Ian Mortimer


Human Race (UK)
Millennium (USA)

(UK hardback published as 'Centuries of Change')


'Printing, gunpowder and the compass - these three have changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world.'
Francis Bacon, Novum Organum (1620)

One evening towards the end of 1999, I was at home watching the news on television. After the presenter had delivered the main stories of the day, she started to introduce a résumé of what I thought would be the events of the past twelve months, as usual on such late-December evenings. That year, however, she began a review of the whole twentieth century. 'As we draw to the end of the century that has seen more change than any other...' she began. I caught those words in my mind, held them there, and started thinking about them. What do we really know about change? I wondered. What makes this presenter so confident that the twentieth century saw more change than, say, the nineteenth, when railways transformed the world? Or the sixteenth, when Copernicus suggested that the Earth rotates around the Sun, and Luther broke the Christian Church in two? Soon black and white movies, a mushroom cloud, space rockets, cars and computers began to fill my television screen. The presenter's statement that the twentieth century had seen more change than any other was clearly based on the assumption that 'change' is synonymous with technological development - and that the twentieth century's innovations were without parallel.

In the years that have passed since that day, I have talked about 'change' with a great many people. When asked the question 'Which century saw the most change?', almost everyone agrees with the newsreader: surely it is the twentieth. Some people laugh at the very idea that I could even consider it to be any other. When pressed to explain, they usually respond by pointing to one or more of five twentieth-century inventions: flight, the atomic bomb, the Moon landing, the Internet and the mobile phone. They seem to believe that these modern achievements make everything else that went before inferior, and that change in previous centuries was barely noticeable by comparison. This seems to me to be an illusion - in respect of the assumption both that modern achievements represent the most significant changes and that pre-modernity was relatively static. Just because a certain development reached its apogee in the twentieth century does not mean that it was then that it changed at the fastest rate. The illusion is further reinforced by the instinct to prioritise events that we have seen with our own eyes, either in the flesh or on TV, over events that do not have a living witness.

Only a small minority of people immediately see the potential candidature of a century other than the twentieth. This is normally because they have a specialism that makes them acutely aware of the consequences of an earlier technological development - be it the stirrup, the horse-drawn plough, the printing press or the telephone. I have not kept count, but it would be a fair approximation to say that when I have posed the question 'Which century saw the most change?', 95 per cent of people have answered 'the twentieth century' for technological reasons; most of the remainder have suggested an earlier century on the strength of a different technological reason; and just a small handful of individuals have mentioned a non-technological event prior to 1900, such as the Renaissance or the campaign for the rights of women. As far as I remember, no one has ever suggested a century before 1000, even though one could make a good case for the fifth, which saw the collapse of the western half of the Roman Empire.

Some people reply by asking a question of their own: 'What do you mean by change?' On the face of it, it is an obvious response. But it is also a curious one. Everyone knows what change is - an alteration of state. Yet when asked to identify the century that saw the greatest change, people seem to lose their grasp of the meaning of the word. The collective human experience over a long period of time is just too huge in scope for us to think of the myriad changes it incorporates - taken together, all the different factors are unmeasurable. We can calculate certain specific changes across the centuries - life expectancy at birth, reproductive rates, longevity, height, per capita calorific intake, labourers' average wages - and for a large proportion of the last thousand years we can measure such things as church attendance, levels of violence, relative wealth and literacy; but to measure any one of these things accurately we have to isolate it from all the other aspects of our lives. We cannot measure differences in ways of living. It is like measuring love.

Actually, it is considerably more difficult than measuring love. At least love can be related to a scale - say, from considering sending a Valentine's Day card to launching a thousand ships to win back your loved one. Lifestyles cannot be related to a scale. Any quantifiable change that might be considered the most significant can be countered by another quantifiable change. For example, the twentieth century certainly saw the greatest growth in expectancy of life at birth: it increased by more than 60 per cent in most European countries. But against this it could be held that individual men and women had much the same potential lifespan in previous centuries. Even in the Middle Ages, some men and women lived to 90 years of age or more. St Gilbert of Sempringham died in 1189 at the age of 106; Sir John de Sully died in 1387 at 105. Very few people today live any longer than that. True, there were comparatively few octogenarians in the Middle Ages - 50 per cent of babies did not even reach adulthood - but in terms of the maximum lifespan possible, there was little change across the whole millennium. As soon as people try to find a measurable fact with which to answer the 'greatest change' question, other measurable facts get in the way. Why select one rather than another? As the example of life expectancy as opposed to life potential shows, it is purely a matter of personal preference.

