Ian Mortimer’s magnificent new book ‘Centuries of Change’ describes the myriad ways in which European societies have been transformed over the past thousand years. The following blogs summarise Mortimer’s work and ask just how much progress have we made? This first post takes us up to the end of the seventeenth century.
‘The most profound purpose of history is to reveal something of the nature of humanity in all its extremes.’ Ian Mortimer
European societies in 1000 were illiterate, superstitious and ignorant of the outside world. Hunger and disease were widespread and violence was ever present. The vast majority of people lived off the land.
The Muslim city of Cordoba in Spain and the capital of the Byzantine Empire at Constantinople in Turkey were by far the richest and most sophisticated cities on the continent. The Grand Mosque at Cordoba and the Church of St. Sophia, which still stand today, were built at this time. By comparison, London, Paris and Rome were of minor significance.
One of the greatest changes in the eleventh century was the rise of the Catholic Church to power over the whole of Western Europe.
In 1000, the Pope did not exert authority over the kings of Europe and lacked the means to do so. By 1100, however, the Catholic Church had become a powerful independent political and religious body. Priests and bishops stood apart from the rest of society, having been forbidden to marry and removed from the jurisdiction of secular courts. The appointment of senior clergy was now solely in the hands of the Pope. With churches and clergy in virtually every parish, the Catholic Church was powerful, centralised and expanding.
The church’s power was reflected in a frenzy of building works. With the discovery of new building techniques, churches and castles sprung up throughout Europe. In 1000 there were scarcely any castles, while churches were of modest size. By 1100 there were tens of thousands of castles across Europe, and great cathedrals such as Saint Marks Basilica in Venice, Pisa Cathedral and Durham cathedral now dotted the continent.
The greatest driver of change in the twelfth century was climate. Average temperatures rose across Europe by almost 1 degree in the tenth and eleventh centuries, leading to less severe winters and a marked reduction in crops lost to frost. The resulting decreases in deaths due to starvation led to a marked increase in the population.
During the twelfth century, this larger population cleared ever more land for agriculture, and Europe was transformed from a landscape covered by forests to one dominated by farmland.
The twelfth century also saw a number of developments that would have profound impacts in later centuries.
It saw the beginnings of codified law in Europe, with the founding of the first school of law in Bologna and the establishment of a set of canon laws that applied to all subjects of the church. For the first time, people’s moral behaviour, including their sexual behaviour, was regulated by the church.
The twelfth century also witnessed an enormous injection of new knowledge into Europe with the rediscovery of ancient Greek texts, and the absorption of vast amounts of Arabic learning resulting from Christian conquests in Muslim Spain.
It was during the thirteenth century that European societies became market based economies.
Over the course of the century, market towns became a feature of every community as people across Europe travelled to market to trade goods. The majority of people now came to live within easy travel distance of such towns.
Larger annual markets were also held in various places across Europe, connecting traders from the north and south of the continent. As a result, Europe became linked as never before through commerce.
This increase in trade brought the practice of barter to an end. By 1300 money was the main way of doing business. And with money came banking, as major banking companies – most famously those of Florence, Siena and Lucca – extended credit to traders across Europe.
Education and literacy saw major increases in the thirteenth century. The Lateran Council of 1215 decreed that every church in Christendom with the means to do so should establish a school. A symbiotic relationship between the church and commerce subsequently developed, fuelling a boom in literacy as merchants sought written contracts to secure their commercial deals.
The first European universities were established in this century, including universities in Spain, Portugal, France, England, and, in particular, Italy.
While the preceding centuries had seen an increase in the power of the state over individuals, the thirteenth century saw the first steps towards limiting the power of kings. In England, lords compelled King John to sign the Magna Carta. This acted as a check on royal power by establishing a series of rights and liberties for the English people, including the right to be free from arbitrary arrest.
The English Parliament subsequently grew in importance, with elected representatives of towns and councils, alongside appointed lords and clergy, having a say in the affairs of state.
This was the century of catastrophe in Europe – the century of the Black Death.
In England, the disease killed almost half the population in a period of just seven months. In most parts of France and Italy the death toll was even higher, at around 60 percent.
In visualising the extent of the devastation, Ian Mortimer points out that in order to replicate this death rate today one would need to drop two Hiroshima sized atom bombs per day, every day for seven months.
The pandemic of 1347 however was just the first wave of destruction. The disease returned again in 1362 and in 1374, and then every eight to twelve years for the next three centuries.
Right across Europe people feared that God had decided to destroy humanity entirely.
The fifteenth century was a century of war. Every country in Europe experienced war, including many that were torn apart by civil wars.
The fifteenth century is mostly remembered however as a century of discovery.
Beginning in 1419, Prince Henry of Portugal sent ships every year to push farther south along the coast of north-west Africa. By 1441, Portuguese sailors had sailed beyond the arid coast of the Sahara and returned with gold and slaves.
