The Idea of Equality – The Greatest Change of the Last Millennium
Ian Mortimer’s magnificent new book ‘Centuries of Change’ describes the myriad ways in which European societies have been transformed over the past one thousand years. Modern cities, advanced technologies, democratic governments, scientific knowledge - all these and more would have been unthinkable to our ancestors ten centuries ago.
So given the scale of the transformation that has taken place, can we possibly isolate one change as the single greatest change of the last millennium?’
Centuries of Change
One thousand years ago, European societies were illiterate, superstitious and ignorant of the outside world. Hunger and disease were widespread and violence was ever present. Towns and cities were few and the vast majority of people lived off the land. Then things slowly began to change.
The twelfth and thirteenth centuries saw the beginnings of codified law in Europe. Market towns became a feature of every community, and money replaced barter for the first time. In England, the signing of the Magna Carta marked the first step towards limiting the power of kings.
After the calamity of the Black Death in the fourteenth century, the fifteenth century was a century of discovery. Between 1492 and 1500, European explorers discovered North and South America, vastly expanding their knowledge of the outside world.
The sixteenth century was the century of the Reformation and the start of a hundred years of war in which Europe fractured along sectarian lines.
The seventeenth century witnessed the Scientific Revolution and a step change in humanity’s ability to cope with famine and disease. Medical discoveries contributed greatly to an increase in life expectancy and with the mind expanding discoveries of Galileo and Newton, people increasingly looked to science rather than the church for an understanding of the world.
This century also witnessed the spread of European colonisation. By the end of the century, European states ruled over far more land in America than they did in Europe.
During the eighteenth century the pace of change accelerated. A revolution in food security occurred with the adoption of selected breeding of farm animals and a threefold increase in crop yields. The Industrial Revolution marked the transition of western societies to modern market-based industrial economies - a transition from economies based on conquest to economies based on competition between private enterprises.
The eighteenth century was also a century of political revolutions. In the American Revolution it was the Republican nature of the revolution that mattered most. Equality, while espoused in the Declaration of Independence, was not enacted in the new United States, where slavery remained widespread.
In France, equality of all men was a central aim of the revolution. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, adopted by the National Assembly in 1789, declared that all citizens are born equal in rights, are equal in the eyes of the law, and that the purpose of government is the preservation of these rights for all men. For the first time an attempt was made to establish the idea of equality as the founding principle of the state.
The nineteenth century was the Age of Invention. Railways and steamships revolutionised travel, allowing millions of emigrants to move from Europe to new continents. The invention of the telegraph, telephone and radio revolutionised communications.
This was also a century of social reform, with the ending of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and advances in the development of democracy. By 1900 all adult males in France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, Greece, Australia and New Zealand were entitled to vote.
Which brings us to the twentieth century, another century of breath-taking change. It brought major improvements in literacy and women’s rights, and reductions in poverty and destitution. Advances in health were such that babies born in 2000 in the developed world could expect to live almost twice as long as babies born in 1900.
The age of invention continued apace as electricity, cars, air travel, television, and the internet all became features of everyday life.
This was also a century of decolonisation and the spread of democracy. In 1900, half a dozen empires ruled most of the world. By 2000, democratic and near-democratic countries accounted for nearly half the world’s population.
The twentieth century also saw the beginning of the Great Convergence as developing countries began to catch up with the West. Many non-Western countries experienced the scientific, medical, agricultural and industrial revolutions simultaneously, in the course of just a few decades. By 2000, the world economic and political landscape was changing rapidly.
This century, however, was also a brutal reminder that mankind remained as cruel and inhumane as ever. The traumas of World War One and World War Two led to attempts at establishing a system of international law aimed at reducing war and tyranny, including the founding of the United Nations and the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
During the course of the twentieth century world population increased dramatically, from 1.6 billion to 6.1 billion. With this explosion in population came an increasing global awareness that real threats to humanity were emerging, foremost among them environmental degradation, global warming, political violence and poverty.
A growing acceptance that fundamental change was needed in existing political, economic and technological systems to address these global threats was perhaps one of the greatest changes of the century.
The Change of the Millennium
Looking back to the year 1000, we can recognise enormous differences between Europeans’ lives today and those of our ancestors. One of the obvious changes is the vast increase in the quality of life that we enjoy today.
This increased quality of life rests on an enormous reduction in the level of everyday violence, an increase in life span due to changes in food security and health care, a vast expansion of knowledge (and an accompanying reduction in superstition), and a historically unprecedented level of equality between men and women.
Today we can exercise freedom of choice on a whole range of issues- from where we’d like to live, whom we choose to marry, what job we choose to do, what we want to learn, and where we’d like to travel – that our ancestors couldn’t have imagined.
Increases in quality of life and freedom of choice have been accompanied by a massive reduction in human suffering, accomplished through the taming of hunger and disease and dramatic reductions in early death, particularly infant mortality
So given the sheer number of changes that have happened since the year 1000, can we really identify one particular change as being the single most important change of the millennium?
I believe we can. But to do so we must first recognise two of the most important lessons that emerge from our study of history.
The first lesson is that human nature is extremely malleable. Our beliefs and behaviours change as the context changes. For most of the last one thousand years, it was widely accepted that kings ruled by divine right, that women were mentally inferior to men, and that Europeans had a right to brutally lord it over the ‘inferior’ peoples of the world. Working slaves to death and burning witches were acceptable ways to achieve financial reward and ward off ill fortune. But as the context changed, so too did such beliefs and behaviours.
Which brings us to the second lesson we can learn from history: reductions in inequality shape human nature for the better.
One can argue about the direction of causality, but the end of slavery, the achievement of women’s rights, and the relinquishing of colonial power have resulted in more humane standards of behaviour on the part of Europeans than was previously the case.
In his book ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’, Steven Pinker argues that we are all a mix of both demons and angels. Over the course of the last millennium, European societies have clearly become better adapted to controlling our worst demons and harnessing our better angels.
The milestones along this transition are easy to identify. They include the establishment of the rule of law that applies equally to all; the separation of church and state so that believers of all faiths and none are treated equally; the replacement of tyranny with electoral democracy in which everyone has an equal say in how we are ruled; the creation of national systems of support for unemployment, pensions and healthcare in which everyone has equal access; and a system of human rights which protect everyone equally from discrimination and exploitation. The principle of equality - that one person is worth the same as any other- underpinned every one of these advances.
The lessons from history are clear. The more unequal our societies, the more barbarous we become, and the more we accept such barbarism as the norm.
For that reason – for making us more humane and more human – the principle of equality stands out as the single most important change of the last millennium.
Dr. Ian Hughes' blog DisorderedWorld can be found here.
You can also follow Ian on Twitter at @disorderedworld
Earlier article by Ian Hughes on Facts & Arts:
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