Washington Post
A Brief History of History

One thousand years in two thousand words (plus footnotes)

By Marc Fisher

Friday, December 31, 1999


In the past 1,000 years, man refined time, expanded the day, discovered discovery, explored his own consciousness, fell in love with his own image, monkeyed with the creation of life and perfected the means of his own destruction. His purpose remained unclear.

In this millennium's first century, Jerusalem changed hands three times, ending up in Christian control. Today, talks on the status of the Holy City are stalled. In a time of dizzying change, some things are eternal.

Eternity lost some of its mystery around 1275, when the mechanical clock was invented, probably by Italian monks, to time their prayers. The minute hand was added in the 1500s. Four hundred years later, labor was negotiating with management over the number of seconds a worker might require for a bathroom break.1 Time is far from immutable: Many of its basic structures are remarkably new, including the weekend (100 years old) and daylight-saving time (200 years old). In 1879, when Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, man finally deposed the sun from its throne as sole arbiter of day and night.2

The individual's ability to govern life blossomed this millennium. But the human condition remained complicated and troubled. The millennium began as it ends, with strife and war, much of it over matters of faith. Christianity asserted itself from the start as the coming thing; in many ways, this was the Christian millennium. But the murderous Crusades that raged from the 11th to 13th centuries inflamed Islam, smeared Judaism, and created a legacy of religious hatred -- monumental injuries that remain at the core of human conflict 1,000 years later.3

Influence and power waxed and waned around the globe. In the 11th century, the Chinese were the world's teacher, leading in the visual and written arts while exporting their invention of gunpowder (13th century) and their vast spectrum of spices. Other powers asserted themselves as China's dominance diminished: Genghis Khan's bloody quest to build a Mongol empire that stretched from the Pacific to the Danube; the glory of Mali, the West African kingdom that controlled most of the world's gold in the 13th and 14th centuries, while much of the rest of the globe suffered from the plague and famine; the Ottoman hegemony over a swath extending from the Balkans to Baghdad until its decline in the 1600s; and Western Europe's rise to 400 years of dominance until it faded into an American century and a reassertion of Asian economic power at the period's end.4

The means available to destroy one's enemies improved markedly: from 1430, when suits of armor were developed, to 1945, when the first atom bombs were dropped on Japan, raining death on tens of thousands of unsuspecting civilians.

Those who were not making war were making love. At the start of the millennium, in India and much of the non-Christian world, an open embrace of sexuality prevailed over commerce and colonization as man's primary occupation.5 Through the first half of the millennium, in China, Africa and even in parts of Christian Europe, learned men taught that pleasure was the species's highest calling, that it could cure virtually all ills -- sexual healing, in Marvin Gaye's term.6

Another period of sexual freedom would begin near millennium's end, sparked largely by the invention of more certain forms of contraception. But in the intervening centuries, people experienced cycles of repression and liberation,7 from binding the feet of Chinese women8 to refining the art of caressing through hours-long kisses.

Disease was repeatedly beaten back and defeated, only to regroup and return. The Black Death of the 14th century killed one-third of Europeans and North Africans; Cairo, once a flourishing capital of commerce and culture, was nearly wiped out, and never regained its splendor. Soon thereafter, science began its long competition against the church, which correctly perceived man's search for certainty as a challenge to faith itself.9

Christianity evolved into an unmatched force, but the faith was no rock; it was a river that molded itself to the surrounding landscape. Ancient Judaism had been an enemy of the image, a revolutionary voice against idolatry. But by the start of the second millennium, Christianity had embraced artistic imagery, a decision that would unleash a thousand years of expression and a revolution in man's concept of his place in the world.

Description flowed from the image to the word and on: music, theater, spectacle. From Dante's first exploration of the deadly sins and premier virtues that God set as the order of life (1308) to Beethoven's 19th-century transcription of the depths and pinnacles of human experience into sounds that he could better feel than hear, artists were liberated.

