Generation 476, 1500-1520. New worlds

Looking backwards from the generation of the reformation, this period is colourful, exuberant, lively: a fascinating time to be alive.

This was the High Renaissance, where artists gave themselves the permission to play with the palette and push back the boundaries of what was possible. Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with images of the Creation as described in the bible.

Arguably the most famous painting in the world was completed in this period: The Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci.

Leonardo had insatiable curiosity. His anatomical drawings predate those of Vesalius (who we met in generation 478) by a couple of generations, but were purely for his own interest. The educated elite would have ignored them anyway – he didn’t write in latin. He developed flying machines, he drew plants and animals, he tried to understand the way water flows … no wonder he hardly ever finished anything.
There were other artists, both in Rome and elsewhere. Further north in Italy, Titian painted exuberant colourful paintings.
Here is his allegory of sacred and profane love.

And further north still, Albrecht Durer in Germany painted with a realism that is not out of place today.
Albrecht_Dürer self portrait
I think this explosion of creativity points to something else, that we can see in this self portrait. We can see an individuality, with the expression that belongs to what was going on in that person at that moment. As we go further back in our story, we lose that ‘warts and all’ sense that comes out of these paintings. Earlier portraits look wooden and expressionless.
Albrecht_Dürer_Jakob Fugger
This is Durer’s portrait of the banker Jakob Fugger, the man who bankrolled the sale of indulgences in northern Europe that provoked the Reformation in the next generation.

Another new world was coming into view – the one across the Atlantic. The most famous traveller of the time was not Columbus (who had first crossed the Atlantic in the previous generation) but Amerigo Vespucci. He was a multi-talented Florentine (as were Leonardo and Michelangelo) and was the first to report back that the continent they had reached was not Asia, as Columbus had thought, but a new one not described by Ptolemy. It made sense at the time to name the continent after him, and so a German mapmaker called it America. The name stuck and was taken up by Mercator a generation or so later.

From America there arrived new foods – potatoes, maize, cocoa. Tobacco arrived too and also a horrific disease. Syphilis, which was endemic in the Americas, appeared in Europe at this time.

Florence must have been an exciting place to be. Another talented Florentine was Niccolo Machiavelli. He wrote ‘The Prince’ during this period. It is a pragmatic, dispassionate manual for the political classes, assessing policies and strategies not on their moral basis but their effectiveness. He admired the strategies of the Borgia pope Alexander VI, who ruled during this period, for using the papacy as a means to extend his family’s power. Subsequent generations did not take such a neutral view of the Borgia family, especially of Alexander’s murderous son Cesare. We can perhaps trace our suspicion of the devious and manipulative motives of politicians back to the influence of this book.

But my hero from this generation is a man from the Netherlands who, in the spirit of the times, invented his own job description. Erasmus of Rotterdam was clever, witty, well-informed and interesting. He travelled around Europe as a man of letters, staying wherever he could explore his ideas and entertain his hosts. He was the original networker: he had hundreds of correspondents, some of whom he never met. He and his friends took the ideas of the classical Greek and Roman authors – and brought them up to date. The movement came to be known as humanism.
He retranslated the bible into latin. The translation by St Jerome from over a thousand years earlier, the Vulgate Bible, was still the official version. Erasmus made some changes. For example, in the Vulgate Bible Moses was described as having horns, because of Jerome’s translation from the Hebrew of a word which more probably meant ‘radiant’. Erasmus decided that the more likely meaning was that Moses came down from the mountain with a shining face rather than horns on his head.
Here is Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses from the same period, with horns.

Inspired by the stories of the new world, Erasmus’ friend Thomas More wrote ‘Utopia’, about an imaginary society founded on humanist values of decency, education, mutual respect and responsibility. He put his own ideas into practice: his three daughters received the same level of education as his son. Another of their friends, John Colet, set up St Paul’s School, with entry requirements based on merit rather than finances. One of Erasmus’ most famous books was entitled ‘The Praise of Folly’. The title was a pun on the name of Thomas More (‘folly’ is ‘moria’ in Greek) and was written while he was staying at his house. It describes the dangers of taking oneself too seriously, how silliness can ease a difficult situation. It is lighthearted and wise.

