The Further Adventures of Conversation Man Episode 7: The last 1000 years of conversation

Dr John Reed spent 8 years at Oxford University (amassing 3 social science degrees including a Ph.D).  He worked for several years with historian and philosopher Theodore Zeldin (author of the likes of ‘An Intimate History of Humanity’ and ‘Conversation’) on conversation projects in health centres, shopping centers, high streets, art galleries, libraries, choirs, and even IKEA to see if it could be turned into a cultural and community hub. 

At Say It Now, John is our ‘conversationalist in residence’. Raising the bar in our understanding and thinking of the immense power conversation has on the human experience in relation to life, the universe and everything in between.

In this realm he’s no longer Dr. John Reed, in this world, he’s…Conversation Man!

Howdy! And Happy New Year! I can’t wait to see what new strains of excitement 2022 brings!

Having digested my Turkey etc., gone on some nice somewhat cold walks wearing my new socks (with shoes obviously), and eaten too many chocolates and glasses of wine, it was time to get down to some serious thinking about conversation. My initial notion being to discuss conversation over the last 100 years. But while looking into the issue I found an interesting article by a chap called Ian Mortimer about the biggest societal changes over the last 10 Centuries. And it struck me that I might as well throw in another 900 years for free, using his article as a jumping off point to discuss conversation over the last 1000 years and how it informs conversation in the early 21st Century.

The idea being, for each century, to try to picture yourself as a person of that era, thereby inhabiting the likely conversational life of such a person.

11th Century, chief conversational topic: Castles

As Mr. Mortimer points out prior to the 11th Century there were hardly any castles in Europe, and none in Britain. This made invading places, and thereby war in that sense, quite easy, as you just needed a bigger or better trained rabble than the other lot to assure victory. But over the 11th Century lots of castles were built all over Europe, which changed a lot, as rulers increasingly thought of themselves as Kings of territories, with defined borders, rather than in effect Lords of tribes. Castles made casual warfare, or plunder, much more difficult, and allowed Lords to tighten their grip on estates, including burgeoning bureaucracy.

One can thereby imagine, and assume, that the 11th Century conversational landscape would have included a heavy dose of ‘castles’, and their impact, as a topic. But lest you think this is all ancient history I believe it is fair to say that in many respects we are still living, existentially and conversationally, in the 11th Century. As, culturally speaking, many of us are still obsessed with land and ownership of property (an Englishman’s home is his castle after all), and our political landscape and related conversation is still dominated by Kings / Queens (or their democratic descendants), borders and related territories (including taxes). Brexit being a case in point (which arguably also had a bit of old fashioned tribalism about it). Also our language, and some people’s behaviour, still reflects a Feudal era, as we all no doubt know someone who walks around ‘as if they own the place’, or talks to those they wield power over like ‘peasants’.

12th Century, chief conversational topic: Law and Order

These days we take systematic approaches to Law and Order, however imperfect, for granted more or less wherever we go. But 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, didn’t happen until the 12th Century.

Conversationally speaking it’s thereby pretty safe to assume that ‘Law and Order’, and its impact, would have been a dominant topic of the day. Many of us still in fact inhabiting the persona of the 12th Century conversationalist, as after all a great deal of conversational life is still spent moaning, applauding, dodging or gossiping about ‘Law and Order’ and related Justice.

13th Century, chief conversational topic: Markets

Money may have existed for thousands of years, but prior to the 13 Century most people didn’t use it, instead employing systems of barter or in effect time / labour for subsistence. But market towns, where money was used to trade more extensively, quadrupled across England, and Europe, in the 13th Century, creating a far more mercantile economy which soon came to include banking and credit.

Many of us thereby, to this day, still in effect inhabit the 13 Century. As after all many of us, conversationally and behaviourally, are still obsessed with money, prices, material goods and ‘a bargain’. Indeed we might think that ‘Black Friday’ is a modern invention, but it could also be seen as an echo of, or having its roots in, the 13th Century. It’s probably pushing it to suggest that the ‘consumer society’, the obsession with ‘shopping’ and more latterly the likes of Amazon and Ebay are evolutions of the 13th Century mania for markets. But nevertheless the culture of money, price and the ‘good deal’, as well as credit (and related debt) can be traced back to the 13th Century.

14th Century, chief conversational topic: Plague

The Plague killed roughly half the population of Britain in 7 months, with somewhat similar results elsewhere. One might thereby assume that the chief conversational topic of the 14th Century was in effect ‘health’. But in the absence of any scientific understanding of disease and medicine it seems that people mostly just died, with the survivors trying to get on with things as best they could. Such questioning as there was tended to be in relation to God, with some in effect losing faith in such an apparently cruel deity while others kneeled, prayed and abased themselves with ever greater zeal and humiliation at the feet of their terrible Lord. A pattern of behaviour which no doubt reverberates to this day when anything terrible happens, albeit by and large people’s need to kneel before an apparently all powerful God has waned over the years, preferring more prosaic explanations (or at least more secular Gods).

