Bits of Books - Books by Title

Centuries of Change:

Which Century Saw the Most Change, and Why It Matters to Us

Ian Mortimer

The human race in 1001 was not just illiterate, superstitious, ignorant of the outside world, but it also faced continual hardships and dangers. Hunger and deprivation were common. Society was violent. And there was still the threat of invaders - the last Viking raid was 1001 when they burned Exeter.

The Catholic Church sidelined the pagan religions - monarchs found it useful because it reinforced their authority. In C11 it changed from being simply a faith, into a vast organized system that governed how you lived and died.

Feudal system to counter the almost universal violence and maritime raids. Rulers created specialist forces of mounted, armed soldiers. But the horses and armour were expensive, and it took years of training to learn to fight on horseback. So they were endowed with estates to support them, and a new privileged class emerged. Local communities fed and equipped their armed lords who then protected them.

The Crusades were an obvious feature of the C11 and 12, but the biggest change was simply due to climate change - the Medieval Warm Period. Although the average temperature only increased a a degree or two, it was enough to avert the risk of two successive harvest failures (which was what killed off many of the poor) and it meant previously marginal land became useful, so more food, and so more children who survived to adulthood.

From the 1190's onwards, both government and ecclesiastic officers started to keep proper records. Central govt had got too big to be anything else; it now passed from "memory to written record". Where did all the clerks come from to keep these records? The rapid demographic and economic growth from the favourable climate were a threat to traditional rights, so it was important to record all the transactions that were now taking place to reflect changes in society. So education developed to provide for this demand for literate men.

Beginning of C14 marked by famines. First few years bad harvests due to cold and rain, but then terrible famines 1315-19 as harvest failed in consecutive years and an estimated 10 million people (10% of Europe's population) starved to death. But much worse was to come. The Black Death hard to comprehend from today. In WW1 the British mortality rate was 1.5% of the population over 4 years, or about 0.4% each year. The Black Death killed 45% of population of England over a period of 7 months in 1348-9.

It was the long term consequences that mattered - both secular and spiritual. Medieval society was exceptionally rigid, with people seeing their place in society as being determined by God. Massive shortage of manpower meant a tied tenant could walk off the land and get a well paid job in the nearest town, or he could get a better deal from a neighbouring landowner with land uncultivated because tenants had died or fled.

And profound shake to peoples' faith - how could a just and kind God stand by and let even little children suffer such a terrible death?

Columbus's main intellectual contribution was the realization that the Greeks and Romans didn't actually know everything. If they could miss an entire continent out of their knowledge, what else might they have missed?

Martin Luther's 95 Theses questioned the pope's authority. If he truly had the power to release souls from purgatory, why didn't he simply release them from their suffering?

The Reformation wound up shifting power from the Church to the monarchy in even Catholic states. From reign of Elizabeth I on, all churchmen appointed by the Crown, and same applied in France. And the official religion of the state was the religion of the ruler, so opposition to the king was not just treason, it was heresy as well.

Firearms made it far too dangerous for a king to lead troops into battle, so now left it to the professional soldiers. In the past, if a king was defeated in battle, this was a sign of God's displeasure. But now warfare became secular, and defeat just meant that the commander was incompetent.

Guns meant had to go back to big armies, because the more guns won. This meant standing armies needed, because couldn't just draft the peasants from the fields and expect them to shoot straight in battle. This meant higher taxation to fund and equip the armies.

You might expect that guns would increase homicides, but in fact the reverse happened. In C13 and 14, English towns could reach 110 homicides per 100,000 people, which was close to the rate of Dodge City, the most dangerous town in the Wild West, at it's worst. Two of the 145 murders in London in 1278 were over games of chess.

Several suggestions to explain drop in murders. Author plumps for the increased power of the state and its determination to punish fighting and violence. If you were committing crime, you didn't only have to worry about your victim taking revenge, you also had to worry about him complaining to the authorities, who had more force available to punish you.

Average life expectancy actually dropped in C17. Impact of the Little Ice Age which reduced temps and increased rain and flooding enough that there were often years of repeat crop failure and famine. In earlier centuries average life expectancy had often reached 40, and apart from the Black Death years, never dipped below 30. But in a particularly bad year such as 1658, it dropped to 24. Poor harvests not only affected the farmer's family who didn't have enough to eat, or who had to eat their seed crops for the next year, but it also raised the cost of food, so that there was less employment, and so less food, for the artisans and tradesmen in the local towns.

Increased awareness that wisdom of the ancients was fallible. Tycho Brahe's supernova of 1572 was obviously a new part of the supposedly fixed, crystalline firmament. The invention of the telescope let astronomers everywhere see for themselves whether Kepler was correct in saying that the planets orbited the Sun.

Immanuel Kant described the Enlightenment as the ability to think for yourself, free from convention and dogma.

C19 was the age of invention, even more so that C20. Trains, buses, internal combustion engine, electric light, sound recording, flush toilets, books printed on cheap wood pulp.

Railways increased homogeneity of society - for the first time it became impt that everyone was on the same time. Before the railways, buildings were made out of local materials; now it became economic to ship cheap, durable bricks anywhere. local markets died out as farmers sent their stock to bigger centers.

They were also hugely disruptive, and many simply could not cope with the changes. From 1845 every county in Britain was required to open a lunatic asylum and they filled with women who simply stared blankly at the walls, or ripped off their clothes and made fervent religious speeches, or men with fantastic stories of wealth that had been stolen from them, or who passionately wanted to have sex with Queen Victoria.