I can’t help feeling that something was lost as this generation came to a close. The humanity and enquiry shown by all of these people was not equalled for another three hundred years. The fire-and-brimstone preachers who terrified their congregations with images of hell all date back to the following generation, not this one. Those serious Reformation preachers of the 1520’s and onwards believed that humanity was born in sin and that nothing any of us did could change that. Not an outlook likely to lead to a sunny disposition. One can’t imagine Martin Luther or any of his fellow preachers writing a book in praise of folly.


Generation 477, 1520 – 1540. Baptisms of fire

The next misconception to be laid to rest by this project is that the rate of change for our species has accelerated within our lifetimes. People from generation 477 had to adapt to as many, if not more changes than the ones we are living through now. It was a rollercoaster – for some of them, anyway.

Let’s work from west to east, starting with south America.

The Spanish had the wind in their sails, literally. Under the Spanish flag the Portuguese sailor Ferdinand Magellan had reached the south of South America by the start of this period, on his attempt to sail around the world. After Columbus’s voyage a couple of generations previously, the sailors crossing the Atlantic had begun to accept that Ptolemy’s Geography didn’t describe the world they were seeing. The New World was not Asia, as Columbus had initially believed, but another continent not described by the ancients. And clearly the world was not five-sixths land surrounded by sea, as Ptolemy had said. The sailors still had no idea that so much of the planet was covered by water, until Magellan’s journey. After a month of backtracking and slowly moving forward through the maze of islands between the Tierra del Fuego and the mainland, Magellan and his men reached the huge ocean which they named the Pacific. It took them over three months more to cross the Pacific, which luckily for them lived up to the name they had given it. Magellan himself died in the Phillipines, but one of the original five ships and a couple of dozen of his crew completed the journey around Asia and Africa back to Spain, three years after setting out.

Other European explorers had already brought an unintended cargo to the north of South America: diseases like smallpox, chicken pox, measles … Many of these diseases had originally appeared after crossing species from animals to humans. Centuries of settled agriculture and close contact with farm animals had made Europeans largely immune, but the diseases were devastating for the populations of South America. Sophisticated civilisations tottered with the attempt to cope with so many deaths – and then a few hundred Spanish conquistadores armed with muskets and riding horses came and pushed them over the edge. The Inca Empire was claimed by Spain, and the Portuguese occupied Brazil. The coming of the Europeans must have felt like the end of the world.

For many in mainland Europe a world came to an end in this generation. First, a bit of power politics to set the context.

The most powerful man in Europe was the Habsburg emperor, Charles V. His empire included Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and later also Hungary. If you look at a map of Europe, you can see that these countries almost completely encircle France. The next powerful man, King Francois I of France, was acutely aware of this fact, and so made forays in the only land direction not controlled by the Habsburgs, into Italy. The pope (powerful man number three) was also wary of Habsburg power and allied himself with Francois, which did not please Charles. Powerful man number four, the Ottoman Emperor Suleyman the Magnificent, was also flexing his territorial muscles out into the Mediterranean, the Balkans and towards Vienna. This made both the pope and Charles very nervous. Francois made an alliance with him, presumably on the basis that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. In other words, not a stable situation and certainly not one to accommodate new ideas.

And a new idea had arrived. Martin Luther’s protest about the pope’s favoured fundraising method had found many sympathisers. This was the selling of indulgences: paying alms for the remission of sins. The Vatican’s latest project was the very expensive rebuilding of St Peter’s basilica in Rome, and the previous pope had directly linked donations to the costs with the promise of indulgences. Luther described the practice with the phrase ‘As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs’.

Luther did not set out to create a new religion. His protest was originally intended to press for reform of the church, but the pope in his lavish insulated world was oblivious and didn’t catch the spirit of the times, believing that this protest would fade away like all the earlier ones. It didn’t, and I suspect Luther sometimes wondered what he had started. Other clever men took up his ideas and explored them further. During this generation the bible was translated into both English and German. Literate people could now see for themselves what had previously been the domain of the clergy. And what they read did not always correspond to what they had been told by the priests.

