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kottke.org posts about Ian Mortimer

The importance of seeing yourself clearly

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 10, 2016

In a piece excerpted from his new book, Millennium: From Religion to Revolution: How Civilization Has Changed Over a Thousand Years, Ian Mortimer argues that the introduction of glass mirrors circa 1300 in Venice spurred the shift to an individualistic society because people were able to see themselves clearly for the first time.

Polished metal and obsidian mirrors have existed from ancient times, and because of this, historians have usually passed over the introduction of the glass mirror as if it was just another variation on an old theme. But the development of glass mirrors marks a crucial shift, for they allowed people to see themselves properly for the first time, with all their unique expressions and characteristics. Polished metal mirrors of copper or bronze were very inefficient by comparison, reflecting only about 20 percent of the light; and even silver mirrors had to be exceptionally smooth to give any meaningful reflection. These were also prohibitively expensive: most medieval people would only have glimpsed their faces darkly, reflected in a pool of water.

What an odd thing, to not actually know what your face looks like, and yet for most of human history, that was the case. Also interesting that the rise of glass mirrors led to an increase of commissioned painted portraits:

People’s ability to appreciate their unique appearance led to a huge rise in the number of portraits commissioned, especially in the Low Countries and Italy. While almost all the oil paintings that survive from the fourteenth century are of a religious nature, the few exceptions are portraits. This trend toward portraiture grew in the fifteenth century, and came to dominate nonreligious art. As important men increasingly commissioned artists to create their likenesses, the more those likenesses were viewed, encouraging other people to have their portraits painted.

Steven Johnson discussed glass mirrors in the opening chapter of his book How We Got To Now.

At the exact moment that the glass lens was allowing us to extend our vision to the stars or microscopic cells, glass mirrors were allowing us to see ourselves for the first time. It set in motion a reorientation of society that was more subtle, but no less transformative, than the reorientation of our place in the universe that the telescope engendered. “The most powerful prince in the world created a vast hall of mirrors, and the mirror spread from one room to another in the bourgeois household,” Lewis Mumford writes in his Technics and Civilization. “Self-consciousness, introspection, mirror-conversation developed with the new object itself.”

Social conventions as well as property rights and other legal customs began to revolve around the individual rather than the older, more collective units: the family, the tribe, the city, the kingdom. People began writing about their interior lives with far more scrutiny. Hamlet ruminated onstage; the novel emerged as a dominant form of storytelling, probing the inner mental lives of its characters with an unrivaled depth. Entering a novel, particularly a first-person narrative, was a kind of conceptual parlor trick: it let you swim through the consciousness, the thoughts and emotions, of other people more effectively than any aesthetic form yet invented. The psychological novel, in a sense, is the kind of story you start wanting to hear once you begin spending meaningful hours of your life staring at yourself in the mirror.

If glass mirrors helped bring about such a shift in society, I wonder how society is shifting with the ability, only over the past 10-15 years or so, for people to instantly share their inner thoughts and selfies with friends, family, and even strangers many times every day? Is this more “seeing ourselves clearly” (individualism) or is the ability to allow others to see us clearly so frequently steering us back toward collectivism? Or somewhere else entirely?

The 10 greatest changes of the past 1000 years

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 31, 2014

From the emergence of markets in the 13th century to the scientific revolution of the 17th century to castles in the 11th century, this is a list of historian Ian Mortimer’s 10 biggest changes of the past 1000 years.

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.

The list is adapted from Mortimer’s recent book, Centuries of Change.