What the church started, it could not contain. Johann Gutenberg's printing press (1436)10 permitted the dissemination of not only sacred but vulgar texts; information would never again be restricted to the elites, despite the efforts of totalitarian regimes. Art's possibilities reached beyond faith, into the secular: Shakespeare, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Mozart -- each burst through boundaries and, with the aid of rich patrons and a widening audience, imagined the world anew.

"Do you not see that the eye encompasses the beauty of the whole world?" Leonardo asked. He could not have known the wonders to be seen in the centuries to come, as the impressionists, photography (1839, Louis Daguerre) and the cinema (1896, Thomas Edison and the Lumiere brothers) and their various cousins turned the looking glass into a kaleidoscope of consciousness. In 1,000 years, the observed life evolved from book of devotion to screenplay. Truth, once the domain of the gods, became a matter of documentary evidence: It's on the page, in the book, caught on film, captured on tape.11

By the Renaissance, it was clear that man's destiny was to know, to discover.12 Motivated by God, gold and glory, European explorers took to the high seas.13 But 70 years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, the Chinese adventurer Cheng Ho -- a eunuch Muslim admiral -- led a flotilla of several hundred junks on a 10,000-mile odyssey to Zanzibar, not to plunder for gold and slaves but to dispense gifts that would spread the word of China's cultural superiority. With the new age of exploration, science began its ascent. While Galileo fought for Copernicus's view that man was not at the center of the physical universe (1543), Descartes' formulation "I think, therefore I am" (1637) put the human being at the locus of his own existence.14 Freed to probe God's handiwork without fear or apology, science exploded, producing Newton's insights on gravity (1687), Mendel's on genetics (1866), Darwin's on evolution (1859), Einstein's on relativity (1905) and Watson and Crick's on DNA (1953), the code that opened the biogenetics revolution.15

The passion for discovery extended from the physical world to the imagination and soul. Those who were late to the splendors of discovery would be punished by history -- Arab, Asian and African nations that resisted the new global commerce in products and ideas became technologically backward, failed in the competition for trade, or fell victim to the colonizers.

In Europe, the Renaissance broke the church's monopoly on law, theology and power. The Protestant Reformation opened mankind to the wider kingdom of faith, and to rationalism, pluralism, democracy and individual rights. In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg church, attacking Rome's corruption and daringly suggesting that priests not stand between God and man.

The distance between the elect and the common people diminished.16 A Flemish painter, Pieter Bruegel, began depicting scenes of peasant life (1565); the English Parliament agreed on a bill of rights, a guarantee of individual freedoms (1689); and Europeans moved en masse from the countryside to the burgeoning cities (18th century).17

But inequality remained a constant, even as the human quest for freedom asserted itself. In 1508, Spanish settlers enslaved local Indians in Hispaniola. In 1612, the Spanish Jesuit theologian Francisco Suarez championed Indian rights, arguing that all men are created equal. In 1619, the first slaves from Africa were delivered to America, at Jamestown, Virginia. In 1722, Czar Peter the Great of Russia permitted commoners to rise to the nobility on their merit.

Despite waves of innovation and spasms of excess -- such as the Taj Mahal (1653), a fantastic marble tribute to Indian emperor Shah Jahan's wife -- most lives were dependably miserable.18 "The life of Man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short," wrote Thomas Hobbes in his "Leviathan" (1651).

The commoner's life changed only with industrialization. James Watt's steam engine (England, 1776), Eli Whitney's cotton gin (United States, 1793) and the first steam railway (England, 1825) altered the nature of work, which moved out of the home and toward a more regulated, if sometimes more abusive, environment. In place of the omnipotent church or monarch, the corporation, with its ingenious removal of responsibility from any single set of shoulders, became one of the world's leading authorities, making possible the assemblage of capital, the taking of risks and the expansion of industry. In much of the world, business replaced faith as the primary focus of aspiration. Skyscrapers supplanted cathedrals as the highest statement of man's reach for more.

