Ian Mortimer: Centuries of Change – Ilkley LitFest

At the end of 1999,  when someone who might have been Fiona Bruce said the new millennium marked the end of the century of greatest change, Ian Mortimer pricked up his ears.

Was it the century of greatest change? How were they quantifying it?  Mortimer, academic, novelist and historian, author of the bestseller The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, wanted to know.

Ask the average person which century they think is that of most change, says Mortimer, and they will also say the twentieth, unless they know he’s a historian, then they think it’s a trick question.

When we think of significant change, we tend to think of  progress, and then we tend to think of technological advances: paper, the printing press, steam engines, the computer.  Sometimes we think of communications: the telegraph, the printing press (again), the Internet, mobile phones.

Mortimer decided to have a proper look, and make an informed decision.  But how would he approach this mammoth task?  He needed a shortlist.

Starting in the 11th century, he looked at the various candidates for change, and also how they were implemented.  So, for instance, although the Gutenberg printing system was a fabulous invention in the early fifteenth century, it was not until a hundred years later that printed matter was available to the masses and it had its greatest effect.

He looked at religious change: the papacy of Pope Gregory VII, and later the Protestant Reformation.

He looked at disease and war: the Black Death killed upwards of 50% of the population, the First World War just one and a half percent.  Both killed millions, but which had the greater impact?

He looked at  the “usual suspects” too – Columbus’ discovery of the New World, medicine, revolution, science and technology, social reform – but not in the way we normally think of them.

Mostly he looked at what appear to be strange contenders: global temperature change, the establishments of markets, self awareness and the availability of mirrors, the castle, the network of monasteries throughout Europe, the developing concept of the future and the reduction in violent murders.

When Mortimer had his list of about 50 items, he set about comparing them, using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs among other measures, to look at impact.  This was more complicated than might at first appear, looking say, at railways, not as a method of transport or communication, but as a means of delivering food.  Clever and complex.

After an hour of captivating talk, Mortimer does not reveal his conclusions; we are encouraged to read the book.  And what a fascinating book it promises to be.  Not only will it give us answers, and the reasoning, it will remind us not to make such lazy assumptions as this being the era of greatest change; I’d be very surprised if it is.

Seen at  Ilkley Playhouse, 18th October 2014