked through the complex and colourful pattern she was following. The local buildings have thick stone walls and few window openings, and I saw that without daylight or electricity the process of lacemaking would take its toll on the eyes. I saw how easy it would be to peer ever closer, worrying about mistakes and increasing tension in the arms and hands.
Of all the people I observed that day, the falconer seemed most at ease. A professional rather than a villager dressed up, he seemed at one with the birds of prey, perhaps because he used his voice and body carefully to keep the hawks calm and show them what he wanted.
He moved quietly and quickly, ahead of the birds, ducking through the crowds to give excited spectators the experience of an owl swooping silently over their heads. He put on a show while keeping a watchful eye on the mood and hunger of each bird as he called them back to his comfortably outstretched arm.
There were few phones, screens or laptops on display at the festival. But I saw plenty of opportunity for peering, straining, making excess effort and pulling down rather than standing tall, moving freely and looking up and out. I realised it’s not the activities we do that create tension, it’s us.