Ten changing centuries and a pandemic

One night at the end of the XXth century, a famous British TV program announced the end of the century including biggest changes ever, while images of all kind of technological advances were projected, from modern planes to nuclear mushrooms. The historian Ian Mortimer saw the connection between change and technology clearly, but not so clearly such a statement. He spent two years reviewing the last ten centuries of the Western civilization, highlightening from each one the key events and concluding that it is true that the XXth century includes a lot of big changes, but the rest of the centuries are no slouch. Including the XXIst, which started unruly.

XI: Castles and kingdoms

From the year 1000 the feudal scene was drastically modified by castles. A shelter to be safe from the enemy attacks strengthened the link between the lord and his lands, because even if a retirement in the battle camp was forced, he could come back and claim them —just in the case he was able to keep the control of the castles—. This is why the lords were setting in their possesions by fidelizing their vassals to defend them, fact that lead to greater stability that allowed them to begin to think of themselves as rulers of a territory closer to a kingdom or country than to a tribe or village.

Some castles are so strong that have survived till now, as Loarre, built in the XIth century at the entrance of the Aragon Pirinees, which is today one of the best conserved Romanic buildings in Europe — Image Unknown Author

XII: The control of knowledge

Later on, but not so later on, the settlement of hundred new monasteries triggered an explosion of the spread of knowledge. Monks seeking a wider comprehension of God travelled among them, specially among those of their same order, spreading news and sharing theological and historical papers and works which were stored in their libraries as currently is made in the Internet. The crusades, the Inquisition and the settlement of a parroquial system —that last till now— increased the direct influence of the Church over the people and the powerful idea of the Purgatory spread over every head.

Umberto Eco famous novel reflects very well the relationship of the medieval Church with knowledge, while fray William of Baskerville and his pupil Adso de Melk investigate the crimes of an abbey — Image Jean-Jacques Annaud (‘The name of the rose’, 1986).

XIII: A wide range of variety

The appearance of the medieval market involved a huge change in the life of the people: from a subsistence and domestic consumption to the possibility of buying things, in addition of the access to exotics and till then unthinkable items such as fabrics, spices or dyes. The barter was the main character of the early transactions, but as the markets and fairs developed around Europe, money started to compete with land property as source of power until it became the only way to do business.

Over time, medieval markets and fairs also served to share celebrations and strengthen ties — Image Pieter Brueghel the Younger (‘A village fair in honor of Saint Hubert and Saint Anthony’, 1564)

XIV: The Plague and class conciousness

In 1346 it was thought illness was a divine punishment, but the Black Plague killed more than a third of the Eurasian population in the next five years, and the shock was so huge that people started to rethink their relationship with the power, including even a God that allowed newborns to die without time to sin. That strenghtened the self-esteem of the working class, that started to rebel against their employers in uprisings as the Grande Jacquerie in France in 1358, or the Rebellion of the Farmers in England in 1381.

It is believed that the usual thing was five days from contagion to death, but the legend says that with the Black Plague it was possible to be healhty in the morning, have fever in the afternoon and die in the night, between horrible pains and stinky odors made by the inflammation of the lynf nodes — Image Unknown Author (‘The plague of the XIV century’ details of the fresco ‘The life of San Sebastian’, San Sebastian chapel, Lanslevillard, France, 1411)

XV: Expanding horizons

Beyond the tremendous importance of adding a new continent to the world map with the size of America, the adventure of Colon and his followers also brought along a very important intelectual turn. Explorers broke the prevailing myth in which Greeks and Romans knew all that was worth knowing, and in addition they forced the scholars to left their self-indulgent attitude: if they missed a whole continent, who knows what else could be missed.

In the 1507 planisphere ‘Universalis Cosmographia’ America is first named; with it the world map suffered a great transformation, and also the minds — Image Martin Waldseemüller

XVI: Sacred reading for all

Although the press had been invented in 1455, the truth is that in the beginning few books were printed, usually in Latin and they were so expensive that almost nobody could pay for them. The translation of the Bible to vernacular languages was the real hit and it took place along the whole century. A book people wanted to understand made Europeans want to read and write, fact that allowed a new kind of communication between God and the people: without intermediaries.

The German Bible of Luther and the rest of translations in different languages helped to improve the fulfillment of law and order, which reduced the crime rate to half — Image David Shane

XVII: And yet it moves

Galileo was condemned in 1633 for saying that Earth was moving around the Sun, nevertheless in fact it moves, and in the next years many papers about it were published, and the first scientific societies were founded: the Academia Naturae Curiosorum —after Leopoldina— in Baviera in 1652, the Royal Society in London in 1660 and the Academie des Sciences in Paris in 1666. The change was more sociocultural than technological, changing the authority of the vital matters from the Church to Science, from God to the Man. If you got very ill in 1600 you would call a priest, in 1700 a doctor.

The heliocentric model was already proposed in the 3rd century BC by Aristarchus of Samos, although the world remained geocentric until the arrival of the ‘De revolutionibus orbium coelestium’ of Copernicus, twenty centuries later — Image A&

XVIII: The ilustrate revolution

The main European thinkers embraced Illustration strongly and questioned the legitimation of the power to repress people. Montesquieu, Voltaire and in particular Rousseau —with the publication of ‘The social contract’ in 1762— proclaimed that a State is unfair if treats individuals unproperly, and the French Revolution was mainly inspired by those ideas. A new concept of freedom arised, and they started to talk about human rights and the relationship between men and State was rethought.

The French Revolution marked the beginning of the Contemporary Age by creating the concept of popular sovereignty and laying the foundations of modern democracy — Image Eugène Delacroix (‘Liberty leading the People’, 1830)

XIX: Communication and speed

A message or a parcel of the year 1830 took long to reach their destination, at least what it took a horse to cover the distance in between these two points. The train and the steam ship were key for the commerce development and spezialitation and for the massive distribution of basic products, something that made disappear the periods of famine in times of peace. Around 1870, telephone changed the speed of information, messages took just an electric pulse to arrive.

Train allowed to the world be closer to the rest of the world — Image Enciclopedia Britannica

XX: War overflows

Until the First World War only soldiers were killed in war. Society was horrified with the number of civil deads, specially after the creation and released of the atomic bomb in the Second World War, that meant humanity had the capacity for the first time in their history, of destroying the whole planet. The USA and the URSS started the so called Cold War and the European Union was created in order to avoid new wars. After the failure of the Soviet communism in 1989 the capitalist occidental values, that in the 1900 were just along Europe, North America and Oceania, spread worldwide.

The Fat Man atomic bomb was realeased over the Japanese city of Nagasaki in 1945 resulting in the end of the Second World War — Image US National Archives

XXI: Universal pandemic

In November 2019, a virus that passed from bats to humans was the origin of a pandemic which affected quickly all countries in a globalized world, and afterwards several waves and mutations, the seven thousand million population of the Earth became a thousand million. At first, the role of State was essential and many omen and dreamers predicted the return of the failed Communism, although after some time states disappeared and in a natural way Universalism started to rule the world as a new kind of government, based in self-awareness that everything existing is an organic system we belong to, and we should better live in harmony. No doubt good old Ian Mortimer would like to look into it.

Picture made with electronic microscope of a bunch of coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, in which we can clearly see the surrounding crown of the proteins that give its name to the virus — Image NIAID