This might suggest the question is nothing more than a parlour game: a matter of curiosity and amusing debate, along the lines of 'Who was the greatest king of England?' But actually it is a serious matter. As I have tried to show in my Time Traveller's Guides, understanding human society in different periods of time gives us a more profound view of the nature of mankind than the relatively superficial impressions we get by looking at the way we live today. History helps us to see the full range of our capabilities and inabilities as a species; it is not just a nostalgic look back on the way things were. You cannot get the present in perspective without looking at the past. It is only through looking back to the fourteenth century, for example, that we can see how resilient we are in the face of adversities as cataclysmic as the Black Death. It is only through looking back to events such as the Second World War that we can see how innovative, highly organised and productive we can be when faced with a massive crisis. Similarly, looking at the history of Western governments over the last hundred years teaches us how myopic and short-termist we are in today's Western democracies, in which politicians pander to the whims of society and seek instant solutions to our problems. Only dictators plan for a thousand years. It is history that teaches us how violent, sexist and cruel our own societies have been - and could be again. While historical study has many purposes, from understanding how our modern world has evolved to learning how we entertain ourselves, the most profound purpose of all is to reveal something of the nature of humanity, in all its extremes.

This book is my somewhat belated response to the question implied by that newsreader in December 1999. However, I ought to say that in attempting to determine the century that has seen more change than any other, I have set certain parameters. The first is that I deliberately retain the ambiguous and vague definition of 'change' so as to encompass the greatest range of potential developments that might be considered within each century. Only in the Conclusion do I attempt to disentangle and grade them. The second is that I consider just ten centuries: the millennium that constituted the run-up to the year 2000. This is not to deny the importance of earlier periods but rather to keep Western culture in focus. I did not want this book to become yet another list of 'turning points' in world history. The third is that the book is about change within Western culture, which is largely a product of the countries that constituted Christendom in the Middle Ages. I only expand the study to a wider context in those centuries in which the inheritors of that Latin-writing world themselves reached beyond the oceans. Thus in this book 'the West' is not a geographical unit but an expanding cultural network originally centred on the Christian kingdoms of medieval Europe. Obviously I do not mean to belittle medieval cultures outside Europe - this book is about change, not pre-eminence. If I had considered my question since the birth of Homo sapiens as a species, Africa would have featured heavily. If I had considered it from the end of the last Ice Age, the Middle East would have figured more prominently. If I had attempted to chart all the significant ups and downs of human civilisation, factors such as the use of tools, the control of fire, the inventions of the wheel and the boat, and the development of language and religion would all have been taken into consideration. But these are other histories, and beyond the parameters of this book.

While this book is not a history of the whole world, it is also not a comprehensive history of a set of countries or a region. Many of the greatest events in national histories do not feature here, or are mentioned only in passing. Although certain invasions marked significant national changes - the Norman conquest of England, for example, or the arrival of US Commodore Perry in Tokyo Harbour in 1853 - these were relatively local events. Geographically specific elements can be part of the main story (for instance, the Italian Renaissance and the French Revolution) but most of them are peripheral to my central question. German unification was of little importance to, say, the Portuguese, and the Norman invasion of England was of no great interest to Sicilians, who had a Norman invasion of their own with which to contend. Similarly, the rise of slavery in America and the Caribbean appears only in a subsection of the chapter on the seventeenth century. This is because the resurgence of slavery took place on the periphery of what was then the West. Seventeenth-century Europeans were more directly affected by the less substantial white slave trade, which saw hundreds of thousands of people from western Europe stolen by Barbary pirates and sold into slavery in North Africa. But even that did not affect Western culture as much as the five major changes selected for this chapter. The resurgence of slavery, like many national battles, should certainly feature in any world history but this book is no such thing. It is a synthesis of thinking about the development of the West in order to answer a specific question.

This focus on the question means that certain individuals and themes are also given less prominence than they usually receive in general history books. Friends and colleagues have asked 'How can you ignore Leonardo da Vinci?' and 'How can you leave out music?' Although Leonardo was an astonishingly talented man, his technological speculations had almost no impact on anyone in his lifetime. Very few people read his notebooks, nor did they build his inventions. His only important legacy was his painting, but, frankly, I don't see that my way of life would be very different today if one or two Renaissance painters had not been born. Had no one painted portraits that would be a different matter, but the influence of one individual artist is relatively small compared to the impact of, say, Luther or Copernicus. As for music, it is common in every country and has been so for more than a thousand years. Instruments, tunes and harmonies might have altered in form, and there is a case to be made for the ability to record music being a profound change, but the production of music is one of the great constants in human life, and interesting more for its ubiquity than its ability to alter the way we live.