For example, Mary the mother of Jesus does not feature largely in the bible, certainly not as much as she does in the church. There were attempts in the new religion to downgrade her status, so that she was seen as the vessel through which Jesus arrived, and no more.

There was no mention of infant baptism in the bible. In fact, Jesus had been baptised as an adult.

Another example from the old Testament: the commandment about not having graven images. The churches were full of them.

These ideas had the effect of a spark in a powder keg. Works of art were destroyed, statues were removed from the churches, the people didn’t know who to turn to. There were violent uprisings, particularly in the German-speaking world. Luther was horrified and wrote against the uprisings, in a book entitled ‘Against the murderous thieving hordes of peasants’. Events quite clearly were not proceeding according to plan. However, some of the German princes began to examine their consciences: were they treating their subjects as well as they might? By the end of this generation some of them had embraced the new religion and formed a league in defiance of their catholic overlord, the Emperor Charles V. The pope had to accept the new reality that not all christians now accepted the authority of the roman catholic church.

Meanwhile, the power politicians had their own dramas. The Habsburg army moved into Italy to counter French ambitions, and in the middle of it was the pope. Rome was sacked and looted, half its population killed. While the pope was escaping, an embassy came from England requesting the annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. As this lady was Charles V’s aunt and Charles’ army had just defeated the Vatican, the pope was not sure what to do. When he refused to sanction the annulment, Henry declared himself head of the English church and another part of christendom was lost to catholicism.

Something not dissimilar was unfolding in India at the same time. The muslim Mughal emperors had not made many converts. They hardened their line against the hindu subjects, with a resulting reduction of tolerance and goodwill on both sides. Into this came guru Nanak, the founder of sikhism. He travelled through India and to Mecca and Medina. Through discussions with wise people along the way he devised a system which took the best of each religion and leaves its more unfortunate aspects. From islam came the idea of a single god, but he took the hindu tradition of gurus. He rejected the caste system as espoused by hindus, declaring that all humans are equal.

And finally, a new letter was added to the latin alphabet during this generation, by Gian Giorgio Trissino in his Ɛpistola del Trissino de le lettere nuωvamente aggiunte ne la lingua italiana (“Trissino’s epistle about the letters recently added in the Italian language”) of 1524. The letter ‘j’, which had started as a flourish to the final ‘i’ of roman numerals (as in xxiij for 23), took up its place in the alphabet next to the ‘i’ it had emerged from. Which means that before this generation ‘Jesus’ was spelt and pronounced ‘Iesus’ or ‘Iesu’. This letter has no equivalent in the Greek or Hebrew alphabets.

Generation 489, 1760-1780: enlightenment and expansion?

Let’s start with what people wore. Clothes were elaborate. Wealthier women wore large dresses with wide panniers and hoops over which the fabric was draped. Men wore breeches, waistcoats and jackets. Here is a painting of people in travelling clothes. For formal occasions, both men and women wore wigs.


When they travelled, such people could use the network of turnpike roads in Britain, which in this generation halved the journey time from Edinburgh to London down to four days. For heavy freight, such as coal or iron ore or industrial goods, there was a canal network across the country, centred on the midlands.

What did such people talk about? There were two major currents of thought. One was the new thinking known as the Enlightenment. Nature is understandable! There is no need for ignorant superstition any more! Philosophers, scientists and economists applied the new rationality to explain their world – and wrote extensively about it. There was also an undercurrent of a sense that civilisation has corrupted us all, and that the original peoples whom westerners were encountering in the new worlds of the Americas, Africa and the new southern continent of Australia (which was first mapped in this period) had a natural virtue and nobility that Europeans had already lost.

The other current was that very drive which brought Europeans into contact and ultimately conflict with the existing inhabitants of the new continents. The arriving Europeans saw fields, woods, rivers and hills that could be farmed productively and profitably. The locals saw outsiders muscling in on their world. The ensuing conflict has possibly left a scar on the American psyche that is not resolved even now. Hollywood has explored it extensively: Soldier Blue, Dances With Wolves, Avatar all explore the violence of this clash and the remaining guilt.