This success emboldened others. In 1485 Bartolomew Dias, sailing south west away from the African coast, discovered strong south-westerly winds that brought him around the Cape of Good Hope. In 1492 Christopher Columbus finally persuaded King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to finance an expedition to sail due west in an effort to open a direct route to China. Instead, Columbus discovered North America. And in 1497, Vasco da Gama sailed around the Cape and all the way to India.
Then in 1500 Pedro Cabral sailed south west in the hope of picking up the south westerly winds Dias had discovered, but landed instead on the coast of Brazil.
Within just eight years, between 1492 and 1500, Europeans had discovered North and South America, charted the southern half of Africa, and discovered a seaborne route to India. Europeans’ understanding of the world had increased enormously.
This was the century of Magellan, Copernicus, Machiavelli, Galileo and Shakespeare – and Martin Luther whose rebellion against the Catholic Church led to the most dramatic religious upheaval in Europe of the last thousand years.
Although there were already around 250 printing presses in Europe in 1500, 90 percent of Europeans were still illiterate and most books were printed only in Latin. Printing had therefore not yet made a significant impact.
What changed this, with revolutionary consequences, was the printing of the Bible in local languages. It was through the combination of three things – the printing press, the use of local languages, and the spiritual significance of the Bible, (a book almost everyone wanted to read for themselves) – that printing made its’ impact.
That impact was felt most forcefully in Germany, where by 1517 the Bible had been available in German for over fifty years. When, on October 31 that year, Martin Luther nailed his list of 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg’s church, many people had already read the Bible and could see for themselves the gulf that existed between the behaviour of the Church and the teachings of Christ.
Luther’s act of rebellion, which began as an attempt to reform the church from within, quickly led to the fragmentation of Christendom and the start of a hundred years of war in Europe.
One retrograde consequence of the fragmentation of Catholic authority was the fact that individual kings and queens now took it upon themselves to combine religious and political authority. The Reformation thus ushered in an era of increased state oppression and social intolerance. Challenging the monarchs of Europe was now not only a treasonable offence, but was also an offence against god.
The sixteenth century witnessed the invention of firearms in Europe. These new weapons set off an arms race across the continent as rulers rushed to build the greater defences needed to guard against the lethal new weapons. Armies across Europe multiplied in size as a result.
The strengthening of the state in the sixteenth century had some positive impacts on people’s lives. In Europe the increasing effectiveness of the state in upholding the rule of law began to have a marked effect in reducing interpersonal violence. In the fifteenth century the number of homicides had already begun to fall; in the sixteenth century it dropped by half. In fact, between 1500 until 1900 the homicide rate across Europe dropped by fifty percent every hundred years, marking a transformation in people’s lives, as violence became much less of an issue than it had been for previous generations.
Journeys of discovery also continued in the sixteenth century, most notably when Ferdinand Magellan set sail on what was to prove the first circumnavigation of the world. Although Magellan himself died in the Philippines in the course of the voyage, eighteen of his men returned having sailed around the world.
European voyages of discovery however were already resulting in misery for the peoples of the newly discovered lands. By 1600 the conquest of Latin America was well under-way and the transatlantic slave trade had already begun.
Despite the progress of the preceding centuries, famine and disease were widespread in Europe during the seventeenth century.
Severe winters led to famine in France in 1693 and 1694, killing around 1.3 million people. The winter of 1695 killed one tenth of the Norwegian population, while one tenth of Sweden’s population died in the winter of 1696.
The Black Death also continued to recur causing widespread fatalities, while smallpox became a more deadly disease during the century.
The seventeenth century however witnessed the beginning of the Scientific Revolution, which marked a step change in humanity’s ability to cope with famine and disease.
Medical discoveries were a vital part of the scientific revolution. In 1600, over 90 percent of dying men sent for a priest, not for medical help, but to help them save their souls. By 1700 people sent for both the priest and the physician.
Patients were now treated with medicines for specific diseases rather than treatments based on astrology, the taste of a patient’s blood or the colour of his urine. The professionalisation of medicine meant that by 1700 most people could access professional medical help when they needed it.
During the course of the century, Galileo made a series of discoveries that revolutionised our understanding of our place in the natural world and Isaac Newton demonstrated that the universe operated on mathematical laws that could be understood by man.
It was not only the new knowledge that created the revolution, it was also a shift of authority in who determined that knowledge. Although Galileo was famously silenced by the Pope in 1616, just a few decades later papal opinion on scientific matters became much less relevant as people looked to scientists, rather than theologians, for the latest scientific knowledge.
The seventeenth century also saw the further spread of European colonisation.
In the Far East the Dutch had taken control of Java in Indonesia, while the British East India Company had begun the colonisation of India.
In the west, over 250,000 Europeans were living in the American colonies by 1700, including more than 27,000 slaves brought from Africa. French companies had taken possession of most of eastern Canada.
Together with the Spanish and Portuguese possessions in Central and South America, this meant that European states ruled over far more land in America by the end of the seventeenth century than they did in Europe.