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Millennium: A History of Our Last Thousand Years Paperback – September, 1996
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About the Author
Felipe Fern ndez-Armesto has been a member of the Modern History Faculty of Oxford University since 1983. His books include The Times Atlas of World Exploration, Columbus, Edward Gibbon's Atlas of the World, Barcelona- a Thousand Years of the City's Past, Millennium and Truth. Translations of his work have appeared or are pending in twenty languages. He lives in Oxford. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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It begins promisingly with a review of the relatively discrete civilizations of 1000AD. But it is as we start to approach the ‘Rise of the West’ that, to my mind, the wheels start to come off and never get put back on again for the rest of the book.
We are told that, “The fourteenth-century experience…made western Europe in the fifteenth-century the least promising of the world’s civilizations and, to objective scrutiny, among the worst equipped to profit from the world’s ‘age of expansion’, which began with initiatives weighted in favour of China and Islam and...with states of greater dynamism in Africa and the Americas than any visible in the Latin West.” And that, “Fifteenth-century Europe…will appear, to the galactic museum-keepers…if the notice it at all, stagnant and introspective.”
Now Felipe Fernandez-Armesto is both an author and a graduate of – and later a fellow at – the oldest university in the English-speaking world. The fifteenth century Latin West, which in earlier centuries had given birth to the university (as opposed to a cathedral school or a madrassa), saw an explosion in the number of universities and also the invention of the printing press with moveable metal type.
Consider our cosmic curator. Presumably it travels by spaceship or is at least descended from more primitive beings that still had to travel by such a machine.
To travel through space it helps if you have a machine with which to do so, an instruction system that tells you how to run it, devices for measuring time and space – however relative they may be – and a means of magnifying far away objects.
While it might have marvelled at the ingenuity of the water-powered devices built by Su Sung and Al Jazeri it might have noticed that these were one-offs and anyway not suitable for mechanization. From about 1300 onwards Medieval Latin Christendom was dotted with mechanical clocks in churches and town halls. The mechanical clock has been called the ‘mother of machines’. To this day our measure of how smoothly efficient a machine works is that it ‘runs like clockwork’. As Lewis Mumford put it in Technics and Civilization
“The clock is not merely a means of keeping track of the hours, but of synchronizing the actions of men. The clock, not the steam-engine, is the key-machine of the modern industrial age…In its relationship to determinable quantities of energy, to standardization, to automatic action, and … accurate timing, the clock has been the foremost machine in modern technics; and at each period it has remained in the lead: it marks a perfection toward which other machines aspire.”
From the 1450s onwards Medieval Latin Christendom was also dotted with printing presses with moveable type, the machine necessary to produce instruction manuals. But such printing press were ignored or, in the Islamic world, rejected outside of the West for centuries after their invention.
The fifteenth century Latin West also led the world in glass making (spectacles were another medieval western invention) that would lead on to the telescope, the microscope and also those tubes and beakers without which chemistry would be well-nigh impossible.
To my mind from then on the book never really recovers. Near the end we are told that, “Over the period as a whole, the east may well seem to have been more influential in the west than the other way around.”
A thousand years ago the West lagged behind the Eat in general and China in particular in many ways. But things have changed a tad since then.
I think China, where Adam Smith seems to be taking over from Karl Marx, houses more Christians than the West does Confucians. The demonstrators in Tiananmen Square built their own Statue of Liberty. I don’t recall the Occupy movement invoking the Mandate of Heaven.
What population could Asia support today were it not for the work of the likes of Pasteur, Haber and Borlaug?
Having taken a wrong turning the book meanders on telling us more about the author’s highly impressive erudition than it does about how the world changed in the last millennium.
What we’re left with is more a cabinet of curiosities than a cosmic class collection.