Review: "Centuries of Change: Which century Saw the Most change and Why it Matters to Us" by Ian Mortimer

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What is the Point of History?

It's a big question, certainly, and one that people interested in the subject (and especially those funding it) have to justify day in and day out. For me, history is about seeing the consistencies and quirks of humanity as they experience gradual change, and what this change says about us as a species. Essentially: why do things change and how does it affect us? It's no surprise then that I picked up this book 'Centuries of Change' by Ian Mortimer, the talented historian behind the 'Time Traveller's Guide' series.

The book aims to answer the huge question of which century saw the most change? So often we assume it's the 20th or 21st centuries, what with their being rocketed off the back of the industrial revolution and into the space-race and silicone revolution, but is Change (as a capitalised force of nature) limited only to technological advancement? Mortimer takes the inspired approach to take each century at a time and examine what caused changes that affected the majority of society, from the lowly farmer to the grandest lord in how they lived their lives in the day to day, sweeping aside developments that - while full of bells and whistles - really affected the lifestyles of very few people dramatically. In doing so he calls into question the true significance of many of our historical heroes -(how much influence did Leonardo Da Vinci have on history really?) - while also supporting many of them in their status of vital innovators.

In the concluding chapters Mortimer tracks technological change, religious change and ideological change for each century and then finally ranks and weighs them against humanity's scale of psychological needs and freedoms. These are:
-Physiological needs 
-Law and order
-Community support
-Personal enrichment
-Community enrichment
By taking this approach he builds up a set of data that can be used to properly quantify just how important and wide-spanning the changes are in each century. It's an interesting approach that is certainly interesting to read.
Once he makes his final verdict he then moves on to consider what all of this means for the future of our own society, using the same rules and lessons learned to speculate that we could eventually find ourselves in a situation of reversal as resource-depletion pushes society back into either a more hierarchical nature or a disaster event comparable to the Black Death. It's grim stuff, but is certainly an interesting perspective supported by convincing evidence. In the end, he gives us a glimmer of optimism, assuring us that whatever our fate humans will always keep being humans, finding joy and creativity in our imperfect lives.

However interesting the conclusions and speculations, it is in the journey of this book where the interest lies for me. Because Mortimer walks us through each century in turn Centuries of Change is a great reference book for getting an overview on the important events of each century, boiling them down to the bare bones while still keeping a level of considered detail that really allows them to breathe. If you ever want a book you can keep referring back to when you need a little overall context for a time period, this is certainly handy to have around.

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