Tavistock's recent Heritage Weekend didn't only involve a bit of folk singing, no indeed, all sorts of talks and workshops in progress too. It was a chance sighting of a sign as I walked through the Bedford Hotel earlier in the week that alerted me to a talk to be given there by Ian Mortimer on the Saturday morning, pedigree as follows...
'Ian Mortimer has BA, PhD and DLitt degrees in history from Exeter University and an MA in archive studies from University College London. From 1991 to 2003 he worked for several archival and research institutions, including Devon Record Office, the University of Reading, the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts and the University of Exeter. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 1998, and was awarded the Alexander Prize (2004) by the Royal Historical Society for his work on the social history of medicine. His PhD was published by the Royal Historical Society in 2009 as 'The Dying and the Doctors: the Medical Revolution in Seventeenth-Century England'. He is also the author of two volumes of early modern manuscripts and numerous articles in the scholarly press on subjects ranging from the fourteenth to the twentieth centuries.'
The Bedford is our favourite coffee stop, the only place we know that does a pot of the most delicious hot chocolate too, so we pitched up early with the newspapers. I was reading The Times who are good at reminding us all about these things and felt it was auspicious that on this day in 1415 the French had been defeated at Agincourt, in 1760 George III had ascended to the throne, the Light Brigade had charged in 1854, and so my mind was nicely set in a historical context as Bookhound settled in for the duration with more coffee whilst I wandered off to the Portrait Room for Ian Mortimer's talk.
I quoted Ian's words in my post about our recent visit to Higher Uppacott so I knew of his local connections (he lives across the moor at Moretonhampstead) and I knew a great deal about his book The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England because one half of the Happy Campers made it fit about six Endsleigh Salon book group themes a while ago, until we banned her from bringing it. But I had also been reading this latest book, Centuries of Change on my Kindle, had reached the thirteenth century and was intrigued to know more.
It was standing room only as Ian Mortimer outlined the premise of his book. When asked most people will cite the twentieth as the century that saw the most change, before listing mobile phones, computers, the internet, space travel, cars, flight, The Beatles and anything else they can think of. But think again, look at history and change from a multi-faceted point of view and the big events down the centuries and it soon became evident that this was not as straight-forward as it may seem.
Each century was outlined briefly...
The eleventh for the confrontation between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope, the decline of the former and the rise of the latter and look too at the biggest change, the castle as the emblem of peace. In the year 1000 England had no castles, 500 had soon been built by William the Conqueror and territory could thus be secured and controlled...
The twelfth century has to be notable for the slow rise of the monastic system... 150 monasteries at the beginning, 700 by the end and with them came the power of the written word. Ian Mortimer likened them to the world wide web of the time; an information distribution network previously unknown and the establishment of the monasteries as key centres of learning.
The thirteenth century was about holding political leaders to account as well as the exponential growth of market towns, and with them the establishment of a money-based economy to replace the barter system.
I am now riveted because it is fascinating when someone (and I have to say Ian Mortimer is an excellent speaker, in other hands this could have had me asleep) outlines this in human terms. It wasn't hard to project my mind out into the town square and imagine the old Abbey walls and the market in progress.
Onto the fourteenth century, and having just read a fascinating book on Ebola, I was bound to be interested... enter the Black Death (and my thanks to the phD student who has written to tell me (24.01.15) that this is now known to be a picture of Leprosy patients not the Black Death)
But that aside, imagine the scale of the comparisons..
The Great War killed 1.55% of the population in four years
The Black Death killed 52% of the population in seven months. I'm sure I heard it right...the equivalent of dropping two nuclear bombs on Hiroshima every day for seven months. The shock and horror can't even begin to be imagined; the disease was apocalyptic rapidly eclipsing leprosy as the most serious of the day and posing the question, would humanity survive?
In fact society was transformed and inequalities levelled considerably. Capital was left for the remainder to exploit and upward social mobility became possible.
The fifteenth century is frequently cited for the invention of the printing press but Ian Mortimer wanted to focus on the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. Imagine it now...someone sets off and discovers there is twice as much world as was first thought. There was disbelief amongst a people who thought they knew everything, a whole new world rich with opportunities out there waiting to be discovered.
Printing takes its place in the sixteenth century with the arrival of the Bible in the vernacular creating the opportunity for everyone to read it for themselves and have their own relationship with God without need for the middle man. Male literacy increased by 25%, female by 10% but what also followed was a dialogue about the role of the sexes along with some reversal of the persecution of women for handing Adam that apple. Now everyone realised that Adam should have manned up a bit and resisted.
By now even someone's car alarm regularly setting itself off in the car park outside isn't bothering me...nor the mobile phone bird song in the pocket of the man sitting next to me
The seventeenth century hails a revolution in medicine. From probate accounts can be gleaned what people may have paid for when they were dying; once that would be care and the alleviation of suffering but by the end of the century it was for medical help. Where people had previously looked to God for their salvation, by 1700 they are trusting in the hands of a fellow human being as the organ of God's curing. It is a seismic shift.
I feel as if I have started so I must finish even though I can see this post being yards long...if you are still reading maybe go put the kettle on, we still have three centuries to go.
The eighteenth century was mostly revolutions whether French, agricultural or industrial but Ian Mortimer privileges the agricultural over all others because without food not a lot could happen. Starvation was not uncommon and once science was applied to the production of food the eight million population were faring much better by the end of the century (which had begun on five million). Crop rotation made better use of land whilst animal husbandry and breeding programmes created more meat. Imagine the average sheep may weigh 300lbs now...back then just 28lbs (not much bigger than a small dog) not that many chops per capita.
As for the nineteenth century, well where to start?
Ian Mortimer laid all his trust in the telegraph and the telephone and the impact of long-range communications, by the end of the century considerably faster than the speed of a horse and the thirty-seven hours it would take news of the death of Lord Nelson to reach London from Falmouth. Our mobile phones merely the apogee of these beginnings.
And finally to what we see as our gloriously clever twentieth century, well not so fast.
It was a surprise, but a sensible one to listen as Ian Mortimer outlined the invention of the future as the most significant change, citing William Morris and his vision of Utopia as significant. From a world that consistently looked backwards emerged one with the capabilities to look ahead, from weather forecast, to planning for housing and population, the language and dialogue of the future became a viable concept.
As to which century did see the most change...well I was on the edge of my seat for the answer as Ian Mortimer held his book aloft before saying he couldn't possibly spoil it by telling us, but not before hinting that a reframing of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs had been his method in reaching his conclusion.
The post-talk questions were good and Ian Mortimer's answers far more detailed than I have space for...
Do you see yourself as a Neo-Malthusian.. (yes)
How was the Black Death controlled in the end...(ran its course)
Would you like historians to take more risks as you have done in this book...(yes)
But I still don't know which century saw the most change, because I haven't reached that point in the book either, but on the basis of Maslow I think I might have an idea.
If you have read this far thank you, and I wonder which century you think it might be...
And has anyone read any more of Ian Mortimer's books..