Martin Ince

March 5, 2004

'Blair, Schroder, Chirac and their lesser kin seem to do deals in a manner that Louis XIV or Charles II would have understood immediately'

The Baroque era can teach us a thing or two about how to adapt to the myriad changes taking place in society today

What is it about the 17th century? In the past few months, Charles II and Samuel Pepys have been the subject of new television series.

There are fresh biographies of Pepys and Sir Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke and Sir Christopher Wren. Newton also stars in a new novel by Philip Kerr.

Perhaps most telling, Neal Stephenson, the novelist who made his name in science fiction, has abandoned the future in favour of the era of the Stuarts. The Confusion , the second volume of his immense Baroque Trilogy , is due out in April.

Kerr, Stephenson and the other authors involved, including Claire Tomalin, James Gleick and Lisa Jardine, write for mass audiences.

They are always on the lookout for a figure such as Pepys, gossiping injudiciously to his diary about universal themes such as sex and politics.

And despite the wrangles that sometimes break out there, today's Royal Society would make a dull topic for a novel by comparison with the same body in the 1660s, riven by bitter disputes between Hooke and Newton.

But the real attraction of the era between the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the arrival of the Hanoverians, in the shape of George I in 1714, is its claim to be the political, scientific and cultural foundation of the modern world. A republic was tried for the first and only time in England.

Gravitation, the force that holds the universe together, was elucidated, as were the nature of light and the rules of motion. And the outlines of representational democracy were sketched out, although universal suffrage was still centuries away.

The Stuart era even has two conspicuous monuments to its ambition. One is London, rebuilt after the great fire of 1666 with Hooke, Wren and their allies in charge. The second is the US. Although independence was a century in the future, the ethos of the declaration of independence and the constitution comes direct from the emigre Protestants who flooded to the American colonies in reaction to Stuart repression.

Perhaps interest in the era of the glorious revolution is spurred by a sense that we are living through fundamental change comparable to what was in full force then. In science, Newton's idea that bodies far apart could exert forces on each other was derided as hocus-pocus when he first suggested it. As Gleick points out, it owed more to alchemy than to anything we would regard as science. But three centuries later, we are finally finding out why matter has mass and how it attracts other matter across space.

Like Newton's discoveries in their own era, the answers, in terms of particle symmetry or superstring theory, sometimes seem to have an air of the mystical about them despite all the equations that are alleged to provide the proof.

In both eras, science is providing powerful explanations of the inner workings of nature at a time when the way human society should be organised is up for grabs. Then, wars were endemic across Europe, typically between armies owing allegiance to one or other of a small group of closely related monarchs. Nowadays, even the subjects of the UK are also citizens of the European Union. The chances of a shooting war between the EU's member states is slight. But although our rulers now have to win elections, Blair, Schroder, Chirac, Berlusconi and their lesser kin seem to do deals in a manner that Louis XIV or Charles II would have understood immediately.

Indeed, Silvio Berlusconi would probably have coped rather well as a powerbroker of Baroque Europe.

But perhaps the most significant bridge across the 300-year divide between us and Newton is the political earthquakes that attended it. On the surface, both ages saw off the threat of radical change, from Roundheads in the 1650s or from communism in the 1980s. But the stability that should have resulted was replaced by new demands, whether from religious dissenters then or the anti-globalisation movement today. At the same time, economic change gained pace in a way that seemed unprecedented at the time.

In the modern world, software has replaced oil as the source of big fortunes. Business is migrating online and threats to steady employment can come from across the world or around the corner.

In the Baroque era, global expansion was creating innovations such as insurance and futures markets, enriching new classes and causing old ones to lose their influence. Today, the cutting edge is in software agents. A look at how an earlier society survived severe technological, social and financial disruption may not give us the answers to coping with our own, but it provides some reassurance that we can find a way through.

Martin Ince is contributing editor, The Times Higher .

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