Most observers agree that the 20th century saw dazzling changes: the automobile, airplane, atom bomb, antibiotics, computers, space travel, the internet, and hundreds of other amazing advancements. What century can match that? Every one since 1000, responds veteran British social historian Mortimer, and he makes a convincing case.
Following his format of The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England (2013), the author rewinds the clock for a fascinating, century-by-century Eurocentric argument that stuff more world-shaking than cellphones has been happening for a millennium. In much of the 11th century, the Holy Roman Emperor had the power to appoint and remove popes. By 1100, the papacy was an elected position, and Christendom dominated Europe. A powerful church supported powerful monarchs, whose armies finally drove off raiding Vikings, Magyars, and Mongols. Violence diminished, the population prospered, and cities expanded. By 1200, medieval Europe was enjoying a renaissance. Famine and plague devastated the continent after 1300, but an even bigger renaissance followed. The humanism movement, which glorified individual achievement, produced an explosion of art and science but also, for the first time, diaries and personal letters. By 1800, almost everyone had enough to eat, in itself a unique development. Mortimer’s chapters on the 19th and 20th centuries are lengthy and familiar but contain a few jolts. The author emphasizes that revolutions have a terrible record in promoting justice. Single-issue crusades—e.g., anti-slavery, women’s rights, civil rights, the eight-hour workday—do much better. Throughout, Mortimer focuses on changes that affected everyone. Thus, the revolution of printing didn’t fully catch on in 1450 with the invention of the printing press (early books were expensive and in Latin) but rather with the avalanche of cheap, vernacular Bibles a century later.
A quirky but always delightful social history that will convince most readers that social revolutions have been happening for a long time.