Generation 487, 1720-1740. Thinking for ourselves

At the start of this generation, in Europe at least, most families had lost a member to smallpox, and other family members carried the scars on their faces. By the end of it, there was a way to prevent this disease.

An aristocratic English lady, who had suffered from smallpox herself and whose younger brother had died from the disease, went to live in Turkey for a couple of years, as she was married to the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. There she noticed the absence of smallpox scars on the faces of the people around her. She inquired further, and found out that it was the practice to take some of the material from a lesion of a benign form of the disease and scratch it on to the skin of a child. The child suffered mild symptoms for a few days, but then never developed any other more dangerous forms of the disease. She called this process ‘variolation’, and promoted the idea back in Britain. After further investigation (testing it out on orphans and prisoners awaiting execution) her own daughter was successfully variolated. Despite resistance from some members of the clergy, the idea gained ground. Three generations later a rural English doctor developed a safer version of the practice, known as vaccination, which is still in use today. Ten generations later, in the twentieth century, smallpox was effectively eradicated.

With fewer deaths from smallpox, populations began to grow. Add this to the improvements in agriculture in the following generations and we have the start of the expansion and drive that was so noticeable in Europe in this century.

This story illustrates something else, a change in thinking. The lady did not concentrate her attention on why it worked, or whether she should do it or not. Many others believed that such action would be interfering with the Will of God. She was simply interested in protecting her daughter, and others like her, from this awful disease. She focussed on the ‘how’ rather than the ‘why’ or ‘should’. And in doing so she was empowered to take action. Enlightenment thinking brought tangible benefits.

I wonder if this ‘can-do’ optimism spread into other domains. Is it a coincidence that Bach’s Brandenburg concertos and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons were also published in this period? Both are very cheerful pieces of music. They also demonstrate new thinking about the purpose of music. In earlier generations music was either devotional: to be performed in church, or popular: as accompaniment for singing and dancing. These two works are to be listened to for their own sake.

The background context for this new wave of ideas was the power of the church. In generation 498 in the twentieth century human society was polarised into the capitalist and communist blocs. In a similar way the polarity for this generation (and those before and after) was catholic or protestant christianity. And just as the popular press in generation two fed us a diet of tales of the awfulness of the other bloc, so the popular press in this period put out grisly stories of the barbarities of the opposing version of the same religion. Almanacs, and serialised tales of martyrs were widely read in Britain.

In Britain (a protestant country) catholics were allowed to practise their religion, but had to pay extra taxes in order to do so. There were many versions of protestantism from quakers to presbyterians, but only those who signed an oath of adherence to the Church of England were allowed to stand for public office.

So there was a degree of tolerance, in Britain and Holland at least. There were satirical plays, drawings and writings, questioning the behaviour of the establishment of the day.


Here is a publicity poster by Hogarth (a satirical artist and political commentator) for the Beggar’s Opera (a popular play set in London with a cast who live an existence that is precarious bordering on illegality), also from this period.


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