Generation 458, 1140-1160. Measuring the world

This generation saw the appearance of a new style of church architecture in northern France.  Nothing like it had been seen before. As with all innovations, it was able to appear because of a combination of circumstances: the opportunity, the motivation, and the people to put it into effect.

First, the opportunity. The latin world in the previous generation had seen a publishing sensation. Adelard of Bath had travelled to the moslem world in search of learning, as had so many others. He was away for seven years, spending most of them in Antioch in present-day Turkey. There he translated books from arabic into latin. His translation of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry was world changing. If you studied geometry at school, a lot of it can be directly traced back to this book, originally written as a textbook by Euclid of Alexandria in the third century BC. A triangle has 180 degrees? Euclid. If you draw a diameter of a circle, then draw a line from each end of the diameter to any point on the circumference, they will meet at right angles. Ditto, Euclid. Pythagoras’ theorem (3 squared plus 4 squared equals 5 squared is the best known example) can be traced to Euclid’s Elements.

As well as the content of the book (which meant that buildings could be designed more effectively than before) Euclid’s method of reasoning was simple, irrefutable and new to the latin world. He set up a series of five axioms, which now seem self-evident. The first axiom, for example, is that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points. He went on to introduce problems, and solved them with logical proofs.

islamic arch

Euclid’s work was well known in the islamic world. This arch from Madrid in al-Andalus, from the previous century, would have been impossible to build without an understanding of the principles of geometry. The pointed arch was a regular feature of islamic architecture.


This prayer niche from the Ibn Tulun mosque in Cairo clearly shows the pointed arch. It was built three hundred years previously, in the ninth century. 

But it was new to the latin north. Adelard’s translation went to the cathedral schools, where it encountered a different culture. It was not by accident that the church was called the Roman Catholic church. It continued the Roman Empire’s love of large structures. Large churches were not new, therefore, but what this technology allowed was a new departure in their construction. Now they could let the light in, applying the same skills in a very different expression.

Saint-Denis in Paris, Sens in Burgundy, Laon in Picardy – all were rebuilt in the new style in this generation. The builders treated the stone as a framework for the windows, using rib-vaulting and pointed arches, and filled the windows with coloured glass (another technique learned from the moslem world).

Sens cathedral

Here is the interior of Sens cathedral, with the soaring columns and huge windows of the new Frankish style, now known as Gothic.

Five centuries later the architect of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, Sir Christopher Wren, came to the same conclusion. In his ‘Parentalia’ or Memoirs, he writes, ” … what we now vulgarly call the Gothic, ought properly and truly to be named the Saracenic architecture refined by the Christians…”

In 1145 Chartres Cathedral burned down, and the opportunity was taken to rebuild it in the new style. The project was not completed until the following century, but this is where it started. There is a statue of Euclid at Chartres, as one of the representatives of the liberal arts. Luckily for us, Chartres became a backwater over the subsequent centuries, overshadowed by Paris. This meant that nobody could afford to modernise the cathedral, and so it can still be seen largely as it was eight centuries ago.

The word ‘geometry’ literally means ‘earth measuring’. The same rigorous enquiry found different expression in the south of Europe during this generation, but applied to geography (‘earth drawing’). The most accurate map and accompanying description of the world, with the unlikely title of the ‘Book of Roger’ was produced in Sicily in 1154. It set the standard until the time of Mercator, three hundred years later.

The population of Sicily was still largely moslem, as it had been reconquered from the arabs less than a century previously. Palermo, the capital, had several hundred mosques. Like his grandson Frederick II whom we have already met, the Norman king Roger II of Sicily embraced arabic culture. He was dissatisfied with the maps available and in the arabic spirit of enquiry he decided to compile a better one. He commissioned a displaced aristocrat from al-Andalus, Muhammad al-Idrisi, to coordinate the project. Over fifteen years al-Idrisi interviewed travellers, compared their stories and finally put together an authoritative description of the known world, from the Canary Islands to Korea.


There was an engraved map on a large silver plate to accompany the book. In the conventions of the time, north is at the bottom of the map and south at the top. So Asia is on the left, Africa at the top and Europe at the bottom. Both the silver plate and the original book were destroyed in riots shortly after they were finished but many copies remain.

A copy of the book is online here, and it is exquisite (even if you don’t read arabic. The maps are over two pages, so each double-page image is a map and the single pages are text.)


There was  a smaller world map in the book, with Africa at the top and Europe at the bottom. It is said that this map inspired the Portuguese explorers to attempt to sail around Africa, as it is shown surrounded by sea.