The expansion happened physically around the world and in the realms of ideas too. Chemists were looking into the properties of different elements, and entrepreneurs looked for applications. The water-driven spinning jenny, which spun eight reels of cotton simultaneously, was patented during this generation.

Generation 490, 1780-1800. A turning moment in the human story?

In this generation an idea took hold. It contaged people, led to changes in behaviour and modified our world in ways that we still feel now.

The idea had been brewing in the previous generation, when the British Government, short of money after its latest war, imposed taxes on the settlers in North America. They protested, using the powerful slogan ‘No taxation without representation’. During this generation, the United States of America was founded, with a constitution outlining the rights of the citizen. In France in 1789 a similar document was drawn up, ‘La declaration des droits de l’homme’, the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

Why did this idea take root at this time? It had been proposed before, as we shall see. For me a powerful component of this idea is what underlies it, the idea that the state is not necessarily personified by its ruler. A great French king a century earlier had declared that ‘L’etat c’est moi’, I am the state. But in Holland, Britain and North America, where the idea was explored and amplified, certain ingredients were already in place which gave people rights and freedoms independent of the whim of the ruler.

The first was a (relatively) independent legal system. An entrepreneur could theoretically protect their new products through the courts.

Second, there was stability of property. The ruler could not confiscate a successful person’s riches without valid legal reason.

Third, there were sources of finance. The banking system developed in the Netherlands was adopted in Britain and North America.

Fourth, the governing elite was so preoccupied with its own concerns that it didn’t interfere in the changes happening out of its line of vision. The mediaeval guilds kept a stranglehold on innovation in established cities like London – but not in the new cities of Birmingham and Manchester. There an apprentice didn’t have to serve seven years before practising a trade. There was no glass ceiling – but no safety net either. If their venture succeeded it brought prosperity to the city, and if it failed that was their problem.

Fifth, there was a free press and exchange of ideas. There were clubs and societies. Educated people were prolific letter-writers, even across continents when a letter took weeks or months to arrive. And because of the first four ingredients, enough of them could experiment with putting these ideas into practice. This period has been described as the ‘Industrious Revolution’, as people took advantage of these opportunities and set up small enterprises on an unprecedented scale.

Other countries had some of these ingredients but not all. France had a free press but did it have an independent judiciary? The first days of the republic with its high aims were followed by the Terror of 1793, during which many were sent to the guillotine, and by the Empire a generation later. In the USA, where all of the ingredients were more or less in place (we’ll come to slavery later) the republic is still based on the constitution drawn up by a group of men in Philadelphia in 1789.

One ripple from this momentous idea was the concept of a nation state. There were movements for independence in South America, in Venezuela and Colombia, inspired by events to the north of them. India was talked of as a single entity for the first time. In southeast Asia, Siam (now Thailand) established itself as a separate country (indeed one of the few in the region subsequently able to resist colonisation by Europeans).

Some things I can’t understand about this period:

– Why were the Europeans so expansionist and aggressive? They were continually at war, either with each other or with people in other continents that they wanted to colonise. They were very good at war, thanks to innovations feeding in from the Industrious Revolution.

– Populations were growing. Thousands of Europeans moved to other continents, and still the population of Europe increased. Was this because of imports of foods from the new world, reducing dependence on local produce?

And of course, not everyone benefited from the wind of freedom that was blowing through this generation.

Some women pamphleteers in Britain and France wrote outlining the case for their gender to be accorded similar rights to the men. But this is one idea that did not catch at the time, and was arguably not seen through to its enactment until our lifetimes, generations 498 and 499. And even now, not everywhere.

Many of the people who emigrated to the new world went as indentured servants, who had to work for several years after arrival to earn their freedom. It was probably still a better bet than what they had left behind: servants were very badly paid back in Europe.

The slave trade reached its zenith in this generation. Mainly British, but also French, Dutch and Portuguese traders bought slaves in the markets of west Africa. They transported them over the Atlantic in sailing ships, then sold them to work on farms and plantations in the southern states of north America, the Caribbean and south America. It brought wealth to the traders and plantation owners, and huge suffering to the victims.

