Why the most important years in history were from 1347 to 1352

A review of Centuries of Change, by Ian Mortimer. It’s a book that is at its best offering counter-intuitive thoughts on the medieval period

1 November 2014

9:00 AM

1 November 2014

9:00 AM

Centuries of Change: Which Century Saw the Most Change and Why It Matters to Us Ian Mortimer

Bodley Head, pp.388, £20, ISBN: 9781847923035

A group of retired Somerset farmers were sitting about in the early 1960s, so Ian Mortimer’s story goes, debating which farming invention had most changed their lives. Was it the tractor? Fertilisers? Pesticides? Silos? No, they agreed, it was the Wellington boot.

Mortimer tells this old story to illustrate that ‘it is not always the most dramatic changes that make a difference to our lives’. And for all the wars, plagues, renaissances and revolutions documented in this lively survey of 1,000 years of western history, they are outweighed by quieter forms of change: the rise of peace in the 11th century, for instance, or that of record-keeping in the 13th. Later, there are all the ‘-isations’ — urban, industrial, liberal, global.

In other hands, this could have been a grindingly worthy book, but as you’d expect of the author of the bestselling Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, it’s rather fun. We learn that buttons arrived in the 1330s, and that, when William of Rubruck finally made it to the Mongol capital of Karakorum in 1254, he found the Hungarian-born son of an Englishman waiting for him, along with the nephew of a Norman bishop. Mortimer turns a decent phrase, too: ‘Whereas in 1001 it was rare to see any priests,’ he observes, ‘in 1100 it was hard to get away from them.’

Unusually, the statistics are often more colourful here than the anecdotes, some of which, perhaps inevitably, have been round the block rather. Consider the Black Death, which killed some 45 per cent of Englishmen and women in seven months. To replicate that ‘intensity of killing’, Mortimer suggests, ‘You’d be dropping an atomic bomb every day on a different city for a year and three months.’ Or consider homicide rates in the Middle Ages, which were around 40-45 per 100,000 deaths — terrifyingly higher than the 1.4 per 100,000 in Europe today, though still well below 1340s Oxford, which roughly matched Wild-West-era Dodge City at 110 murders per 100,000 deaths. Or consider the growth in medicine in the 17th century: in 1600, one in 15 dying men paid for a doctor; 100 years later, about half did.

Mortimer, who is a medievalist by training, is least convincing on the 17th and 18th centuries. Was the ‘real cause’ of the industrial revolution ‘commercial competition’? And when he argues that the new scientific discoveries provoked widespread fear, before ‘the scientific community managed to stabilise society’s doubts and provided a new equilibrium’, you feel the undergraduate essay creeping in.

Still less successful are the page-long codas to every chapter, which consider who was ‘the principal agent of change’ in each century, as if they were super-trump cards in the deck of historical movers and shakers. The choices are mostly obvious: Luther for the 16th century; Rousseau for the 18th; Hitler for the 20th. The more interesting candidates, revealingly, are from the medieval period: Peter Abelard of Paris represents the 12th century, Pope Innocent III the 13th, and Edward III of England the 14th.

That last choice could start a few conversations, in the right circles. And the parlour-game aspect of the whole project — which century do you think saw the most change? — has its appeal. But if this book is to be read as a serious piece of history, and it clearly expects to be, it will be judged on how well it answers the question of its own title.

Mortimer starts by attacking, quite rightly, those who ‘remain defiantly convinced that none of the wars, famines, plagues and social revolutions of the past are as significant as being able to use a mobile phone or buy your weekly groceries via the internet’. Nevertheless, he does conclude, on the basis of life expectancy, population growth, war casualties and so on, that — and here comes the spoiler — the 20th century takes the crown, though not for the technological reasons most people imagine. Instead, he points to transport, new forms of war, the increase in life expectancy, changes to the media, the electrification of our lives and the new way in which we imagine the future. And all this in the context of globalisation. The astonishing global spread of western culture in our times is indeed a massive change, especially if you measure change by the numbers of people affected.

But I’m not quite sure Mortimer believes his own conclusion. Considering a photograph of his great-grandfather, he muses that ‘he had far more in common with me than he did with his own great-grandfather in 1800, of whom there are no pictures’. That is a persuasive way of putting it. (He ranks the 19th century a close second to the 20th.) And then there’s the Black Death. Mortimer feels that ‘the five years from 1347 to 1352 were perhaps the most formative in our history’, noting that even the two world wars ‘pale into insignificance if we imagine a time when every second person suddenly died in agony — and no one understood why.’

Mortimer turns apocalyptic again when he considers the future, in an Envoi that tries hard to be hopeful. The 19th and 20th centuries saw the most change, he concludes, chiefly because they saw ‘an anomalous windfall of energy’ from coal, oil and the rest. His final message is, broadly, ‘it won’t last’ and ‘you ain’t seen nothing yet’.

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Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £16.50 Tel: 08430 600033. James McConnachie is editor of the Author and writes Metro’s sex column.

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  • Ian Mortimer

    To correct the reviewer, my ‘training’ was not as a medievalist but a MA in archives and a PhD in the social history of medicine in the 17th century.