At the end of 1999, I heard a BBC newsreader remark that we were approaching “the end of the century that has seen more change than any other”. As soon as I heard those words I started asking questions. What made her think that the 20th century was more remarkable than the 19th, when railways changed the world? Or the 15th, when the printing press was invented and Columbus crossed the Atlantic? What, indeed, was her definition of change?


I did not have to wait long for the answer. Images representing 20th-century innovations flashed across the screen – from Ford Model T cars to a mushroom cloud. Within a minute the message was clearly conveyed: the 20th century had seen the most change because it had experienced unprecedented technological progress.

As a historian, I doubted this. It was clear to me that some of the most profound changes in the history of the west had little or nothing to do with technology. The Black Death – now estimated to have wiped out over half of the population of some European countries – was a consequence of biology. Columbus’s achievement was based on technology that was already ancient in 1492. And what about the witchcraft craze in the 16th century: how could technology have been responsible for the growth of a Europe-wide superstition?

Clearly, technology and change are related. But to what extent? Can you even compare the developments of one century with those of another? I decided to try. Over the course of two years I drew together 50 of the major themes of the last thousand years in the western world to try to get to grips with the nature of change.

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What follows here is a brief selection of 10 of the biggest social adjustments that we have experienced. Together they illustrate that, while the question of which century saw the most change is an important one, the really important thing is that it leads us to a deeper reckoning of what change is and how it comes about. For me, the key lesson is not how change relates to technology but how it relates to need – something that is all-too easily forgotten in our relatively comfortable state.

11th century: Fortress Europe

Kings started thinking of themselves as rulers of a country – not merely a tribe or people – thanks to the rise of the castle

Many major changes of the 11th century were not technological – the rise of the power of the church and the decline of slavery, for example – but the development of the castle is one that was. It takes great skill to design and build a structure strong enough to hold a marauding army at bay. Hence there were very few of them in 1000. But as the feudal system made it increasingly desirable for local lords to have fortified residences on their own land, more master masons learnt the skill. Those who could not obtain the services of such a mason built equivalent defences of earth and wood. By 1100 there were perhaps 10,000 castles across Europe.

The importance of this goes far beyond mere aristocratic housing. Previously, tribes had been able to sweep across the continent with little to stop them except the patched-up defences of old Roman towns. William I’s conquest in 1066 would have been considerably harder if the Saxons had built castles: he would have had to stop and besiege every single one. Unsurprisingly, as soon as he had conquered England he set about remedying England’s vulnerability to attack.

Large numbers of strongholds changed life in a number of respects. They strengthened the feudal bond between a lord and his land: even if the lord had to retreat from his enemy, he could return to reclaim his overrun territory as long as he kept control of his castles.

Now, kings were able to keep a firmer grip on their kingdoms, through their vassals’ ability to defend the borders. Not only did this lead to greater security and stability, it allowed kings to start to think of themselves as rulers of a country, not simply rulers of a tribe or people, and to govern for all people within their realms.

12th century: The ecclesiastical superhighway

Hundreds of new monasteries – established by men seeking a greater understanding of God – triggered an explosion in the dissemination of knowledge

You might think that monks, having withdrawn from the world, could not have much impact on what went on outside their cloisters. However, so many monasteries were founded in this century that they made an enormous impression. In England and Wales the number of religious houses more than quintupled, from fewer than 140 to over 700. Across the continent, monastic orders became Europe’s first pan-European organisations.

Why was this? One of the reasons was the greater stability afforded by castles; another was a slight change in the climate – the Medieval Warm Period – which allowed more crops to be produced, more surpluses to be created and more wealth to be accrued by the lords who held the land.

But there was also a dynamism within the church itself, driven by a widespread desire to understand God. The success of the first organised monastic order, the Cluniacs, inspired men to found other orders of ever greater asceticism, such as the Cistercians and the Carthusians.

Through the universal establishment of a parish system the influence of the church at grass-roots level massively increased. And the powerful idea of Purgatory spread across Christendom. By the 1170s people widely believed that they weren’t necessarily bound to go straight to heaven or hell but that most of them would temporarily find themselves in limbo. The monasteries they founded, the Masses sung for their souls, and the pilgrimages they undertook could help their souls ascend the ladder to heaven. Or at least improve their chances of avoiding hell – in some lords’ cases, that was the best they could hope for.

The links between all these monks and cathedral canons can be compared with the networking power of the internet in our own day. Monasteries and cathedral schools had libraries in which they stored information. They taught men to read and facilitated the composition of new texts and the copying of old ones, thereby both creating and preserving knowledge. Monks travelled between monasteries, especially other houses of the same order, spreading news and sharing the latest theological, scientific and historical works.

As a result, when scholars started translating the wisdom of ancient Greek and Roman writers from the Arabic copies in southern Spain and Sicily, there was a network through which to disseminate this knowledge. The rediscovery of the works of writers such as Aristotle and Ptolemy forced scholars – many of whom were clerics – to rethink the principles of knowledge.

