Pause for a moment from your rapt attention to this review of Ian Mortimer's terrific new book Millennium and look up. Look around you. Try to see the layers of time that blanket every feature of your world. It's a gambit that Mortimer employs often throughout his study of “how civilization has changed over a thousand years,” and it's unfailingly instructive.
You're able to read this at all, in the first place, whereas for most of the previous thousand years, you probably wouldn't have been able to, unless you were a member of the clerical or landed elite. You're reading it in English, which no national publication would have used in the 11th century or for a good deal of time afterwards. The review is about a book, which scarcely anybody would have owned. Likewise the review assumes a common readership, which would have been forbidden – sometimes by fire or the rack – for more than half of the centuries under Mortimer's consideration. And if you're reading this on some kind of electronic device, we suddenly exclude all of history right up until the last twenty years.
But it's more than that. One of the most bracing aspects of "Millennium" is the breadth of factors it covers, from food production to sanitation conditions to the Christian Church Militant to the development of firearms to radical changes in transportation of both people and products. If you employ a similar wide angle, the sheer scope of the changes Mortimer analyzes becomes staggering.
If you're reading this anywhere in the United States, for instance, you're reading it in a building or on a street or in a park that probably didn't exist even a hundred years ago, and certainly not a thousand. Perhaps you're reading it easily because you have eye glasses, which you of course wouldn't have had in the 12th century.
You're alive, as an adult, which until fairly recently would have been almost a statistical anomaly, rather than a given.
All of these things are the products of changes, often deep and slow changes adopted only piecemeal over centuries, and all of those changes were working against the cultural inertia Mortimer sees as a universal constant of human society. “The most significant changes are experienced when society is forced to deviate from its entrenched patterns of behaviour,” he writes. “The more firmly established our patterns of behaviour, the more difficult it is to give them up.”
The four core changes he identifies in his book, the “four primary sources underlying change over the last millennium,” are a) the weather in terms of how it affected food supply, the need for security, the fear of sickness, and the “desire for personal enrichment." And the method Mortimer uses to track the fluctuating fortunes of these four core items (and plenty more) is at once thought-provoking and self-evidently artificial: He looks at each of the last 10 centuries as discreet, watertight eras and tries to assess the predominant changes each century saw that the others didn't see, prefacing the whole exercise with a smile-inducing bit of understatement: “Many of the important developments in Western culture do not fit neatly within the borders of a single century.”
Readers who fell in love with the history of science through James Burke's wonderful 1978 book "Connections" (or the equally-delightful BBC mini-series of the same name) will find the game's afoot again in Mortimer's book, only conducted along grander thematic lines, since one of the goals of "Millennium" is clearly to look ahead as well as behind. Mortimer describes the past with a vivid directness, as when he talks about one of the past millennium's greatest single turning points, the Black Death of the 14th century: “to replicate the plague's intensity of killing, you would have had to drop not just two atomic bombs on Japan (each one killing about 70,000 people or 0.1 per cent of the population) but 450 such devices,” he writes. “That's two atomic bombs every day on a different city over a period of seven months.”
But he's equally compelling about the future, at one point for instance making reference to the centrality of oil to all modern societies and sanguinely pointing out an obvious fact that all modern societies prefer to ignore: “[I]t will run out at some point in this current millennium, there is no doubt about that; it is just a matter of when.”
Oil, technology, climate change – all existential changes humanity will have to face if it's to survive the next millennium. Mortimer has written a thrillingly clear-eyed assessment, a taking-stock of what the previous millennium might teach us about the ways we face major changes. Here's hoping some of the 21st-century's leaders read it and do some pausing of their own.