In this post I am going to focus on London. By the end of this generation it was the largest city in Europe, with over half a million inhabitants. More people died there than were born there, but the population was continually added to with influxes of religious refugees, mainly protestants escaping persecution in the catholic countries of southern and central Europe.
The context in Europe was the fierce divide between protestant and catholic christianity. The catholic church had re-established itself in much of central and eastern Europe, and the protestant world was restricted to Scandinavia, parts of Germany, Holland and Great Britain. Protestant Holland in particular took a stance, fighting and resisting the advance of much larger catholic France. Many protestant refugees also escaped to North America, to make a new life on a new continent.
London was an exciting place to be, with over 200 coffee houses where the new ideas were explored and argued over. Printing had become liberalised, so at times these coffee houses resembled libraries, with pamphlets and leaflets available to read. There were discussions about mathematics, morals, natural philosophy, politics, business … John Locke wrote about toleration (of everyone except catholics or slaves. He helped draft the constitution of Carolina), about human understanding, about economics, always from a perspective of reasonability and trust in the human ability to use its God-given acumen to make sense of the world we inhabit. Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica was published in this period. At the time it was as incomprehensible to most readers as Einstein’s writings were in generation 496, and it was also recognised as epoch-changing by those who could make sense of it. An added difficulty for comprehension was the fact that he wrote it in Latin, traditionally (but diminishingly) the European language of scholarship. It wasn’t translated into English until fifteen years later. Christopher Wren applied the new mathematics in the design and construction of public buildings, including the first protestant cathedral, St Paul’s.
It may sound fairly tame today, but such ideas were controversial. They challenged the existing world order, and some members of the establishment didn’t like it. Even mild-mannered John Locke had to run for his life at one point. He left England for Amsterdam after the king took a dislike to his writings, and lived there for several years.
And there is another question: where were the women? One major change was that in France women performed on stage for the first time, in Paris. Previously men had played all roles including those of women. But I have found only one female public figure from this generation: the poet, playwright and author Aphra Behn. The coffee houses were frequented only by men, so the women had limited access to the new ideas. It is curious that women’s fashion in this period accentuated the part of the body that men were exercising the most: the head.
A high headdress called the fontange became fashionable. And as we were in the grip of the Little Ice Age, everyone had to dress warmly.
It was felt at the time that two world views were colliding. Books were written in support of the old ways, at the same time as the new ideas were so hungrily devoured. This generation saw the last judicial killing for blasphemy in Scotland and England had its last hanging of a person for being a Roman Catholic.
As the city expanded and new houses were needed, property speculators made fortunes, and lost them. Private banks were established, and when the Dutch king on the throne of England needed even more money for his war with France, the bank of England was founded to lend him the funds.
What would a person from generation 500 recognise in this world?
Business was opened up, with the associated rewards and risks. A property speculator escaped paying his debts by becoming a politician. (Members of parliament had immunity from prosecution). I’m sure a European businessman/politician did something similar in our generation!
Public building projects such as St Paul’s went over budget and behind schedule. At times it was doubtful whether it would be completed at all.
There were complaints about the numbers of foreigners coming into the city. Daniel Defoe wrote a satirical poem, lamenting that a native Englishman was becoming a rarity.
Parliament polarised into two political parties. The Tories were the party of the country landowners, members of the Anglican church. They supported the established values: king and country, conservative with a small ‘c’. The Whigs came from the town-based merchant and professional classes, and contained members of other protestant sects. As the middle class did not benefit from the old order as much as the aristocracy did, the Whigs tended to stand for tolerance, change and the supremacy of parliament over the monarch.