The other transport revolution was the bicycle. Without the expense of a horse and stable, people could travel for miles, both for work or leisure.

Cities have three things in common - stench, over-crowding and beggars. If it lacks even one of these it means it has been laid out according to some bureaucrat or despot's rule.

British workers were the first to have enough leisure time to invent new games to fill it - so all the most popular team games, particularly soccer, rugby and cricket, come from there.

War has a beneficial effect on health. The people who were shot, bombed, shelled or starved by war would not see it that way, but the simple fact is that wars require fit healthy men to fight them. WW1 saw a rapid escalation in govt care for the workforce - health and safety regs, chlorinating water, improved medical care.

(London Times)

IN A year dominated by memories of the First World War, it is worth remembering that, terrible as it was, the conflict was very far from being Britain's greatest disaster in the last 1,000 years. When the Black Death arrived in the early summer of 1348, its effect might be compared with a nuclear holocaust. In the country's two biggest cities, London and Norwich, the plague killed four out of 10 people. In some rural parishes, the death toll was as high as 80%. In just seven months, almost half of the English population were wiped off the map. Across Europe, entire villages were left deserted. 'So many died,' wrote an observer in Siena, 'that everyone believed it was the end of the world.'

As the medieval historian Ian Mortimer points out in the preface to his provocative and enjoyable new book, it is the arrogance of modernity to think we live in uniquely eventful times, even though none of us has ever experienced a cataclysm like the Black Death. Indeed, almost every day we tell ourselves that we are living through an age of unprecedented change. But is this really true? It is to this question that Mortimer, who found a popular new way of introducing readers to the past in his 'time-traveller's guides', now addresses himself. Did the 20th century, he wonders, really see more change than the 19th, when railways transformed the world, or the 16th, when Copernicus suggested that the Earth rotates around the Sun and Luther broke the Christian Church in two?

You might think that such a project would take decades to complete and several thousand pages to explain. In fact, Mortimer zips through the last 10 centuries in barely 350 pages, sacrificing depth for speed and accessibility. He concentrates on events in the West - indeed, Africa and Asia barely get a look-in - and above all on England, often using his home town of Moretonhampstead, in Devon, as an example. It is true that his enterprise is basically a glorified parlour game; in fact, I had to write a school essay on the same subject when I was 13. Yet almost every page of this engaging book sets your mind racing with almost unanswerable questions. Which were more important: castles or markets? Railways or aeroplanes?

If Mortimer's book has a weakness, it is that some of the material is very familiar. As soon as you see the words 'the 15th century', you know that Columbus is coming. But he digs up plenty of surprising nuggets. I had never realised, for instance, that during the reign of William the Conqueror, as many as one in 10 people were slaves, or that as late as the 1840s, the average age of death among Bethnal Green labourers was just 16. And he is good at bringing home the excitement of technological innovations. After all, none of us will ever know what it must have been like to be a French ballooning enthusiast, cheering Jean-Pierre Blanchard in 1785 after his ground-breaking 150- minute trip across the Channel, or an English photography buff in the 1870s, gazing at images of Angkor Wat for the first time.

For me, one of the obvious lessons of Mortimer's book is that in the long run, kings and politicians are much less important than we think. The great trends that have changed places like Moretonhampstead - the rise of travel and trade, the agricultural and industrial revolutions, the development of steam power and electricity - would surely have happened even if, say, Adam Smith, Richard Arkwright and Thomas Edison had never been born. Perhaps surprisingly, though, Mortimer still tries to claim some importance for the individual. At the end of each chapter, he nominates one man (and it is always a man), who was most instrumental in the century's changes. Some of his choices, such as Martin Luther and Galileo, seem obvious. But did Edward III really change the 14th century more than anyone else? Was Karl Marx really the most important individual of the 19th century? Still, I suppose there can be no right answer: we really are in parlour-game territory.

In his conclusion, Mortimer ranks the centuries by social and cultural impact, although some of his criteria - 'community support' and 'personal enrichment', for example - seem distinctly woolly. The winner is no surprise: the 20th century, followed closely by the 19th. When you think of the extraordinary expansion in our life expectancy, living standards and cultural opportunities, there can surely be no argument. Yet as Mortimer points out, we should hesitate to see this as a reason for optimism about the future. Almost all the great technological advances of the last two centuries were based on our consumption of energy, and particularly fossil fuels. But now that resources are running low, Mortimer writes, the 'boundary-breaking mentality is out of date'. For the first time, he thinks, our greatest challenge is not to make life better, but to cling onto the gains we have won already.

If this sounds depressing, Mortimer's afterword is even gloomier. Looking into the future, he paints a chilling scenario of surging inequality, growing resource poverty, the death of democracy and a collapse in living standards. Indeed, he positively wallows in misery, telling us that 'prostitution will again be rife' and a 'de facto slave class is likely to re-emerge across the whole of the West'. There is an alternative, he suggests: a cheerful sustainable future, based on co-operation, innovation and eco-responsibility. To me, however, neither of these scenarios seems terribly plausible, since both rely on an extreme view of human nature. The most likely fate for mankind, I think, is that we will carry on muddling through, as we always have. But this, of course, is yet another parlour game.

More books on Society

Books by Title

Books by Author

Books by Topic

Bits of Books To Impress