The Big Picture Part II: When It All Changed

The Big Picture Part II: When It All Changed July 5, 2015

In Part I, we looked at how the dawn of civilization and the inventions of agriculture and writing went along with a new sort of spiritual practice: organized, priestly, indirect religion. And we discussed how, in a similar manner. the ongoing transition to industrial and scientific culture will need a new sort of spirituality.

I had planned in Part II here to look at how intellectuals and spiritual explorers — and frauds — of the nineteenth century responded to their changing world and how their ideas that would develop into the Neopagan movement. But it seems worthwhile to detour first and briefly explore how the world got into such a state of flux over the past few centuries. So my two-parter has turned into a three-parter; but perhaps putting the Neopagan movement into the context of the history of the entire world deserves a few thousand words, dear reader?

There was not one clear moment when the Middle Ages ended and the modern era began. But if we consider how humanity’s evolution to behavioral modernism probably went hand-in-hand with the development of speech, and how agricultural civilization was both made possible by and prompted the development of writing, we’re prompted to look at a change of communication that goes along with the end of medievalism.

In 1447 Johann Gutenberg changed the world when he started printing with moveable metal type. (Give or take a few years. The contemporary documentation is sparse — no one realized the importance of what he was doing in order to document it —- and forgeries of Gutenberg-printed works abound. The 1447 date comes from Thomas Greer’s A Brief History of the Western World, my usual go-to source for an overview of Western history.)

The 1300s had been a rough century for Europe, with the Black Death, famine due to a climatic shift, extended war between France and England, and a number of peasant uprisings keeping the Four Horsemen working overtime. In the early 1400s, the guild system was in decline and a new economic order, the “domestic” system, the first sort of mass production, was growing.[Greer, 244-248] By the late 1400s land enclosure was oppressing peasant farmers: a long-lived system in which common areas of land were used for grazing livestock and individual fields were plowed with a common team of oxen, was being replaced with enclosed private fields as the feudal lord started to transition into a landlord.[ Fairlie; Greer, 446-447]

Nothing says "medieval" like a castle. Image via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
Nothing says “medieval” like a castle. Image via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

The whole socioeconomic system was stressed to near the breaking point. Along came Gutenberg. Printing with carved wood blocks had been known for a long time, in both Asia and Europe; but this required each page to be carved individually, a painstaking process. And a wooden block wears out fairly quickly. With these limitations wood block printing never took off

But reusable movable metal type was another story. By 1500, there were more than 1,000 printers in Europe, and ten million books had been printed. [Greer, 303-304]Ten. Million. Books. If you’re a bibliophile like me, the thought brings a thrill.

Let’s do some back-of-the-envelope calculations. Perhaps a medieval scribe working with a quill pen could copy ten pages a day of ordinary text. (Leaving illuminated manuscripts aside.) If a standard book is 300 pages, perhaps a scribe could copy a book a month. Let’s give our scribe a few days off and call it ten books a year. That strikes me as an optimistic estimate, but let’s take it. Then over fifty years a scribe might produce 500 books. Ten million books over fifty years would be the output of 20,000 scribes. Add in the people it would take to support those full-time scribes in their labors, and it was as if a small city dedicated entirely to the production of books had suddenly appeared in the middle of Europe.

That’s pretty cool. Hell, it’s amazing. The Christian humanist writer Desiderius Erasmus whose most popular book The Praise of Folly was written in 1509, probably had more readers in his time than any previous writer.[Greer 285-287, 304] We talk of radio and television as mass communication, but compared to handwritten manuscripts perhaps printed books should be considered the start of that revolution and the start of the transition from agricultural to technological society, the transition we are still in today. And Gutenburg introduced not just a means of mass communication by machine, but a means of mechanized mass production which surely inspired more mechanization.

You can’t drop a technology like that into a society without making some unpredictable major waves. Organized Christianity around this time was already having troubles; politics and corruption had weakened the moral authority of the papacy. Up to this point the biggest incident was the the Great Schism of 1378 to 1417, were two rival Popes each excommunicated the other. But everyone was still Catholic, and the possibilities of organizing for reform where limited. When John Wiclif made an English translation of the Bible and suggested that laymen read it for themselves and communicate directly with the Divine, he was about a century ahead of that being a practical option for most people.

But in 1517, Martin Luther could use the new technology to spread his Ninety-five Theses, starting the Protestant movement. In 1534 Henry VIII broke the Church of England away from the Pope, and in 1536 John Calvin started with his depressing and harsh Puritanism.[ Greer 313-329]

Another noteworthy incident from the years around 1500 occurred in 1492, when Genoese sailor, bad navigator, and truly terrible human being Christoper Columbus made one of history’s luckiest blunders and discovered the “New (to non-Viking Europeans) World”, which not only shook up European’s conception of the universe but also touched off an age of imperial exploitation.

So the 1400 and 1500s were turbulent times in Europe. By the early 1600s some people were maybe starting to worry about the direction the world was heading. They started to look for new sources of social order and reassurance. By about 1600, one of the declining craft guilds, that of stonemasons, was transforming into a fraternal organization with ritual and mystic overtones — Freemasonry, which had a more than small effect on the development of Paganism.[Hutton 53] In the 1610s pamphlets were published about the “Rosicrucians”, a supposed hidden society of adepts with secret knowledge of healing and religion[Hutton 69-70] — another idea that came to resonate in early Pagan history.

But whatever the wishes of the people, history didn’t slow down. In 1638 Japan got so tired of meddling missionaries and their European intrigue that it kicked the white devils out for several centuries.[ Wells, 810] (And given what happened in India and China, and indeed most of Asia…and Africa…and the Americas…it seems they made the right call, though the subsequent persecution of Christians was a gratuitous evil.)

The English Civil War (1642-49) ended with the execution of Charles I and the short-lived Commonwealth of England [Greer 394-396] Regicide! A nation without a king! We cannot overstate the degree to which this was a break with the idea of the divine right of kings that had held sway for centuries — even if it was a struggle between monarchy and aristocracy, not between monarchy and democratic republicanism.

In 1687, Newton published his Principia in 1687, ushering in a whole new view of the Cosmos[Greer 373], and in 1712 Thomas Newcomen built the first practical steam engine for the humble task of pumping water out of coal mines[Greer 448; Russell] — the first hint of the transformative power of the machine was essentially a sump pump.

The basic plan of agricultural hierarchical society and its associated religious practices had endured for thousands of years, through the Neolithic, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age, from the Sumerians through the Roman Empire to the kingdoms of medieval Europe. But in less than three centuries we went from the medieval manor to movable type, the fragmentation of the dominant religious system, mass production, and the beginnings of modern science and technology.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, intellectuals trying to deal with this rapid change looked for spiritual inspiration to their pre-Christian heritage, to other cultures, and to the natural world they were starting to displace: the three lines of thought that laid the ground for Neopaganism. We’ll cover that history in Part III. (I promise!)


Fairlie, Simon. “A Short History of Enclosure in Britain”. The Land, Issue 7, Summer 2009. &lt> as of 1 Jul 2015

Greer, Thomas. A Brief History of the Western World. Stamford: Thomson Learning, 1987.

Russell, Ben. “In pursuit of power”. Science Museum: Stories from the stores <> as of 1 Jul 2015.

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