Caught between a liberating sense of personal potential and constricting hierarchies of governmental and economic control, people demanded freedoms of religion, speech and individual initiative. The American (1776) and French (1789) revolutions launched a wave of rebellion. In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft, a British radical, dismissed the idea that women are inferior and demanded equal opportunity for her gender in education and work.19 In South America, Simon Bolivar liberated Colombia (1819) and his native Venezuela from Spanish rule; although the British continued to collect colonies, the age of European domination was waning. In 1848, revolutions broke out across Europe -- against encrusted monarchies and against the abuses of the early industrial age. Karl Marx that year called on working men to rebel against capitalism; 150 years later, the system inspired by Marx collapsed, as working people rebelled for capitalism and its promise of individual freedoms. In Japan in 1868, Emperor Meiji seized power from the shoguns who had ruled for 700 years; Japan would now open itself to Western influence. In the latter half of the 20th century, vestiges of colonialism decayed and crumbled as India, and then the many nations of Africa, and finally the satellites of the Soviet Union, established independence.

The individual emerged as the focus of human existence.20 In the novel,21 which flowered in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and in Sigmund Freud's reconception of internal reality (1900), man explored his inner horizons. Who am I, asked Melville, Dostoevski and, above all, James Joyce. Inside one mind, an entire world could blossom -- particular in the extreme, yet as universal as Molly Bloom's exhalation of acquiescence, ecstasy and power: "first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes."22

While man probed his inner world, he also reshaped his exterior environment, building the transcontinental railway across America (1869), the Suez Canal (1869) and the Panama Canal (1913), and surpassing new frontiers -- powered flight (Wright brothers, 1903), the moon landing (Neil Armstrong, 1969, just to show it could be done), and conception outside the human body (first test tube baby, Louise Brown, 1978).

Yet for all the change, there was a constancy that was both comforting and depressing:23 The nation-state and the empire were constantly having their obituaries written, yet neither showed much sign of decline. Rather, nations continued to follow the pattern set by China: innovation, expansion, relative equality of opportunity, affluence, and then decline -- environmental devastation, intellectual rigidity, social paralysis, inequalities -- the perfect recipe for civil strife, war, revolution. Mix well and repeat. The Byzantine Empire declined and died, laid low by the Turks and crusading Christians, while Russia rose and fell and then rose and fell again in the guise of the Soviet Union. Drought and disease laid West Africa low, but the kingdom of Oyo and others soared again on the strength of the slave and gold trades, only to fall victim to colonizers and another period of decrepitude. Globally, the human spirit waxed and waned, with breathtaking pinnacles and harrowing depths.

The great ethnic rivalries and enmities that so powerfully defined these thousand years kept popping up like a global game of Whack-a-Mole.24 Lessons are not learned: That is the grim lesson of the Nazi Holocaust (1941-45), the systematic, government-sanctioned, popularly supported mass murder of a nation's own citizens -- a never-to-be-repeated horror that has been reprised and refined somewhere on the globe in every generation since.

From start to finish, this was a millennium of measurement25 -- of ever-more precise units of time, of decreasing distances, of the planet's remaining resources.

In many ways, human beings had not changed: They lied, hated, loved, raged, wept, retreated into dark recesses and burst into each day, willing.26 But in one crucial way, they were a different creature from 1,000 years before: Now, one person, with a sense of self and a vision of a limited but purposeful existence, could clear a path through life, make choices and hold moral positions. Consciousness -- and so the human species -- had evolved that far.

1. The passion for efficiency began in Japan, which in the 17th century began encouraging its citizens to save time.

2. The day became clay in man's hands -- something to be condensed or elongated at will. Artificial light created the concept of "evening," expanding the usable portion of the day and requiring cars (Karl Benz, 1885) to have headlamps.