There were other towering figures in this generation. Abbess Hildegard of Bingen wrote extensively, composed and corresponded. One of her correspondents was Bernard of Clairvaux, another influential person. He  joined the Benedictine order as a boy and wanted to reform the order, advocating a simpler life. He encouraged the establishment of monasteries in remote areas where they could be self-sufficient, living off the land. He was so driven that in his lifetime he was instrumental in the establishment of six hundred Cistercian monasteries (named after the first monastery he joined at Citeaux). He also campaigned to launch the second crusade to the Holy Land in this generation.

But the order Bernard attempted to reform had its own powerful individual. Peter the Venerable was the abbot of Cluny, the mother house of the previous wave of expansion and establishment of monasteries. He was an open-minded man who advocated understanding the saracens rather than trying to annihilate them. Especially as the second crusade turned out to be a disaster for the christians. He travelled to the Cluniac monastery of Santa Maria La Real in Najera, south of the Pyrenees, and from there to Toledo where the translation movement was in full flood. He persuaded two translators, Robert of Ketton (from a village near Rutland in present day England) and his friend Herman of Carinthia (a region in present-day Austria), to give up their attempts to translate Ptolemy’s Almagest and translate the Quran instead. Called the ‘Law of Mohammed the False Prophet’  the title shows his less-than-dispassionate approach to the subject. But at least the intention was there.

By a strange twist of fate, Robert of Ketton ended up as canon in the church at Tudela, not far from Najera. Tudela is the town from which rabbi Benjamin  set off on his travels in the following generation. So the two men almost certainly knew each other.

There was another English Robert participating in the translation movement at this time. Robert of Chester went to Segovia in al-Andalus. He translated the book that introduced Algebra to the latin north: al-Khwarizmi’s Liber algebrae et almucabola, written three centuries previously.


Generation 471, 1400-1420. The 600-year mark

We have now travelled back through thirty generations and 600 years. Although many of the things we take for granted now have not even been thought of for this generation, there are some remarkable similarities. There were no printed books (although images are reproduced using woodcuts), so all books were hand-written and hand-copied. But one of those hand-written books was a self-help manual for women: a theme that has resonances with today. It explored moral dilemmas in a way that would not be out of place in a modern soap opera, and appealed to personal conscience as a way to resolve them.

Christine de Pisan wrote ‘The Treasure of the City of Ladies’ or ‘The book of the three virtues’ in 1405. Here is a page from the book, in which the three virtues (reason, rectitude and justice) won’t let her rest until she starts writing.
She was based at the French court, and the book starts with practical advice for the women there, before moving outwards in ever-increasing circles to include women of the aristocracy, women of the towns and ending with the urban and rural poor.

A moral dilemma for a lady-in-waiting at the court was: what to do if her princess embarks on an adulterous affair? She is torn between loyalty and duty to her princess and the knowledge that this course of action can only end in disaster. Shades of grey were not a feature of this world. There were two available options: virtuous christian behaviour or sin, evil. The punishment for adultery was hanging.

Christine’s advice to the lady-in-waiting whose princess refuses to listen to her is to ask to leave the court, saying she is sick and that it would be best for all if she was out of contact until she recovers.

Elsewhere, Christine advises a serving woman that if her mistress becomes pregnant by someone other than her husband, then the serving woman should announce that she is pregnant, and after the child is born take it as her own. That reminds me of a scene from the US TV soap opera ‘Frazier’, when Roz became pregnant. Frazier’s father declares, ‘When I was young we knew how to do things right. The girl went away to the country to stay with family and came back a few months later with a baby sister or brother!’ Not so different from Christine’s advice.

The context for this was the rigid social structure, with different rules for each rung in the hierarchical ladder. Christine railed against people who stepped out of their allotted role, such as merchants’ wives who dressed like princesses. But because so many had died from the plague and France was in a state of intermittent civil war among its elites, the social structure was weakening. Some people from the lower ranks, especially in the towns, were taking the opportunities for a life other than the one they were born into. Christine was defending a world that was already passing into memory.

Her values came from the teachings of the church. One can see from this book why the church was so influential. It gave people the moral compass to decide between right and wrong, how to proceed and what to avoid. It helped to make sense of the world. Christine targeted the vices of envy and pride as a particular danger for her readers. The princess who is so proud of her situation that she takes it for granted rather than seeing it as a function, a duty. The town-dweller who dresses like the nobility and risks stirring envy in the hearts of others.

Here, she reads from her book to a group of men, each of whose role is shown by the clothes they wear.