13th century: Money flexes its muscles

As new markets sprang up across Europe, hard cash began to rival land ownership as the principal source of power

You might take the coins in your pocket for granted but there was a time when people scarcely used money. Barter played an important role in transactions in the early Middle Ages, and feudal obligations an even more important one. As the population grew larger, however, and markets were established to supply people’s needs, money became almost the only form of doing business.

About 1,400 new markets were founded in England over the course of the 13th century, in addition to the 300 that already existed. Most of these new foundations failed. But 345 of them were still going strong in 1600 – over half of all England’s extant markets in that year. It was a similar story on the continent.

A market made an enormous difference to people’s standard of living. Whereas previously they had to make many items at home, now they could buy them. In city markets and fairs, they could obtain the more exotic items for the first time. By 1300, sugar and spices such as pepper, cinnamon and cloves were beginning to appear in France and England, along with silk and previously unimagined dyes.
To facilitate the growth of trade, coins of larger denominations were minted. The Italians pioneered banking, with branches in most European capitals.
Over the course of the century, the feudal structure of society – in which tenure of land was the all-important factor – came to be rivalled by the power of money.

14th century: Death stalks the land

The working classes questioned their relationship with the political elite – and God himself – after the Black Death wiped out up to half the population

It is difficult to convey what a cataclysmic event the Black Death was. Modern analysis shows that, over the course of the years 1346–51, the plague killed more than 40 per cent of the population in some countries – and more than half in England. To put things in proportion, the English mortality rate in 1348–49 was about 200 times that of the First World War.

The shock to society was profound. People started to doubt that diseases were sent by God to punish them for their sins, for how could newborn children deserve such punishment? Did God even have their best interests at heart? A new, deeper sense of mankind’s sinfulness entered the public awareness. Sculptors created mementi mori – skeletons to remind people of their impending deaths – and theologians began to question the purity of the pontiff of Rome.

On the more positive side, the value of the common man’s labour increased and wages improved. Bonds of servitude started to fall away, capital was freed up for ambitious men to exploit, and people began to travel more.

The working classes acquired a new sense of self-worth. It was particularly after the Black Death that workers across Europe started to rebel against their political masters – in risings such as the Jacquerie in France (1358) and the Peasants’ Revolt in England (1381).

15th century: Columbus peers over the horizon

The great explorers exploded the myth that the Greeks and Romans knew everything that was worth knowing

Imagine waking up to the news that explorers had discovered two unknown continents and a new sea route to a third. You would not believe it. But that is precisely how many people must have felt when they heard of the exploits of Christopher Columbus, who discovered the Bahamas, Cuba and Hispaniola in 1492, and went on to locate South America before the end of the century. The astonishment continued with the voyages of men like John Cabot, who claimed Newfoundland for Henry VII of England in 1497; Vasco da Gama, who sailed from Portugal all the way to India and back in 1497–99; and Pedro Álvares Cabral, who landed in Brazil in 1500.

It goes without saying that these discoveries opened up vast tracts of land for settlement and exploitation in later centuries. But it wasn’t just the new resources that mattered. For many years people had believed that the Romans and Greeks had acquired all the knowledge worth knowing, and that if medieval scholars knew more, it was only because they were like “dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants”. Columbus shocked them out of this complacency. If ancient geographers could have failed to notice two whole continents, what other things might they have misunderstood?

16th century: The word of God in plain English

Literacy soared and murder rates plummeted as William Tyndale’s ground-breaking Bible rolled off the printing press

Johannes Gutenberg – who produced the first printed Bible in 1455 – is frequently credited with changing the world with his printing press. Yet in the 15th century, books were largely printed in Latin and were expensive. People who could not already read had no interest in them. It was the publication of the Bible in the vernacular that changed the world – Mentelin’s German Bible in 1466, Malermi’s Italian version in 1471, the French Bible Historiale in 1487, and Miles Coverdale’s revision of William Tyndale’s English Bible in 1539.

A book that people not only wanted to understand, but could also teach them to read, shifted European society towards the written word. It allowed individuals to consider the word of God personally, without the need for the intervention of a priest. It permitted sceptics to question the authority of the Catholic church.

It also had a major impact on secular society. In England male literacy increased from about 10 per cent to 25 per cent – while female literacy rose from 1 per cent to about 10 per cent. For the first time, women could address other women and attack the extreme sexism in society.

Writing also extended the influence of the state to local and personal affairs. Due to the improved administration of law and order, for example, the murder rate across much of Europe halved.

17th century: Science is the new saviour

The infirm sought salvation in doctors – rather than God alone – as the medical revolution swept Europe

In 1633 the pope sentenced Galileo Galilei to be imprisoned for life for the heresy of teaching that the Earth orbits the Sun.

Yet within 40 years, there were several officially recognised learned societies publishing scientific tracts on just such matters. The Academia Naturae Curiosorum (later the Leopoldina) was founded in Bavaria in 1652, the Royal Society of London dates from 1660, and the Academie des Sciences in France was established in 1666.