3. In 1215, the Vatican ordered Jews to live separately and wear distinctive clothing. Through the middle of the millennium, one European nation after another expelled the Jews. Nearly 800 years later, in Kosovo in 1999, Serbian Christians attempted to obliterate the Albanian Muslims in their midst. Other enmities were more purely ethnic: In 1461, Vlad the Impaler, also known as Prince Dracula, rampaged in southeastern Europe, killing 25,000 Turkish Bulgarians, impaling them on stakes, forcing children to eat their roasted mothers.

4. In 1494, Spain and Portugal felt they had established enough control of the world that they divided it between them, both their existing colonies and lands not yet discovered.

5. In 1020, the sandstone temple of Khajuraho, India, was completed with its phallic spire and friezes of lovemaking -- couples and trios entwined in erotic positions that would be con-sidered revol-utionary a thousand years later.

6. Martin Luther had a different kind of healing in mind when he noted that marriage was like a hospital, where patients could be cured of lust.

7. Homosexuality began the millennium as a broadly accepted practice in most of the world. In 1102, Saint Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury, railed against any severe punishment for same-sex relationships because "this sin has been so public that hardly anyone has blushed for it." Under Queen Elizabeth I, it was fashionable for men of a certain class to promenade with a mistress on one arm and a catamite -- a boy sex partner -- on the other. Only in the 13th century, as part of the crusade against heresies that culminated in the Inquisition, did repression of homosexuals catch on. France in 1260 decreed that the punishment for a first offense of homosexuality would be amputation of the testicles. Actually, the word "homosexual" was not invented until 1869, by a Viennese writer. And only at millennium's end did some societies seem to move back toward a tone of acceptance akin to that of 900 years ago.

8. Foot binding created an additional orifice for sexual gratification. In fact, the spectrum of human sexual behavior, unlike other aspects of human life, narrowed over the millennium, in good part because effective contraception permitted people to focus on intercourse at the expense of more adventuresome but less risky activities.

9. In 1299, eyeglasses were invented in Rome, clearing the way toward wider participation in the behavior that would most alter life in the coming centuries: reading. Science became a profession in 1376, when English doctors first set standards for their own conduct.

10. Gutenberg based his invention on the wine press.

11. "Nothing has really happened until it's been described," said the writer Virginia Woolf.

12. Some of the best discoveries were edible. In 1554, the English imported their first pineapples from the New World, along with chili peppers and vanilla. Food also contributed mightily to cross-cultural comity. From the 15th century, nations united in their quest for foods that might transport people momentarily from the travails of daily life. In fact, much of the peasant class of the Western world passed the time stoned out of its mind during the mid-millennium, courtesy of consciousness-altering breads -- rye bread included lysergic acid, a hallucinogen; poppy bread induced euphoria.

13. In 1572, the last of the Incas, Tupac Amaru, the sun king of Peru, was beheaded and his kingdom destroyed as Spanish colonizers made clear they would not stand for native opposition.

14. The individual's ability to assert that there is no universal truth, but only one's own truth, increased even as science and scholarship established more and more hard facts about the world.

15. The best invention of the millennium is widely considered to be the printing press, which is obvious and right. The rest of the top 10 are: glass lenses, the orchestra, the clock pendulum, electrification, the birth control pill, refrigeration, anesthesia, indoor plumbing, and antibiotics. The most overrated invention of the millennium is the spacecraft.

16. With the Reformation, organized religion lost some of its stranglehold, as did autocracy in general. But in taking more control of his life, did man become more secure? Hardly. He remained a fearful, cowering creature. Instead of worrying about how unseen ancestors or a supernatural almighty might judge his actions, he fretted over the opinions of other people. What will the neighbors think? What if they see us? Keep this between us. We might have nothing to fear but fear itself, yet that is a plenty constricting force.

