Review: Millennium

This 2016 book (subtitle: “From Religion to Revolution: How Civilization Has Changed Over a Thousand Years”) by Ian Mortimer is a fascinating read. Mortimer says he wrote the book in response to the common claim that “everything important has happened in the last century,” which he takes as a sign of ignorance about history more than the outcome of careful consideration. 

In this book, he looks at “culturally Western” (European) history over the past millennium, one century at a time, to review the people, events and changes that made a difference in that hundred year period. This structure really helps organize a massive set of materials in an easy-to-follow and fun manner. I wish my history courses — I remember one called “Ancient and Medieval History” that was far too heavy on kings and wars — had been taught with this structure.

In this “review” I will mention the big trends for each century and give my thoughts on 1,000 years of human history.

1000s: “The eleventh century was when the Catholic Church changed from being simply a faith into which people were baptised to being a vast, organised system that governed how they lived and died” Page 19. The Church played a big role in promoting peace among believers, which directed violence at outsiders (the Crusades). The Church also helped end slavery (hold that thought!) as “slave classes” became Christians (“slave derives from the Slavs, who had not yet been converted to Christianity” page 25). Peace also made more sense as improvements in structural engineering improved castles that could defend territories. 

1100s: The Medieval Warm Period made it easier to grow food and raise children, so population expanded and fields replaced forests. More monks meant more literacy but also logical and rational debates over religious dogma, sec, crime and faith. An intellectual renaissance driven by the “rediscovery” of Greek and Roman works that Muslim scholars had preserved while Europe was lost in its Dark Ages. The Arabic world also brought new ideas (Page 45: “al-Khwarizmi’s Zij al-Sindhind introduced Arabic numerals, the decimal point and trigonometry to the West”). Rationality and knowledge improved medicine by replacing faith in God with systematic care that relied on cause and effect. The rule of law spread as Popes and kings replaced ad-hoc whim with a unified rules that made planning, choices and consequences more predictable. 

1200s: The number of towns and cities exploded as markets grew (Amsterdam’s charter dates from 1275). Trade led to coinage, banks, credit, insurance and record-keeping. This last innovation increased demand for clerks and thus literacy, which was increasingly provided by universities that set standards of conduct and qualification: 

Students read for the degree of Master of Arts by studying the seven liberal arts, divided into the ‘trivium’ (grammar, rhetoric and dialectic) and the ‘quadrivium’ (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music)… By this time it had become usual for any cleric hoping to attain high office in the Church to read for a Master of Arts degree at a university. Methods of debate, scholarship and attaining knowledge had been formalised and distributed systematically across Christendom. Page 68.

Accountability arose when kings and emperors tried to force their nobles to obey and — when they failed — were forced to accept limits on their power and accountability for their promises. This period initiated the right to trial by jury, an end to arbitrary imprisonment (habeas corpus), and the establishment of parliaments that would advise the king (“parler” means to talk in French). Newly established orders of friars (from the French word for brother, frères) created a bridge between the secular and religious worlds, bringing good works and monastic knowledge to the people. Travel was driven by commerce (going to market; seeking exotic goods) as well as accountability (attending parliament), but mostly by the falling risk to those who ventured beyond their home village and into the “alien” world. Travel brought ideas, freedom, and economic gains. The world began to shrink. 

1300s: The Black Death killed 50-60 percent of Europe’s population and triggered big changes. Rigid institutions on land-ownership, serfdom and wages fell as peasants became more valuable. (One of my favorite papers links the Black Death to social mobility to political competition to colonial/world domination.) The Church lost power, women could choose to marry, and capitalism replaced feudalism. Projectile warfare empowered cheap archers over expensive knights. Nationalism based on language, interest or place emerged as people from difference places encountered each other at markets, parliaments or religious gatherings. Although it created bonds among those within the nation, it also led to conflict with those outside of it. Those “us vs them” conflicts were not accidents. They were encouraged by kings (politicians) who needed to raise armies, collect tax revenues, and maintain domestic peace. Nationalism also meant using vernacular languages over Latin, a move that harmed international relations but aided domestic unity (as well as vastly easing literacy and education efforts). 