The church was also concerned with an unresolved issue that found expression in Prague. The papacy was in crisis, still in the Great Schism, with a pope in France and another in Italy. One of the popes authorised the sale of indulgences to finance a war against a supporter of his opponent. A priest and teacher at the Prague University, Jan Hus, wrote against this, like Luther a century later:
“One pays for confession, for mass, for the sacrament, for indulgences, for churching a woman, for a blessing, for burials, for funeral services and prayers. The very last penny which an old woman has hidden in her bundle for fear of thieves or robbery will not be saved. The villainous priest will grab it.”

Also like Luther, Hus believed in predestination: a hard christian philosophy based on the idea of an omnipotent deity who has already determined who will be saved and who will be damned. There is nothing we can do to change it: we are either among the elect or we aren’t.

Hus’s ideas gathered wide support in central Europe, to the consternation of the ruling elite.

The Council of Constance was convened in 1414 to bring an end to the papal schism. It also examined the heretical ideas that had found their most recent champion in Prague. Hus was invited to the council with a promise of safe conduct from the king. But he was not one of the nobility, and honour applied only to one’s own rank and above, not to the lower orders. Once he was in Constance, the safe conduct was revoked and he was arrested on the grounds of heresy. He was convicted and burned at the stake in 1415. However, as we have seen, his ideas did not die with him.

There was an alternative to the hardline philosophy of Hus and his followers, or the authoritarian line of the established church. Humanism, a philosophy of education and of life, was finding expression in Italy. There is a refreshing optimism in the writings of humanist teachers and philosophers. They believed they could offer young people a rounded education that would nurture their enquiring minds so that they grew up to be well-adjusted citizens. Subjects to be taught included the study of history, philosophy, language (particularly latin and later, greek), composition in prose and poetry, how to present an argument in speech or writing. Other subjects were astronomy and mathematics. These were seen as human accomplishments: hence the title ‘humanities’ which was invented during this time.

Its inspiration could be traced back to the works of classical Roman and Greek authors, particularly Cicero and later to Plato. Its more recent revival went back to Boccaccio, Petrarch and Dante in the preceding two centuries. It was regularly topped up as more and more ancient texts were rediscovered. Contributions were made during this generation by Manuel Chrysoloras (who travelled from Constantinople with yet another unsuccessful delegation asking for help from the west against the encroaching ottoman empire). He was invited to Florence, and travelled around Europe. He translated the works of Homer and Plato into Latin.

For example, here is an extract from a letter written by one of Chrysoloras’ students:
“Our name, our birthplace, are not of our own choice. Progress in learning, on the other hand, as in character, depends largely on ourselves, and brings with it its own abiding reward.” (From Concerning Character. Letter from Petrus Paulus Vergerius to his pupil Ubertino, son of Francesco Carrara, the Lord of Padua, 1404-5). None of the doom and gloom of predestination there.

Another of Chrysoloras’ students, Leonardo Bruni, devised the term ‘Renaissance’ (meaning ‘rebirth’) to describe the times they were living in, and ‘Middle Ages’ for the preceding period where the light of classical learning had not yet been rediscovered. Bruni also wrote a 12-volume history of the Florentine people, which is considered to be the first modern history book.

Thinkers like Bruni and his colleagues influenced the artists, too. Like the scholars, they took their inspiration from the classics, but did not follow them slavishly.
Here is a statue of St George by Donatello. St George looks as if he is ready to step off the plinth and make his own considered decision about what to do next. In comparison to the painting of Christine de Pisan at the top of this page, this statue breathes the air of a different world.

Generation 472, 1420-1440. Fading and appearing

This generation saw the last instance that I am aware of, of direct angelic intervention in human affairs. It happened through a young girl living in Donremy in north-eastern France, the daughter of Jacques d’Arc. During Jeanne d’Arc’s (in English, Joan of Arc’s) lifetime France was living through a prolonged civil war among its elites.

The dukes of the two warring factions, the Armagnacs and Burgundians, were cousins. The Armagnacs controlled most of central France, an area dependent on agriculture, with its feudal hierarchies still intact. The Burgundians controlled eastern France and Flanders to the north (the area that is now Belgium). Flanders was rich because of the wool trade with England, and so the court of Burgundy was rich too, famous for its lavish style. Flanders had prosperous cities with merchants, the arts, an infrastructure – in other words, a more modern world. The king of England was also cousin to the fighting French elites. England controlled France north of the Loire, and Aquitaine in the south-west. As rulers of Flanders, it was in the Burgundians’ interests to ally themselves with England.
This map from Wikipedia shows the situation. The territories controlled by Henry V of England are shown in pink, those controlled by Philip III of Burgundy are shown in purple and the territories controlled by Charles VII, not yet crowned king of France, are shown in blue.

Joan was a devout girl. She had her first vision at the age of twelve or thirteen, in the garden of her home. She cried when the shining people left – they were so beautiful. From then on, for the next four years, she saw them often. Her friends first teased her and then avoided her. Her marriage betrothal was broken off. She said she saw Saints Catherine and Margaret and the archangel Michael. They told her to drive the English out of France and take the dauphin to Rheims to be crowned king Charles VII of France. Apart from the fact that she was an unimportant girl in an unimportant village, such ideas were in the realm of fantasy. Fifteen years previously the English had won a decisive victory at Agincourt. The last king of France, Charles the Mad, had signed a treaty disinheriting his son, the dauphin, in favour of his grandson Henry VI of England, on the possibly correct suspicion that the dauphin was a result of his wife’s affair with his brother during one of his bouts of insanity.

The full story is told in detail elsewhere: how she persuaded her cousin to take her to meet the garrison commander at Vaucouleurs, and how on her second visit she made an accurate prediction that the Armagnacs were being defeated that very day by the English. (This was the so-called battle of the Herrings). How she went to Orleans, was dressed in armour and despite superior numbers the English lifted the siege nine days after her arrival.

This was a time of rigid hierarchies. It is extraordinary that a poor girl from a small town should be in the same room as the dauphin and all those military commanders even as a servant, let alone converse with them as an equal. It would seem they maybe humoured her but they also listened to her. And after her appearance the tide of the conflict turned.

She did indeed conduct the dauphin to Rheims to be crowned. Within a generation the English were out of France and Charles VII made a peace treaty with Burgundy. Within a hundred years Burgundy and its territories were absorbed either into France or the Habsburg Empire, and within another hundred years France was the powerhouse of Europe.

Joan herself was captured, sold to the English, tried for heresy and burned at the stake. But within a generation of her death the sentence was revoked, suggesting that those who remembered the events knew they had lived through something remarkable.
Jeanne d'Arc
This image of her was painted around 1450, about twenty years after she died. (courtesy Wikimedia).

Reviewing the story, it raises contradictions. Why did the angels appear to Joan? It could be said that the zeitgeist was not finding expression in the France of Joan of Arc, but in Flanders, Florence and eastern Europe. That was where the new world, the one we live in now, was making its appearance.

For example: a wealthy merchant in Ghent in Flanders commissioned Hubert van Eyck to paint an altarpiece for the local church. When Hubert died, his brilliant brother Jan took over.
Here is the inside of the altarpiece. The reverse is similarly ornate.

For me the most remarkable parts of this painting are the images of Adam and Eve on the left and right.
Here is a close-up of Adam. It is painted with a realism that is new to the time. One can imagine Messer van Eyck asking one of his friends, family or neighbours to model for him, and then painting what he actually saw rather than an idealised image.

But the most famous painting by Jan van Eyck was for a merchant in Bruges, another wealthy town in Flanders.
The Arnolfini portrait shows the Italian merchant Giovanni Arnolfini and Jeanne Cenami in their bedchamber. From the wooden pattens on the floor to the brush hanging from the bedpost, it shows a faithful attempt to portray the world they actually inhabited. A determination to describe what is actually the case that would not be out of place in our time.

There has been discussion about what this painting represents. Does it show the wedding of this couple, or their betrothal? Or is he granting her the power to manage their business affairs in his absence? The lady in this portrait shares her name with Joan of Arc (in French, Jeanne d’Arc). I suspect that whatever it portrays, apart from that one thing in common, the two women inhabited very different worlds.

More dramas in this generation were playing out in the world of the church. The last Avignon pope (supported by the Armagnac faction) abdicated in favour of Martin V, supported by the English and therefore the Burgundians. Martin V came from an old Roman family, and moved the seat of the papacy back to the city. He started rebuilding Rome, which had fallen into ruin. This was the beginning of the end of the turmoil in the catholic church, but not the end of dissent.

In 1415 a priest and scholar from Prague University in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) had been burned at the stake for heresy. In anticipation of the grievances of Martin Luther a century later, Jan Hus highlighted the hypocrisy of the church establishment and advocated a simpler, more personal religion. Jan Hus’s followers continued his cause after his death. There were five attempts by local rulers, backed by the catholic church to stamp out the heresy. But the Hussites defeated them all, thanks to some innovative tactics and inspiring leaders. By the end of this generation a compromise had been reached and the Hussites were nominally reintegrated into the church. But Hus’s ideas continued, and a century later the Reformation found fertile ground here.

Pope Martin’s successor Eugene IV oversaw an attempt to reunite the eastern and western churches. Although this ultimately failed, it did have a side-effect. One of the entourage accompanying the elders of the eastern church to Ferrara and then (after an outbreak of the plague) to Florence was a scholar called Gemistus Plethon. Cosimo de Medici attended Plethon’s lectures on Plato and, inspired by them, founded the Platonic Academy in Florence. And so the seeds that led to the flowering of the Renaissance were sown.

One seed that was sown in Florence at this time was within the realm of humanity. The wool merchants’ guild, one of the nine major guilds of the city, commissioned the sculptor Brunelleschi to design the first orphanage that I know of, and it opened in 1427. There was a basin outside the front door where an unwanted baby could be left anonymously. The children were reared there and given an education appropriate to their gender. The boys learned a trade, the girls domestic arts. The older girls had the chance to become nuns, or were given a dowry to be married. There is a mercy, a compassion given expression here: regardless of their background, the children left at the Ospedale degli Innocenti were cared for and given a chance to play their part in the life of Florence when they grew up.

Ospedale degli Innocenti, Florence

Generation 482, 1620-1640. Shifting focus.

The thirty years war was a fact of life for all of this generation if you lived in Europe. It was fought mainly in northern and central Europe, especially Germany and the Habsburg Empire (present day Austria, Czech republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland). At different times Denmark, France and Sweden also sent troops to fight.

Looking back from here, I begin to suspect one reason why the supporters of the Roman Catholic church fought so bitterly and for so long. Something was slipping out of their grasp. The light of learning, enterprise, human curiosity was moving north. It found a home in the countries that largely escaped the fighting: France, England and the Netherlands.

For example, there is the story of William Harvey. Born in the south of England, a clever young man from a middle-class family, he went to Cambridge University, graduating as a Bachelor of Arts. To continue his studies after graduation, he went to the best establishment in Europe for medical studies: Padua in Italy. After studying there for four years he came back to England, returned to Cambridge and graduated as Doctor of Medicine within the year.

William Harvey is now remembered as a pioneer because he was one of a growing group who trusted the evidence of their own investigations rather than relying on books. Conventional medical science in his day was still based on books written by long-dead authorities. The standard theory of the blood, over 1300 years old, was that arterial and venous blood were different and separate. The heart was the source of heat and arterial blood in the body. Venous blood was created in the liver. From his own researches on animals, Harvey proposed that arterial and venous blood were part of the same system. He wrote that the blood circulates through the heart and lungs, around the body and back to the heart. He did not have access to a microscope, although it was invented around this time, so he could not see the capillaries that lie between the arteries and the veins. He proposed that they should be there, however, and was eventually proved right.


The anatomy lesson, Rembrandt 1631

For intellectual backup, Harvey could rely on the work of another remarkable Englishman from the previous generation. Francis Bacon also travelled and studied in southern Europe before returning to England. In his book Novum Organum (New Method), published in 1620,  he laid the basis for the scientific method. He warned of the danger of preconceptions, whether from previously written ideas or the prevailing orthodoxy, and championed the value of open-minded  enquiry and interpretation of observations. In his novel ‘New Atlantis’, published in 1623, he imagined a world where such open-minded exploration was the norm. A century later Voltaire described him as the father of experimental philosophy.

Mathematics was also explored in this generation. Some of the symbols we use now came from this period. English mathematicians devised the multiplication symbol (x) and the ‘greater than’ and ‘less than’ signs (> and <). French mathematicians went into mathematical speculation. Pierre de Fermat pondered his ‘last theorem’. Scribbled in the margin was a note that he didn’t have time to write out the proof. (The proof was finally worked out in 1995 by Andrew Wiles). France also had a brilliant networker, a priest in Paris called Marin Mersenne. As well as conducting his own researches into music theory, he corresponded with mathematicians in France and elsewhere, keeping them up-to-date with new developments and introducing them to each other.


From the perspective of now, it seems to me that the deciding factor for this new spirit in the north was not the established religion. After all, France was catholic, the Netherlands were Calvinist protestant, and the reformed Church of England was a sort of cut-down Roman catholicism without Rome or the pope. But in each of these countries, people were relatively free to explore the new ideas. The new energy that was felt in these countries had another expression. The ‘Mayflower’ sailed to north America with English and Dutch settlers, the start of a wave of emigration across the Atlantic. In catholic Italy, on the other hand, the elderly Galileo was forced to publicly recant his view that the Earth moves around the Sun, because it was deemed to conflict with the teachings of the church.

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 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.