6 People Who Were Centuries Ahead of Their Time

Other people stand out because they’re so ahead of their time, you start to wonder if they’re a time traveller from the modern day, stuck in the past and trying to figure out how best to convey modern ideas while still blending in. The people in the latter category are the ones who lead us to wonder how anyone could manage to have such independence of thought to stand out so much from all of their peers in their own time period. They might not have been proven to be entirely right in everything they thought, but that’s to be expected if you’re a visionary.
What’s important is that their thoughts, ideas and achievements stand out from those of anyone else they might have brushed shoulders with in their lifetimes. Here’s our selection of the remarkable people who were hundreds of years ahead of their time.

1. Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)

Jeremy Bentham
Bentham was surprisingly egalitarian for his time.

In terms of people who were ahead of their time, British philosopher Jeremy Bentham could have an article all to himself. It was his belief that many of the social norms and taboos of his society were mistaken or actively damaging – and given he lived in at a time when slavery was a cornerstone of British trade, women were the legal property of their fathers or husbands, and just 3% of the British population had the right to vote, most people today would be inclined to agree with him. In the face of what he saw as clear wrongs, he decided to work out what an ideal society would look like instead, and campaigned to achieve it. Many of his writings were so radical for their time that they were suppressed for up to a century after his death; some are still unpublished.
The foundation of Bentham’s thinking was the principle of utilitarianism, which Bentham expressed as, “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong”. This in its own right was a radical statement at a time when most people believed that some people’s happiness counted for a good deal more than others. Bentham’s beliefs led him to conclusions that were not accepted by the general public for decades. He believed in animal welfare (first legislation passed in 1835), universal suffrage (signed into law in 1928), the abolition of the death penalty (abolished in the UK in 1965), decriminalisation of homosexuality (which happened in the UK in 1967), and no-fault divorce (which is broadly supported, but has yet to be introduced in the UK). In other words, he came up with most of the principles and beliefs of Western liberalism – and he did so over a hundred years before most of his ideas had any kind of popular support. 

2. Laurence Sterne (1713-1768)

Laurence Sterne
Sterne smashed the literary boundaries 150 years before anyone else.

Just as far ahead of his time as Bentham, but in a completely different way, was Laurence Sterne. He was an Irish novelist and clergyman, now best known for a single work: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, published in serial form from 1759 to 1767. To understand why Tristam Shandy was so far ahead of its time, it’s useful to understand the context in which Sterne was writing. The novel was a relatively new form at the time; which novel was the first is hotly debated, but a popular candidate is Robinson Crusoe, written in 1719. Novels took the form of adventures or romances, but they typically involved a story being told that started at the beginning and continued to the end.
Nearly two hundred years after Sterne’s death came the advent of postmodernism. Postmodernism is by its nature difficult to define, but in literature it’s typically characterised by unreliable narrators, self-referential techniques including breaking the fourth wall, fictional characters who are aware that they’re fictional, editorialising commentary from the author, discussion of lowbrow topics that were previously avoided in literary fiction, and assorted other means of undermining the conventions of literature and upsetting the reader’s suspension of disbelief. The catch is that nearly all of these characteristics can also be found in Tristram Shandy, a novel written a hundred and fifty years before modernism, let alone postmodernism, which was a reaction against it. When other writers were still working out what the conventions of the novel as a form might be, Sterne had already figured out how they might be subverted over a hundred years in the future.

3. Christine de Pizan (1364-1430)

Christine de Pizan
Championing women’s equality long before feminism was even thought of.

Late medieval/early Renaissance writer Christine de Pizan was the first female professional writer in France. Married at the age of 15 and widowed just ten years later, the death of her husband left her in Paris with no adult male family members to whom she could turn for social protection and financial support, as would be expected for a woman of her status in the late fourteenth century. She first sought to gain money owed to her from her husband’s estate, but this was tied up in legal problems. With two young children, her niece and her widowed mother depending financially upon her, de Pizan then turned to writing to earn a living. Her connections within the French court were charmed by a series of love ballads that she wrote, and this enabled her to gain an income through the system of patronage that supported writers at the time. The difference was that the writers in question were otherwise exclusively men. By 1400, her poetry was becoming known internationally, and that gave her the freedom to write on more serious topics.
Some centuries after de Pizan’s death, writers like Mary Wollstonecraft and Virginia Woolf would bemoan the fact that most literature about women was written by men; that female writers were usually obliged to be anonymous; that women were denied the opportunity to find their own agency and express their own experiences; that traditional education deliberately kept women ignorant. In the early fifteenth century, Christine de Pizan was coming to much the same conclusions – and doing something about it.
Her two most famous works are The Book of the City of Ladies, which discusses and defends the impact of women throughout history, and The Treasure of the City of Ladies, which aimed to provide a manual of education to women from all backgrounds. That in itself was an enlightened aim, at a time when people of de Pizan’s class would typically have written only for their peers. She practised what she preached, seeking to collaborate with other women in order to support their work. Her writing stands in deliberate opposition to the popular misogyny of her time, and demonstrates that while many medieval women supported the gender roles of their time, there was at least one exception.

4. Bi Sheng (990-1051)

A woodblock printing press with Chinese characters.
Bi Sheng’s hand-made printing press predated Gutenberg’s by 400 years.

One question that is frequently asked in the history of inventions is why something wasn’t invented sooner. In the context of movable type – the key ingredient for the subsequent invention of the printing press – there are plenty of reasons. Literacy was mostly a skill reserved for the wealthy; the time-consuming process of calligraphy made book ownership into a status symbol that they had no interest or incentive to expand to a wider audience. While the printing press seems to us like an essential invention, the development of the printing press bankrupted Johannes Gutenberg, rather than making his fortune.
And these are merely the general reasons why movable type might not be invented. There was even more stacked against Bi Sheng. Living under the Song dynasty of medieval China, he was born a commoner, held no official position, and was working with a language that had thousands of characters (unlike the Latin alphabet of just 24 letters plus diacritics that Gutenberg used). We know remarkably little of his life story, but we do know that against all odds, he invented the first system of movable type some 400 years before Gutenberg developed his printing press.
Bi Sheng created his type by cutting clay into characters (also a much more challenging prospect for elaborate Chinese calligraphy compared with simpler Western characters), baking the characters in the fire until they were hardened, setting them into an iron frame, covering an iron plate with a form of ink, and pressing the plate to the frame in order to print. Bi Sheng had created the fundamentals of the technology that helped power the Renaissance – several centuries before the Renaissance began.

5. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)

Hildegard of Bingen
Hildegard remained modest about her own achievements.

One of the rare ways in which women in the Middle Ages could enjoy any kind of intellectual freedom (rare exceptions like Christine de Pizan notwithstanding) was from the confines of a nunnery. It represented a significant sacrifice: the loss of all worldly wealth and the chance to have a family, as well as accepting the restrictions of an enclosed religious order. But there were compensations; as a nun, a medieval woman could learn and be educated, and even have the opportunity to take on leadership roles, without the dangers of a controlling husband or the constant risk of death in childbirth.
One woman who found significant advantages in cloistered life was Hildegard of Bingen, a German woman born into the nobility and sent to a convent in her late childhood or early teens. There she learned to read, write, and compose music, ultimately leading a convent of her own. She also had visions from an early age, which she believed she was commanded by God to record. This led over her long lifetime to a huge body of written work, spanning theology, music, medicine, linguistics and a vast amount of correspondence with popes, emperors and statesmen. Despite her achievements, Hildegard of Bingen was no proto-feminist, disparaging the works of women and her own abilities, all while advising some of the most powerful people in medieval Europe and creating a body of work that has lasted centuries.
But her views were progressive in other areas: she did not discriminate on the basis of social status for entrants to her convent, for instance. In defiance of the norms of the time, she conducted four public preaching tours, travelling as far as Cologne, Stuttgart, Trier and Würzburg. Her writing on medicine was also surprisingly enlightened, based on her hands-on experience, not divine revelation; she used herbs and tinctures as much as the usual medieval reliance on bloodletting and astrology, and she even wrote about the importance of boiling drinking water to avoid infection.

6. Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673)

Margaret Cavendish
Cavendish published under her own name, when other women were writing under pseudonyms.

Margaret Cavendish, a seventeenth century aristocrat, is less notable for any single achievement than for standing out from her peers in almost every way. Like Christine de Pizan, she was a writer who published under her own name against the convention of her time; she was a scientist who became the first woman to attend a meeting of the Royal Society; and she wrote in support of animal rights at a time when most people considered animals to be put on Earth to serve humans, and possibly incapable of feeling anything at all. She defended at length her right to publish under her own name, and to seek fame for her work – with her philosophical works, she included letters between herself, her husband and her brother-in-law with the aim of demonstrating that she did in fact write all of her works herself. Perhaps most notably, in 1666 she wrote The Blazing World, a contender for the first true example of science fiction, predating Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by over 150 years. The book features a surreal alien world, reached by a mysterious passageway from the North Pole, which Cavendish presents as a utopia.
Like many people who were ahead of their time, Margaret Cavendish had plenty of detractors when she was alive: she was nicknamed “Mad Marge”, and diarist Samuel Pepys described her as a “mad, conceited, ridiculous woman”. Even her admirers sound like detractors: John Dryden praised her “masculine style” and Virginia Woolf, writing centuries later in 1925, described her as “noble and Quixotic and high-spirited, as well as crack-brained and bird-witted”, claiming she had “the freakishness of an elf, the irresponsibility of some non-human creature, its heartlessness, and its charm”. From the perspective of the modern day, Cavendish simply seems to have had more intelligence and personality than the seventeenth century could handle.
Images: medieval womanmargaret cavendishhildegard of bingenchinese printing presschristine de pizanjeremy benthamlaurence sterne;