1400s: The age of discovery was driven mostly by greed, and it set off the colonial disaster whose effects still immiserate many. Columbus was no saint, but he helped by “exploding the myth that everything worth knowing had already been discovered by the Greeks and Romans” (page 116), which encouraged others to challenge conventional wisdom. Measured standardized time shifted power from God (who made time) and the Church (that rang the bells of time) to humans. Normal people could now measure time, synchronize themselves, and even charge interest, independent of God. Individualism stared back from manufactured mirrors and invaded portraits and letters. Private bedrooms and other habits separated people from their community. Realism replaced abstract images with individual observation, as people related the world to themselves. 

1500s: These summary notes do not capture the insights of this book. The rise of wage labor, for example, led to the invention of breakfast as the third meal for people now working for others. It was a very busy century:

By 1600 most people followed a routine that you will probably recognise. They washed their face and hands and cleaned their teeth when they got up in the morning. They had breakfast and went to school or work for about eight o’clock. They ate lunch around midday, and came home and ate supper with metal knives and spoons off plates, warming themselves at a fireplace. They lay down to rest in sheets on a mattress on a proper bed frame, with their head on a soft pillow. If your main concern is the routine of daily life, you may well conclude that the sixteenth century saw the greatest developments of the millennium. Page 131

The Gutenberg Bible was printed in the mid-15th century, but it was in Latin. Literacy and reading rose dramatically when vernacular-language bibles appeared in the late 1400s-early 1500s. Literacy empowered normal people to learn and communicate without needing permission from priests or aristocrats. Governments began keeping records of births and deaths. Scientists could publish and argue from afar. Women could not be “kept in place” when they could learn from others and teach. The Reformation began as a protest against ungodly norms, but it quickly turned into a conflict between rulers and priests, tradition and innovation. The (now “Catholic”) Church was forced to reform. The many flavors of Protestantism led to debates over conduct and fights between church(s) and states. Although the Catholic Church may have deserved to lose power for its corruption, that loss removed a check on State abuse of power. Better guns increased the randomness of death, thereby removing God’s role in victory and defeat. European nations used their military technology to conquor the world Private violence fell as literacy and organized legal systems made State justice more effective than personal revenge. The need for soldiers also displaced violent men from home to abroad, much to the disadvantage of colonized peoples. 

1600s: The Little Ice Age led to famines,  migration around the world, and increased risk taking as people struggled to survive. The scientific revolution grew out of literacy, rational critique and communication changes from earlier centuries. One good result is that persecution of witchcraft stopped. The medical revolution continued as doctors (i.e., “experts with doctorates”) normalized and tested treatments. The colonial era saw wars, opportunistic migration, governments replaced by occupying forces, freedom for settlers and slavery for many. The West’s business was everyone’s business. The social contract and middle classes arose in the Old World as citizens debated (and fought) for power in relation to the State and freedom to enjoy leisure, respectively. 

1700s: It is said that the British departed their newly independent American colonies playing “The World Turned Upside Down.” Indeed:

By comparison to the taste of previous centuries, which could be salty, sour, bittersweet or just plain bitter as the circumstances dictated, the taste of the eighteenth century has a certain fizz to it – like fireworks and string quartets bursting above the mere mud of human tragedy. Page 189

Improved roads, canals and newspapers made it easier to transport people and goods, and communicate ideas around the world. The scientific method and New World crops (e.g., potatoes) combined to drive an agricultural revolution that lowered food prices and raised population. Liberalism arrived via Voltaire, Rousseau and Turgot, all of them advancing the rights of the individual over the nobility or State. Sexual liberation 1.0 had arrived. Economic liberalism arrived via Adam Smith and others who argued for free trade over government monopolies. Some people started to get much wealthier. Capitalism and coal drove the Industrial Revolution and vast increases in output per worker. Political revolution in America replaced a foreign king with a president restrained by a constitution. The French Revolution lead to the deaths of the king, aristocrats and many citizens in the name of “freedom.”