It seems self-evident that the most important changes are those that go beyond national boundaries, entertainment and spiritual values. The most significant ones have an impact far outside their own fields. A scientist who only affects other scientists is, in the context of this book, comparatively inconsequential; likewise a historian who only influences our ideas about the past, or a great philosopher whose ideas only affect other thinkers. A friend of mine who knows far more about philosophy than I thought it strange to read a book that pays so much attention to Voltaire and Rousseau but hardly mentions Hume and Kant, whom he considers far more important. But as he readily acknowledged, this is not a history of philosophy. It just so happens that the messages that Voltaire and Rousseau circulated had a direct impact on the political thinking of the eighteenth century. Kant is barely mentioned for much the same reason that Mozart scarcely appears: his legacy did not directly touch on one of the key changes of the last three centuries. The Parisian revolutionaries in 1789 did not storm the Bastille demanding that the nobility obey Kant's 'categorical imperative'; their leaders were inspired by Rousseau's social contract.

In the course of writing this book, one particular problem has repeatedly arisen. Many of the most important developments in Western culture do not fit neatly within the borders of a single century. So should we consider the development in question when it started or when it had its greatest impact? Do we locate an invention when it was invented or when it became ubiquitous? There is no easy answer to this. On the one hand, it seems obvious that an invention does not change the world until it becomes widely used. Thus the internal combustion engine is described in relation to the twentieth century, not the nineteenth. On the other hand, however, if you only describe a development when its use became common, you ignore its early impact. Most people in the West were unable to read before the nineteenth century, but it would be a grave mistake to ignore the earlier developments in education, particularly those of the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. Also, if we delay describing some developments until they become ubiquitous, they tend to bunch up, creating the false sense of a sudden surge of change in a later century and an equally artificial sense of stasis in the previous one. To describe the Industrial Revolution wholly as a nineteenth-century phenomenon, for example, would be to diminish the sense of industrial change in the eighteenth. It would also ignore people's awareness of technological change happening around them, which considerably pre-dated the point at which they themselves started wearing machine-made clothes. Thus a degree of flexibility has been employed. In response to that newsreader's assertion in 1999, I find it more important that readers understand the wide range of changes that took place over many centuries, rather than setting some arbitrary rules that result in a misrepresentation of the past.

In 2009, I was commissioned to deliver a lecture to celebrate the 1100th anniversary of the foundation of the diocese of Exeter, in south-west England. I took as my theme the question at the heart of this book: which of the last eleven centuries saw the most change? For that occasion I felt I needed not just to illustrate the various changes that had taken place since 909 AD but also to come to some conclusion. In the course of preparing the talk, a pattern emerged from my study that left me thinking that a certain threshold was passed within the time frame under consideration, and that this would continue to affect humanity for ever. The conclusion of this book has developed that original insight. I believe that if humanity survives another thousand years, the change I have selected as the most profound will be regarded as an archetypal moment in human history - as important as the ancient inventions that formed our culture: language, writing, fire, the boat, the wheel and religion.

Rethinking the question in the years since 2009, and walking through high-shelved corridors and library halls to research this book more thoroughly, I have felt overwhelmed by the scholarship of our society, especially the output of the last 60 years. In one library I was struck motionless by the feeling of never being able to know enough to write a book like this properly. Several centuries have threatened to overwhelm me, towering above me like huge shadows. I faced a wall of books about the Crusades and felt as nameless and insignificant as the people hacked to death in the streets of Jerusalem in 1099. I walked into a room of books about eighteenth-century France and almost despaired. Any historian who does not retain a degree of humility in confronting so much evidence is deceiving himself, and anyone who does not admit to his or her inadequacy in writing authoritatively about the human past on this scale is a fraud. Of course I would very much like to know everything in order to supply the most thorough and well-informed answer possible to the question I have raised, but there is only so much information the human mind can retain. In my case I have had the advantage of working in the field of English history since my teenage years, first as an amateur, then as a student, an archivist, and finally as a professional historian and writer. Researching English history for thirty years means that there is an imbalance in this book in that most of the statistics I quote relate to England, but my choice of changes has not been limited to those that have affected this country. Rather I have selected subjects that affected a major part or all of the West and have used English facts and figures where they illustrate the practical aspects of a change or to convey a sense of proportion. That seemed better than ignoring my field of expertise in order to even out the geographical imbalance.

It may well be that you do not agree with my choice of the century that saw the most change. It may well be that you remain defiantly convinced that none of the wars, famines, plagues and social revolutions of the past are as significant as being able to use a mobile phone or buy your weekly groceries via the Internet. It does not matter. The aim of this book is to provoke discussion about what we are and what we have done over the course of a thousand years, as well as what we are capable of doing and what is beyond our capabilities, and to estimate what our extraordinary experiences over the last ten centuries mean for the human race. If a few more people discuss such questions, and thereby realise something about human nature over the long term and consider how that insight can be applied to the future, it will have succeeded.

Ian Mortimer,
Moretonhampstead, Devon

Everything you really need to know about the past - plus a few things you really need to know about the future.