Thursday, April 13, 2017

When did the Middle Ages end?

Officially of course the Middle Ages ended around 1500.  I say "officially" because that's when modern textbooks about the Middle Ages stop.  (Some British versions stop in 1485, the end of the War of the Roses.)

Nobody at the time of course saw 1500 as a major turning point, and for that matter they didn't know they had been living in the Middle Ages.  (The Italian Renaissance humanists who coined the term thought they were Modern, though in fact they lived pre-1500 and were, by our standards, medieval.)  But changes on either side of 1500, including the printing press and the Protestant Reformation, make 1500 a good round date.

In many ways, however, the Middle Ages lasted until the nineteenth century.  Technology drives society, more than probably we like to think, and through the eighteenth century the technology wasn't that different from medieval technology.  They had gunpowder and printing presses, respectively fourteenth- and fifteenth-century inventions (and hence medieval!) and had made advances in sailing ships, navigation, and carriages.  But most people most of the time were small farmers, struggling to make a living in the same way their ancestors had for a thousand years.  Horsepower quite literally powered most things, other than the mills, run by wind or water as they had been since the twelfth century.

The big change was the Industrial Revolution, which started in England in the last decades of the eighteenth century and had reached other western countries by the beginning of the nineteenth century. Factories began for the first time to mass produce goods, especially fabric and steel.  The machines were driven initially by steam, from water raised to boiling by coal.  We now tend to think of the English countryside as green and bucolic, but a lot of it was full of coal dust and polluted streams at the time.

By the time you get to the 1830s, railroads were starting to come in, making it possible to get from one place to another far faster than one could on horseback (also spewing coal dust).  Semi-universal education came in at the same time, meaning a major proportion of the population could at least (sort of) read and write and do arithmetic.

It has recently been argued, quite plausibly, that the biggest technological-social changes for the west came in the century 1870-1970.  Some people would say that the internet and cell phones, both dating back only 25 years or so, have also been profoundly transformative, and I would argue for the major significance of factories and railroads, but let's think about this "century of innovation."

A lot of things we now can't imagine living without weren't there (except maybe in prototype) in 1870 but were standard in the west by 1970.  Here are some examples.  Communication?  Think about a world without telephones.  Long-distance, across the country or across the world, was possible in 1970, but there were no phones in 1870.

Transportation?  There were trains but no cars or buses in 1870, certainly no airplanes.  Most certainly there were no moon landings (first one in 1969).  Steamships were the exciting new thing in the late nineteenth century, but sail was still around.  Not by 1970, except for recreation.

Speaking of recreation, how would your life be different without radio, without TV, without movies, without record players/CD players?  And those all need electricity.  Houses didn't have electricity before 1870.  They didn't have gas furnaces.  They didn't have stoves the way we think of stoves ("ranges") or refrigerators, much less microwave ovens, so food preparation would have been very different.  For that matter, there were no processed foods or supermarkets.

Most of us now have more clothes than we need, and for most people their clothing was made in factories.  Even home-sewers use factory-made fabric (except for the one or two who still weave their own--even the Amish buy their cloth).  The dyes that color them came in during the late nineteenth century.

Medical advances were stunning during the "century of innovation."  Think of a world without X-rays, without antibiotics, without vaccines.  In the 1860s medicine had been professionalized, in that doctors had "taken charge," but with their lack of sanitation, fondness for chloroform and powerful drugs, and readiness to amputate, you would probably have been better off in a medieval hospital, where the nuns would keep you warm and give you chicken soup and saint dust.

Photography had begun before 1870, but it was an arduous and expensive process, and all in black and white, whereas by 1970 anyone could take color pictures with a little box camera.  Computers were definitely around in 1970, even though there would be less computing power in a main frame that filled a room than you have in your cell phone.  Tools like washing machines and dryers, power saws, vacuum cleaners, and dishwashers made household chores much easier.

And speaking of washing things (including you), let's not forget indoor plumbing and running water and water heaters.  This is all post-1870.

So in 1970, like today, you could (while wearing factory-made clothes washed clean in the washing machine) drive to the movies with your friends, not worrying about catching a dread disease because you were vaccinated, come back to someone's house and get some snacks (food taken out of the fridge and heated up in the microwave), listen to music while chatting, get a phone call from your Mom that you needed to get home now, and drive home beneath the streetlights.  None of this was remotely possible in the first half of the nineteenth century, any more than it was in the twelfth century.  The Middle Ages is over.

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