May 4, 2017


Which century saw the most change? (Ian Mortimer, November 2014, BBC History Magazine)

12th century: The ecclesiastical superhighway

Hundreds of new monasteries - established by men seeking a greater understanding of God - triggered an explosion in the dissemination of knowledge

You might think that monks, having withdrawn from the world, could not have much impact on what went on outside their cloisters. However, so many monasteries were founded in this century that they made an enormous impression. In England and Wales the number of religious houses more than quintupled, from fewer than 140 to over 700. Across the continent, monastic orders became Europe's first pan-European organisations.

Why was this? One of the reasons was the greater stability afforded by castles; another was a slight change in the climate - the Medieval Warm Period - which allowed more crops to be produced, more surpluses to be created and more wealth to be accrued by the lords who held the land.

But there was also a dynamism within the church itself, driven by a widespread desire to understand God. The success of the first organised monastic order, the Cluniacs, inspired men to found other orders of ever greater asceticism, such as the Cistercians and the Carthusians.

Through the universal establishment of a parish system the influence of the church at grass-roots level massively increased. And the powerful idea of Purgatory spread across Christendom. By the 1170s people widely believed that they weren't necessarily bound to go straight to heaven or hell but that most of them would temporarily find themselves in limbo. The monasteries they founded, the Masses sung for their souls, and the pilgrimages they undertook could help their souls ascend the ladder to heaven. Or at least improve their chances of avoiding hell -  in some lords' cases, that was the best they could hope for.

The links between all these monks and cathedral canons can be compared with the networking power of the internet in our own day. Monasteries and cathedral schools had libraries in which they stored information. They taught men to read and facilitated the composition of new texts and the copying of old ones, thereby both creating and preserving knowledge. Monks travelled between monasteries, especially other houses of the same order, spreading news and sharing the latest theological, scientific and historical works.

As a result, when scholars started translating the wisdom of ancient Greek and Roman writers from the Arabic copies in southern Spain and Sicily, there was a network through which to disseminate this knowledge. The rediscovery of the works of writers such as Aristotle and Ptolemy forced scholars - many of whom were clerics - to rethink the principles of knowledge.

13th century: Money flexes its muscles

As new markets sprang up across Europe, hard cash began to rival land ownership as the principal source of power

You might take the coins in your pocket for granted but there was a time when people scarcely used money. Barter played an important role in transactions in the early Middle Ages, and feudal obligations an even more important one. As the population grew larger, however, and markets were established to supply people's needs, money became almost the only form of doing business.

About 1,400 new markets were founded in England over the course of the 13th century, in addition to the 300 that already existed. Most of these new foundations failed. But 345 of them were still going strong in 1600 - over half of all England's extant markets in that year. It was a similar story on the continent.

A market made an enormous difference to people's standard of living. Whereas previously they had to make many items at home, now they could buy them. In city markets and fairs, they could obtain the more exotic items for the first time. By 1300, sugar and spices such as pepper, cinnamon and cloves were beginning to appear in France and England, along with silk and previously unimagined dyes.

To facilitate the growth of trade, coins of larger denominations were minted. The Italians pioneered banking, with branches in most European capitals.
Over the course of the century, the feudal structure of society - in which tenure of land was the all-important factor - came to be rivalled by the power of money. [...]

16th century: The word of God in plain English

Literacy soared and murder rates plummeted as William Tyndale's ground-breaking Bible rolled off the printing press

Johannes Gutenberg - who produced the first printed Bible in 1455 - is frequently credited with changing the world with his printing press. Yet in the 15th century, books were largely printed in Latin and were expensive. People who could not already read had no interest in them. It was the publication of the Bible in the vernacular that changed the world - Mentelin's German Bible in 1466, Malermi's Italian version in 1471, the French Bible Historiale in 1487, and Miles Coverdale's revision of William Tyndale's English Bible in 1539.
A book that people not only wanted to understand, but could also teach them to read, shifted European society towards the written word. It allowed individuals to consider the word of God personally, without the need for the intervention of a priest. It permitted sceptics to question the authority of the Catholic church.

It also had a major impact on secular society. In England male literacy increased from about 10 per cent to 25 per cent - while female literacy rose from 1 per cent to about 10 per cent. For the first time, women could address other women and attack the extreme sexism in society.

Writing also extended the influence of the state to local and personal affairs. Due to the improved administration of law and order, for example, the murder rate across much of Europe halved. [...]

18th century: A human rights revolution

Europe's leading thinkers clustered to the flame of the Enlightenment and challenged the state's right to repress its people

It goes without saying that the Bill of Rights that emerged from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (when William III and II accepted the throne vacated by James II and VII) had the most enormous impact in England. But it also had a major impact on the thinkers who clustered like moths around the flame of the Enlightenment. Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau and others were inspired. Rousseau in particular argued in The Social Contract (1762) that a state is unjust if it unduly represses the freedom of the individual. The French Revolution formulated its objectives largely around his ideas. And that event heralded the rethinking of the social contract - the relationship between the individual and the state - across Europe.

It was not just the political outlook that changed. Society was affected at a humanitarian level too. The execution rate dropped and, following the publication of Cesare Beccaria's On Crimes and Punishment (1764), the death penalty was abolished altogether in some countries. Flogging, burning and maiming also declined and religious intolerance weakened in the latter part of the century. Economic attitudes became more liberal too, as rigid mercantilist policies gave way to free trade.

Taken together these developments meant that the Anglosphere achieved the End of History by 1776.

Posted by at May 4, 2017 6:07 AM