Generation 493, 1840-1860. The Industrial Revolution kicks in

I ended my first entry in this blog with the observation that the current generation, generation 500, must appear weird to previous generations. As we go back through the story of our species, I’m beginning to think that the entire human race is weird. Our DNA and that of every other living thing on this planet is composed of the same small group of amino acids. Yet every other species, so far as I know, gets on with finding food and shelter, looking after the next generation … Not us. We impose stresses on ourselves so that the experience of each rising generation is transformed in comparison to that of the preceding one. The changes are relentless – they just keep coming.

Generation 493 is where the Industrial Revolution really kicks in. Iron is mined and refined to make the machines and coal is mined to generate the steam to power them. Railways are laid to transport the production of the cotton mills, steamships bring the raw cotton from India and America to Europe, and sugar from the West Indies. The factories are lit by gas, so the employees are almost worked to death at times. The benefits of the new regime are spread unevenly, and some people start to complain about it. It is seen that factory workers need protection from exploitation. Outside the factories, traditional skilled craft workers, previously respected, articulate artisans, find their work is unwanted, usurped by cheap factory-made alternatives.  Populations are growing, too, as more children survive to adulthood. To pile further pressure in a volatile situation, the 1840’s see a succession of poor harvests. From Ireland to Poland the potato crop fails. For those living in the countryside there is not enough to eat and for city dwellers food is more expensive to buy. And as the factory workers are also the consumers of manufactured products and they have to spend more of their earnings on food, there is less demand for factory output, the factory owners reduce their hours, they earn even less money and so it goes on in a downward spiral of difficulty.

Two other trends are discernible. One is the sense of national identity – British, French, Venezuelan, Chinese … As the railways, steamships and telegraph wires link up the world and popular daily newspapers tell us about it, the old local structures do not match or support the new reality. The state starts to legislate in areas that were previously outside its remit. In the UK the number of hours worked by women and children is restricted by law: an intervention that was not required or expected for previous generations.

Many see a genuine problem here. The fragmentation of their country (Italy and Germany, for example) or the fact that their country is ruled by a foreign empire prevents them from riding on the Industrial Revolution bandwagon. In Hungary and Italy  there is resentment at the Hapsburg officials running their country and the lack of employment opportunities for local people.

The other trend is a growing sense of wider humanity, a demand for justice and decency, even for people you don’t know and may never meet. There are rights to be established and defended, as a matter of principle. Serfdom is abolished in Austria. On a more practical level, some people see it as unfair and unreasonable that their work should be undervalued, supplanted by cheap imported alternatives.  And the government must be seen to be working to ensure the welfare of more of its people than the elite few.

This has been building from previous generations, as we shall see, but the sense of injustice and search for national identity erupt in the revolutions of 1848 – and the newspapers report about it.

The revolutions started with a smoking boycott in Milan (there was a high tax on tobacco imposed by the Austrians, so the locals stopped smoking as a protest. It soon led to violent clashes) and spread to cities in Europe and beyond. Barricades were built in the streets in Paris, Vienna and elsewhere. The military was called out. Peaceful protests were violently suppressed. Negotiations were conducted, concessions were made, but some protesters wanted more. The protesters disagreed among each other. Towards the end of the year the old regimes violently reimposed their authority, but the world had changed. Governments had to take more account of the requirements of their increasingly literate populations. The volatility was not limited to Europe. In 1850 the Taiping rebellion in China could be seen as an attempt to find new values in an evolving world. The ensuing civil war led to more deaths than all of the European rebellions put together.

Two domestic revolutions made their appearance during this generation, each as powerful in its way as the washing machine was for generation 498 in the 20th century.

The sewing machine was produced in the USA, enabling the mass production of clothes. No longer were all clothes sewn by hand. Tailors made suits that were affordable to many more people, and because they could make many of the same outfit in the time it used to take to make one, more of us looked like each other. Middle class men wore long black trousers, a dress coat, white shirt, cravat and a bowler hat. National costumes become a curiosity as the world uniform of respectability takes over.