The most important impact of the Plague, historically and to this day, being its disruption of the Feudal system due to the sudden absence of sufficient labour. Peasants suddenly able to demand wages, and thereby shop around for the best ‘employer’, as well as acquiring assets and in some instances becoming manorial Lords. This shake up of labour relations, and who could own what (and no doubt the related conversations which accompanied it) have thereby reverberated down the ages to this day. As not only are ‘pandemics’ (and related death as well as who to blame) still relevant conversationally speaking (Google ‘Corona Virus’), but we are still in an apparently endless conversation about ‘work’, including its quality, quantity and fairness in terms of remuneration and ownership.

15th Century, chief conversational topic: Columbus

The 15th Century conversationalist would almost certainly have spent quite a bit of time discussing the discovery of the Americas, as it was quite exciting. But, no doubt, within this discussion there would have been two, intermingled, themes, and related desires. One would be the notion that Columbus had demonstrated that exploration, rather than a fool’s errand, could result in the acquisition of new lands, resources and thereby riches as well as power. The other being the idea that exploration could open up new frontiers of knowledge, and tastes, thereby shaking up the notion that the Ancients (or other such authorities) knew it all.

Mankind has of course never stopped exploring, including to this day. Although arguably its exploration of physical territory, including Space, has in the early 21st Century somewhat burnt itself out. But nevertheless the culture of exploration, metaphorically speaking, in terms of technology, entrepreneurship, science, art, travel, food etc. has continued apace. And thereby anyone who talks, and behaves, in an exploratory and curious fashion (which is pretty much everyone these days), could be seen to have something of the 15th Century about them.

16th Century, chief conversational topic: The decline of personal violence

Personal security, and related crime and violence, is to this day an ongoing concern, and conversation, amongst people (somewhat fuelled by the sensationalising media). But the fact is, historically speaking, that in the West at least we live in very safe societies compared to our pre-industrial past. A trend which began in the 16th Century, during which the murder rate halved, and it continued to halve every century until it began to increase slightly towards the end of the 20th Century. This fall being due to advances in communication, including literacy and writing, which helped authorities pursue criminals with greater success. The State thereby gradually becoming a respected, and feared, arbiter of personal disputes, as opposed to the previous method of stabbing anyone you had a problem with before they stabbed you (a method which by all accounts still prevails in some parts of London).

Perversely of course one might suggest that as life has, on the whole, become safer and more secure we probably talk about, and fear for, our personal security more rather than less. As even if statistically the chance of you, or a loved one, being murdered or beaten up is rather low the media is quite good at stirring a general anxiety that there is a rapist, terrorist, thief, pedophile or angry maniac around every corner. And one could thereby argue that, conversationally speaking, the 16th Century was the beginning of not only the fall of real personal violence but the rise in anxiety about imagined personal violence.

17th Century, chief conversational topic: Science

These days people of course still believe all sorts of weird and wacky things (e.g. Corona Virus and its vaccines are a conspiracy to take over the world and turn us all into aliens, perpetrated by people who are apparently so powerful that they already pretty much control the entire world and aren’t bothered about screwing up the economy for years on end making themselves poorer, and possibly dead-er, along with everyone else). But it’s fair to say that such people tend to be an eccentric minority, as by and large most people, including those in positions of authority, accept that science, and scientists, tend to know what they are talking about.

But this wasn’t always the case, as prior to the 17th Century, and even at the start of it, society was riddled, from top to bottom, with peculiar, superstitious beliefs (and related laws) including the reality of witchcraft (and other notions based up little more than wild imagination). But by the end of the 17th Century science, and its findings, had been accepted by the majority, including in the realm of health.

Those who talk, and think, in a scientific fashion (or based on scientific knowledge) could thereby be said to have something of the 17th Century conversationalist about them. And equally those who prefer to believe in varieties of witchcraft and superstition based upon ‘personal experience’ and their ‘spiritual’ powers of intuition and imagination might be seen to belong to a pre-17th Century age which is of course, in varying degrees, still with us. In part because spinning one’s own wacky theories about the world, with one’s wacky pals, is arguably more entertaining, easier and of greater appeal to one’s desire for attention than the more expert, drier and real scientific version.

18th Century, chief conversational topic: The French Revolution

We now take for granted the idea that everyone is equal in the eyes of the law, as well as the appeal to human rights, political equality, the rights of women and equality in general. But prior to the French Revolution of 1789, and the Enlightenment thinking (and talking) which surrounded it, all these notions would have been regarded as dubious, and even heretical. This Revolution also laid the intellectual and legal groundwork for the great social reforms of the 19th century – the abolition of slavery, universal education, the rights of women to act as independent property owners, public health, and the diminution of capital punishment. All of which would eventually lead to the likes of the Welfare State, Universal Suffrage and the ongoing, increasingly detailed, concern for equality and diversity.