17. The move to the cities was helped enormously by Sir John Harington, who had been banned from Queen Elizabeth's court for telling risque stories in front of the ladies but redeemed himself in the eyes of history by inventing the flush toilet in 1589. The shift to the cities was overwhelming, but after 600 years of urban dominance, in the final decades of the millennium, people reversed the trend, creating suburbs in an attempt to regain something of what had been lost.

18. The worst year of the millennium was 1347, when Mongol raiders launched an early form of biological warfare by catapulting diseased corpses over the wall of a European trading post on the Black Sea. Survivors carried the bubonic plague back home to Italy. The Black Death swept through Europe and Asia, killing more than 25 million people. The best year was 1789, when the French Revolution began, the French Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the U.S. Congress convened its first meeting and America's first president took office, the modern factory system was born, plants and chemical elements were classified, bourbon was invented, William Blake wrote his "Songs of Innocence," Mozart wrote two piano sonatas, Beethoven composed two preludes for piano, and British philosopher Jeremy Bentham stated that the primary purpose of all human behavior is "the greatest happiness of the greatest number."

19. Women -- idealized from near the start of the millennium and narrowly defined by their sex through most of the period -- pushed toward new roles in parts of the world. But this was not entirely new: Exactly 1,000 years ago, in Kyoto, women invented Japanese literature, kept their own homes even after marriage, were encouraged to take on lovers, and were judged by the music and art they produced rather than by any standard of marital service or fealty.

20. A television program, "Biography," named the top 100 people of the millennium, reasonably putting Gutenberg at the apex. After all, without the printing press, folks in Canada might be hearing about Galileo just about now. But the TV list also included such laughable choices as Elvis Presley, Walt Disney, D.W. Griffith, Harriet Tubman, the Beatles, Ronald Reagan, Eleanor Roosevelt, Louis Armstrong and Rachel Carson. Although mankind produced some clever new tools this millennium, root intelligence apparently remained a rare commodity. Gutenberg also tops a more ambitious attempt to find the great people of the period, a book called "1,000 Years, 1,000 People." Yet here, too, things quickly get ridiculous; the book includes Gertrude Stein, Helmut Kohl, Ray Kroc, Ralph Nader, the very cool Nigerian singer Fela and -- most ludicrous of all -- Al Neuharth, the maestro of mediocre newspapers. Go figure. Fully 717 of the people in this list came from the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Italy. No other country contributed more than 33.

21. The concept of individual authorship did not arise until the mid-14th century; personal forms of writing such as the essay, the memoir and the novel emerged over several centuries.

22. Yet the emergence of the individual did little to alter the central condition in the lives of human beings: loneliness, a state of being that was largely unchanged through this and previous millenniums.

23. An early 12th-century scroll painted by Chang Tse-tuan shows life in Kaifeng, China, one of the world's greatest cities at the start of the millennium. It is a scene of bustle and business, bridges and boats. With very few exceptions, it could depict a market scene today.

24. "The art of all truly great national leaders consists among other things primarily in not dividing the attention of a people, but in concentrating it upon a single foe," wrote Adolf Hitler. Today, the art of war has been refined and to some extent automated -- Einstein paved the way for the development of the ultimate weapon, leaving mankind one button-push away from extinction -- but the essential forces remain unchanged: hate, the rallying power of ethnic or national enmity, and the allure of risk, the factor that has made so many men look back on battle as the highlight of their lives.

25. In 1585, a Dutch mathematician, Simon Stevin, adopted the decimal system that had been developed by the Chinese and the Arabs and put it into use in mathematics, replacing the common method of counting by twelves with the simpler system based on tens.

26. All this individualism produced a frenzy of innovation in tools that could reverse the trend toward freedom: The very same computer connections and communications devices that facilitate and liberate individual expression make it possible for nation-states, huge corporations and oligarchic titans to steer, spy on or repress the masses. But by millennium's end, if the playing field was not quite level -- Abraham Lincoln could worry that government of, by and for the people might perish from this Earth -- it at least existed.




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