In the UK, the spread of cholera had been linked to contamination of the water supply by human waste, and the problem of its safe disposal in cities became a priority. Flush toilets became available.  A large public sewer system was installed in London. The first public toilets were introduced at the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851.

Approaching generation 495: the story so far

What a journey we have made in four generations.

A baby rabbit has taken to visiting our garden in the evenings. Its parents were probably born last year, their parents the year before. Four years ago its great-great grandparents were eating grass and looking out for danger just as this one does.

Compare that to the experience of our great-great grandparents at the turn of the twentieth century. As with the rabbits, we have the basic needs in common: food, shelter, safety, companions. But what is available to us to think about and experience has been transformed.

One of the transformations that I see is in the meaning of the word ‘community’. In the early 1900’s a community was a geographical entity – a street, a village, a town. Then as radio and TV became more widespread that sense of community started to diminish. Through the television a person might support a football team on another continent rather than the one physically nearest to them. People became more isolated in their own rooms. And now we have so many virtual communities that the possibilities are breathtaking. I have friends I have never met, with whom I share values and interests that I do not have in common with the people I see every day. It is as if we had to jettison the known securities of the old idea of community to build a new one with less of a safety net and much more scope.

Another interesting feature is the levelling effect of technologies. Each invention starts off as a luxury, available only to the few with enough money to buy it, and within a generation becomes accessible to most of the rest of us. Take air travel, for example. Two generations ago it was out of reach of most people. Now it is available to the generation who can make good use of it, the young adults. If you have ever been through Stansted Airport in the UK (a hub for the budget airlines) check the average age of the travellers, and the number of nationalities there are, all on the move.

So this story talks to me so far of a move towards individual empowerment with its associated risks. The opportunities are not available to everyone however: many people still do not have access to electricity, either mains or solar. That means they can’t even start to find their own community. But many more of us can than a century ago.

Generation 496, 1900 – 1925

It’s a strange experience, working backwards through our story. Things that we take for granted become new and exciting, full of possibilities. In this generation, one of the new things that became more available was mains electricity, allowing electric lighting in some houses. The world must have seemed a lot brighter, after the gas lights and candles that were the previous source of light outside daylight hours. Another innovation for this generation was the gramophone record player. Music could be heard without being in the presence of the person playing it. The record player itself might have been encased in bakelite plastic, another new invention. Cinema became hugely popular in this period.  People took the tram to town to watch the new international silent movie stars enacting their stories to the accompaniment of live or recorded music. They could take the train between cities, and even telephone their destination before setting off.

Several classics of children’s literature date from this period: Wind in the Willows, Kim, the Peter Rabbit stories – and Peter Pan played in the London theatre. Is it a coincidence that the new discipline of psychoanalysis was being explored in Vienna at the same time, with its focus on the significance of childhood experience? The boundaries were being pushed back in the visual arts, too. Paris was a focal point for this. Visitors to the city could take the new underground Metro with its fantastic Art Nouveau entrance ways.

It was also a time of exploration of humanity and human rights. Women organised in many countries, to pressure the government to give them the right to vote in elections as men did. And there was a transformation in what women were able to wear. At the start of the period they wore long dresses with billowing skirts, bloomers, corsets, bonnets; getting dressed each day must have taken a long time.

1907 & 1913 edwardian dresses

By the end of the period women wore clothes that would be recognisable today. The corset finally declined in popularity and loose-fitting dresses which reached above the ankle allowed women more freedom of movement.

1924 flapper dress

Workers in factories were also seen to have rights. This was the time of a rise of the Trades Union movement. There were strikes, especially when employers tried to impose pay cuts.

From now on through the generations, it seems that there is always a background of conflict. The Great War was the most destructive war so far, with huge numbers of young men killed. The British men who died were disproportionately from the wealthier families, as another reality for this generation was the poor health and diet of the urban poor. More people lived in cities and had little access to fresh food, and far more young men from working families were rejected as unfit to join the armed forces on the grounds of health.