Of course every generation likes to be believe, in its youthful idealism, that its concerns about equality are more revolutionary than the last. But in truth GenZ Wokism, or Boomer Hippyism, or what have you, can all trace their roots back to latter part of the 18th Century. And one can argue that everyone who thinks, talks and acts with a concern for equality above all else is a version of this 18th Century revolutionary conversationalist.

19th Century, chief conversational topic: Communications

We’ve all become accustomed to ‘communicational revolutions’, but whilst it’s tempting to believe that what is happening now is more exciting than anything that’s ever happened before the true revolution in communications occurred in the latter part of the 19th Century. In the shape of the telegram, and then the telephone, prior to which the fastest way to convey a message any distance was via horse. It thereby, at the beginning of the 19th Century, taking around 15 days of horse ride to convey the result of the Battle of Trafalgar (which happened near Gibraltar on Spain’s south coast) back to the admiralty in London. But by the latter part of the century the telegram could send a message to the other side of the world more or less immediately – a quantum communicational leap.

The result was a smaller, and faster, world. But also a more centralised one, as now everything could be run, and monitored, pretty much instantaneously from HQ. All of which is of course still part of the concern, and the conversation, about the ongoing development of communicational technology- does it make us freer, and in effect more de-centralised from power and ‘the centre’, or does it in fact just make us ever greater slaves to ‘the Man’ who can bark us orders, and monitor our activities, 24/7 around the globe?

20th Century, chief conversational topic: The Future

A lot happened, and a lot was talked about, in the 20th Century. But while it may have all seemed extremely new and exciting to those involved the above discussion shows that much of it had its roots, or precedents, in earlier centuries. What was truly novel, arguably, was an overt concern for, and endless conversation about, ‘The Future’. Not just as an imaginary or idealistic vision but as a predictable reality- The Future not on the whole being a concern of previous centuries, consumed as they were by the past and the present.

An ongoing concern about The Future could be seen, at a macro and micro level, as related to the ongoing development of science and technology and thereby the mastery (to some degree) of that chaotic beast Nature. Individuals, and Societies, for the first time in history, having sufficient understanding of, and data about, the past-present to be able to look into the future with some clarity. The most obvious example being Global Warming, and a concrete concern for the sustainability and  well-being of the planet, and thereby humanity, as a whole. All of which, at a personal level, is presumably related to people’s individual needs being met, and secure, including their health, which frees them to think about their future not just their immediate survival.

The 21st Century???

So what’s new as we approach the 2nd quarter of the 21st Century? Well, in a way, nothing much. We are no doubt all still chatting about all the things we’ve chatted about over the last 1000 years. Namely- Land, property, territory, taxes, borders, Kings (or Prime Ministers), armies, war, peace, law, order, justice, markets, money, shopping, prices, bargains, diseases, death, pandemics, whose fault it all is, work, remuneration, who owns what assets and why, respect, exploration, curiosity, tastes, conquest, travel, power, resources, personal security and related violence, science, superstition, authority, personal experience, equality, revolution, communication, centralisation, control, freedom, speed, information, privacy, the future, the past, the present, global warming, sustainability and everything.

It’s tempting of course to point to the ever evolving development of technology as the new frontier- genetics, nano-tech, bio-tech, AI, smart-speakers etc. But it’s difficult to know quite how such developments will change how we live, or what we talk about.

One trend that occurred during the 20th Century, and no doubt continues, is the shrinking amount of time we spend in face to face interactions with other human beings on a regular basis. Shopping being one good anecdotal example, as my mother remembers when she was a child, in the ‘50s, going with her mother twice a week on a trip down the high street. The chief aim being to visit the butcher, the grocer, the baker and such like mostly to renew, or place, orders which would then be delivered later.

As a way of shopping it was of course deeply laborious, taking an entire morning and quite a bit of walking and chit chat, but as a way of life it had its perks. As not only would my grandmother, and thereby to some degree her daughter, inevitably have a bit of a chit chat with shop keepers and other customers, but they’d also inevitably bump into the odd friend and acquaintance along the way whom they’d pass the time of day with. No doubt it wasn’t all exactly riveting conversation, but such grocery shopping has of course now been reduced to an atomised ‘trip to the supermarket’ mostly facilitated by a car or otherwise a delivery from Ocado or Amazon Fresh where one gets to nod to the delivery person and little more.

But who knows, perhaps the 21st Century will be the era in which we start to think not just about The Future in a macro, technological or environmental fashion but also about the future of what kind of micro existences we’d actually like to live as human beings, and who we’d like to be in that sense.

Yours, Conversation Man

p.s. a good conversation is after all a journey, with others. And so if you’ve got any thoughts about, or stimulated by, any of the above, or there’s a topic or question raised you’d like to hear more about, or there’s something going on which you feel is relevant, do email me at . See you in episode 8…

Incase you missed any, you can access all of the Conversation Man episodes below: