Centuries of Change – Ian Mortimer

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Human Race: Ten Centuries of Change is historian Ian Mortimer’s first title on a general history of the Western world. Previous works included the well-known Time Traveller’s Guide series that looks at individual periods of English and British History. The mandate of this book is to assess the amount of change that happened within each century from the 11th to the 20th. Mortimer mainly decries those that ascribe to the modern-day fetishisation of technology and digital innovation, seeing instead a need to move towards surrounding circumstances and events. His response entails a look at structures within history and how they were affected by a gamut of factors, weighing them up to discover which century saw the most change.

The narrative of Human Race moves in a methodical fashion between the various centuries, delving into great depth on each. The usual structure of a century revolves around a group of core issues that affected that time-frame. For instance, in his first chapter, Mortimer closely examines the growth of the Western Church, peace, the discontinuation of slavery and structural engineering. He then provides a conclusion about the general progress of humanity in that century, finally isolating the principal agent of change.

On the whole, Mortimer is successful in presenting a balanced, well-reasoned, and insightful narrative of our history. Each individual chapter’s scholarship is well-read, informative, and original. Although some of the chosen ‘agents of change’ are predictable, for instance, Columbus’ discovery of the Americas is thus credited for the fifteenth century, others are not. Peter Abelard, a twelfth-century poet and philosopher is honoured for his work on rationality and the questioning of God, in a century that saw two Crusades. In keeping his argument original, Mortimer certainly fulfils on his promise to stay away from the modern-day paradigm. Moreover, he brings to the forefront events and phenomena outside of human control, taking care to prevent a history of great men, in one case noting that the bubonic plague had far greater impacts than any human interferences in the fourteenth century. Not only is the study thought-provoking, but it also adds a great breadth of knowledge. It is written in a wry and engaging manner, such that the reader simultaneously feels astounded at the quantity of information before them, but comfortable in consuming it. 

There are, unfortunately, some aspects of the book that are not as consistent, particularly towards the latter stages. The first concern lies in the hesitancy that is more obvious in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Mortimer does tend to attempt to extrapolate further consequences and causes that sometimes are not fully justified, for instance in his observations on the Industrial Revolution primarily functioning to improve living standards. This may be explained by Mortimer’s grounding in medieval as opposed to modern history, which is also evident in the more interesting ‘agents of change’ in the earlier chapters.

The second note is the intermittent subjectivity of the weighing. Since there is no objective metric by which one can measure the total amount of change in scientific terms, the author had to make his own conjectures in ascertaining the value of each century. He notably does choose the twentieth century mostly as a result of its natural conditions, the presence of two world wars, plague, and famine, rather than the technologies most people would. However, at times, the metric for allocating emphasis can seem obscure and is never fully clarified.

Overall, Human Race is a fascinating and ambitious attempt to rework our modern perceptions of our history. While it does have its shortcomings in the form of a limited scope for examination or a lack of consistency in weighing each century, it is superbly written and peppered with relevant statistics. Therefore, the overall verdict is of a book that recognises the true scale of our history and seeks to analyse it with a new lens.