1800s: 54 percent of the people who lived in the last 1,000 years lived in the last two centuries. Are these centuries half our “total value add”? Hard to say, as quality can matter more than quantity. The forces behind this statistical fact were massive population growth as farm productivity grew and urbanism that lowered the costs of goods and services. “England went from 80% rural in 1800 to 70% urban by 1900” (Page 230). Cheaper transport via railways brought synchronized time, “generic architecture”, industrial trade agglomeration, insanity and empty churches. Steamboats and (safety) bicycles took people far and near at record low costs. Telegrams and telephones sped up communication. Public heath saved millions of lives by discovering, treating and preventing infectious diseases (read my paper). Photography brought the “real world” to distant people and created a new standard of truth. Social revolution driven by popular misery resulted in the franchise for most men, the right for women to work or study at university, and expanded educational, health and pension subsidies. 

1900s: Transport shrank the world, spread benefits and increased volatility:

Rapid modernisation forced the citizens of these nations to go through the same process of skills specialisation that had taken place in Europe and America in the nineteenth century. Many non-Western countries were therefore forced to come to terms with the Scientific, Medical, Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions in the course of just a few decades. It is no coincidence that as transport networks widened, food yields increased, population expanded, urbanisation increased and literacy rose. In 1900 only 13 per cent of the world’s population lived in towns and approximately 20 per cent could read and write. In 2000 half the world lived in urban areas and over 70 per cent were literate. The whole world was forced to compete in a marketplace created by transport links and the movement of capital and goods. Page 267

Wars killed many but survivors shared what remained as they lived longer lives. The media organized the informal flows of information that had intensified over the last few centuries. Electronics gave us cheap powerful toys but also separated us from the “means of production,” just as the invention of “The Future” made us think about sustainability, population, technology and society. Science fiction was a bet on future lives. 

In the conclusion of his book, Mortimer spends some time deciding which century was the most important by ranking them by their impact on meeting needs, as ordered by Maslow (read the book for details).

Then he predicts our future by shifting attention from our “demand” for the good life to the “supply” of resources those goods depend upon. Although I do not agree with the details of his analysis (he worries about running out of oil; I worry about pressures on the commons), I agree that:

The challenge now is not one of expansion but self-containment: a series of problems with which the all-conquering male is ill-equipped to deal. We, Homo sapiens, have never before had to face the problem of our own instincts threatening our continued existence; they have always been for our benefit, the survival of our genes. The frontiers we face now lie not on the horizon – or even in space – but inside our own minds. Page 324, my emphasis.

In this review, I have skipped Morrison’s discussions of each century’s most influential figure, but his discussion of the figure of the millennium leads to this interesting observation:

In highlighting this absence of truly influential women in the past, I hope to draw attention to the capacity for things to be different in the future. I wrote above: ‘The challenge now is not one of expansion but self-containment: a series of problems with which the all-conquering male is ill-equipped to deal.’ The emphasis on the male in that statement was not accidental. The character traits we commonly associate with women, which are less to do with testosterone-fuelled conquests and more to do with nurturing and protection, are much better suited to lead us into the future. If men change in their nature, then no doubt women will do too – and there is a significant danger in that: there will be no advantage for the world if women simply take on male traits. Nevertheless, if there is to be hope for mankind, we must accept that it may be better for us all if the principal agent of change in the twenty-first century is a woman. Page 327

I agree that humanity (and our world) would benefit from less testosterone. 

In his final (post-conclusion) chapter, Mortimer ventures into a future of falling resources and increasing conflict, channeling his inner Malthus and failing (IMO) to appreciate the power of innovation at the same time as he misses the political failures that misdirect our brilliance and greed away from sustainability. After 400 or so pages, I see this omission as a missed opportunity to call for change in community dialogues that could force the political classes to save us from ourselves.

My one-handed conclusion is that everyone should read this book to learn about history, think about human progress, and plan for (surviving) a better tomorrow.


Here are all my reviews.

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.