After 400 years, where have we got to?

Looking back over the 19 generations and 400 years of our journey so far, one episode stands out as a watershed.  On either side of this divide there was a different view of what it meant to be a human.

It happened ten generations ago, at the end of the 18th century, the time of the French and American revolutions. In this generation the principle of human rights was articulated, the idea that a human being was entitled to a certain set of rights simply because they were human. At first it was largely an aspiration, but we can trace a thread from that time to now. For example, the gradual expansion of the right to vote: to property owners, to all adult men, and eventually to all adult citizens a century or so later. Slavery and serfdom were abolished during the 19th century. Now in the 21st century the very idea of one person owning another is unacceptable.

As is often said, every right is accompanied by a responsibility.  And from that time to now we have each had more of a chance to take responsibility for what we do. Many people felt empowered to take that opportunity up – and the world changed for all of us. The technological advances built on each other: transport (the bicycle, steam engine, train, petrol and diesel engine …), communication (postal services, telegraph, telephone, television, internet …), domestic (sewing machine, washing machine, refrigeration …), sanitation, education, and so much more. And each step forward was a leveller, giving more opportunities to the rest of us.

The other side of the divide was a different place. A person (usually a man) could make their mark on the world if they were born into a wealthy family or one with a recognised bloodline, or if they attracted the support of someone from such a family. Most people did not have these opportunities, and I wonder what their life was like. If they could not read they were dependent for information on those who could: the clergy and the other educated classes. Each group must have appeared almost as a different species to the other.

Perhaps one reason why there was less value for human life as a concept was that more of us died young. The faces that look at us from  the portraits from the 17th and 18th century present an idealised view. They show no smallpox scars. It was known as the spotted fever, and was widespread and often fatal. The Gloucester doctor who pioneered the smallpox vaccine tested it on a farm labourer’s son, presumably because such a person was expendable if it went wrong and he may well have not reached adulthood anyway.  

If a young man was able to go to university, he would have to learn Latin, the European language of scholarship. Scholars latinised their names. Carl von Linne, a biologist from Sweden, is known to us today as Linnaeus. It would have been obvious to him to use latin names when he classified plants and animals in the system we still use today. A student from Cambridge could converse with another from Paris, Padua, Uppsala or Utrecht. These scholars set up learned societies to further their discussions. One of the first was the Accademia dei Lincei in Rome, the ‘academy of the lynx-eyed’, followed by the Royal Society in London and others in Holland, France, Germany and elsewhere.

Because of the use of latin and because of limited access to education, the subjects of their discussions were inaccessible to others in the same towns or surrounding villages. Compared to the numbers of us who have access to information and learning now, this represents a very small group of people. I started the blog without naming the names of individuals because I saw it as a history of all of us. After the great divide I wanted to name more names, as a way to give credit where it was due. Those people were so few, and had to work so hard to achieve what they did, whether it is in music, art, ideas, practical inventions …

Their line of achievement and endeavour is the thread I will follow as we move through generation 480 and beyond.

London gherkin From London in the 21st century …

Globe theatre, London to London in the 17th.

Gherkin to Globe and beyond!


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