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The 10 greatest changes of the past 1,000 years

In Europe, the last millennium has been shaped by successive waves of change, but which shifts, in which centuries, have really shaped the modern world? Historian Ian Mortimer identifies the 10 leading drivers of change.

11th century: Castles

Most people think of castles as representative of conflict. However, they should be seen as bastions of peace as much as war. In 1000 there were very few castles in Europe – and none in England. This absence of local defences meant that lands were relatively easy to conquer – William the Conqueror’s invasion of England was greatly assisted by the lack of castles here. Over the 11th century, all across Europe, lords built defensive structures to defend them and their land. It thus became much harder for kings to simply conquer their neighbours. In this way, lords tightened their grip on their estates, and their masters started to think of themselves as kings of territories, not of tribes. Political leaders were thus bound to defend their borders – and govern everyone within those borders, not just their own people. That’s a pretty enormous change by anyone’s standards.


12th century: Law and order

If you consider visiting a foreign country, one of the most important aspects you bear in mind is how safe you will be while you are there. Indeed, probably no other factor deters people from visiting a place as much as an absence of law and order. So it follows that the introduction of the systematic application of law and order marks quite a turning point in European history. This happened through the compilation of law books, the development of jurisprudence, and, in England, the development of “justices in eyre” – the forerunners of circuit judges – together with the establishment of trial by jury.

15th century: Columbus


The most important relationship in human history is between mankind and the land. Basically, the more land you have, the more natural resources you have. Columbus thus stands as one of the most important figures in history. With a great fanfare of his own achievement, he showed Europeans the way to vast territories of which no one had previously dreamed. No new technology empowered him: the compass was already at least three centuries old by the time he discovered Hispaniola in 1492. It was rather socio-economic pressure that drove him – together with his own desire to become a wealthy landowner. The consequences go far further than Spanish being the second-most widely spoken language in the world today (after Chinese). Until 1492 most people had believed the ancient Roman and Greek writers had reached an epitome of knowledge. However, there is no reference to the American continents in Ptolemy or Strabo. People quickly realised that, if the ancient writers could have missed two whole continents, they might have misunderstood many other things too. The crossing of the Atlantic was thus one of the two or three biggest causes for the re-evaluation of received wisdom in the last thousand years.

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