The key thing to recognise here is that it was not a technological change that lay at the heart of this, it was a social one. Authority in scientific matters shifted from the church to the scientific community. And the consequences were significant. Whereas in the early 17th century thousands of witches were burned in Europe or hanged in England and Wales, the official recognition of scientific men undermined the superstition that witchcraft existed.

The second huge change was a medical revolution. If you were facing a life-threatening illness in 1600, you sent for the priest; only 5 per cent of people sought medical help at the end of their lives. A century later, you sent for the doctor; at least 55 per cent of dying people sought medical help. That shift in hope for your physical salvation – from God alone to your fellow men – is one of the most significant lines separating medieval and modern society.

18th century: A human rights revolution

Europe’s leading thinkers clustered to the flame of the Enlightenment and challenged the state’s right to repress its people

It goes without saying that the Bill of Rights that emerged from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (when William III and II accepted the throne vacated by James II and VII) had the most enormous impact in England. But it also had a major impact on the thinkers who clustered like moths around the flame of the Enlightenment. Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau and others were inspired. Rousseau in particular argued in The Social Contract (1762) that a state is unjust if it unduly represses the freedom of the individual. The French Revolution formulated its objectives largely around his ideas. And that event heralded the rethinking of the social contract – the relationship between the individual and the state – across Europe.

It was not just the political outlook that changed. Society was affected at a humanitarian level too. The execution rate dropped and, following the publication of Cesare Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishment (1764), the death penalty was abolished altogether in some countries. Flogging, burning and maiming also declined and religious intolerance weakened in the latter part of the century. Economic attitudes became more liberal too, as rigid mercantilist policies gave way to free trade.

19th century: The world becomes a village

Communication, travel and food distribution were all super-charged by the advent of trains, steamships and the telephone

Our lasting image of the 19th century is undoubtedly that of the steam train. And it is fitting that it should be so, for steam transport changed the world.

When trains and steamships connected towns and cities they allowed specialisation of trades, economies of scale and mass production of commodities. They also facilitated the distribution of food. While famines had been a regular feature of European life through the centuries, countries connected by rail ceased to suffer them in peacetime.

Individual horizons were broadened. The railways allowed people to journey long distances, third class, at a penny per mile. At the end of the century, the bicycle increased this freedom even further – especially if people took their bicycles with them on a train – allowing them the freedom to travel like never before.

In terms of disseminating information, the 19th century saw an even more fundamental change. In 1800, the fastest speed at which you could send a long-distance message was 7.3mph: this being the 37-hour dash from Falmouth to London (271 miles) that Lieutenant Lapenotière made in 1805, bearing news of the battle of Trafalgar. By 1900, you could send a message over that distance instantly by telephone, and even communicate directly with Australia, via the telegraph.

We think of our own age as one dominated by communication but the greatest changes were seen in the 19th century, when the speed of information accelerated from the pace of a horse rider to the speed of an electric pulse.

20th century: The lost utopia

The assumption that life would continue to improve was replaced by fears of nuclear and environmental armageddon

In some ways, it was not what we did differently in the 20th century that mattered so much as the changes in the world around us. Warfare, which had been a matter only for soldiers in 1900, threatened to annihilate the whole planet by the end of the 20th. Famine and extreme poverty, which had characterised life throughout the world before 1900, were seen as aberrations by 2000. Western culture and values – which in 1900 had largely been confined to Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand – were now to be found in cities across the world.

The changes are perhaps best summed up in people’s attitudes to the future. Before the First World War, visions of the future were almost entirely rosy – that life would continue to get better and better forever more. The war shocked people out of that naivety. By 2000, it was clear that our dependence on fossil fuels, the six-fold increase in world population, and global warming were all causes for alarm.
Utopian thinking became a thing of the past as we realised that market forces were constantly driving us to an increasingly unsustainable way of living, with barely a thought for the environment – or what would sustain us when the fossil fuels ran out.
In weighing up the 20th century against its predecessors, in some respects they are not far apart. Ordinary people still feared war and experienced its horrors in 2000, just as they did in the 11th century. They were fearful of what was to come – whether that was the last judgment or global warming. The fundamental differences were rather the social consequences of technology, for example: religion versus secularism, local versus international horizons, feudalism versus finance, and widespread deprivation versus mass satisfaction of needs.

Finally, while it is tempting to think of these shifts in terms of progress, that newsreader’s view in 1999 – that cars and atomic explosions represent ‘change’ – reminds us that all the advantages we have gained through technology come with a price to pay. The ability to make artificial fertilisers from natural gas, for example, and thereby feed a world population of 7 billion, comes with the worry that natural gas supplies are limited and one day will run out.

In that light, the greatest changes of the last millennium have enormous importance for understanding our future, not just our past.

Ian Mortimer’s books include the Sunday Times bestseller The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the 14th Century (Vintage, 2009)


This article was first published in the November 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine