Histories of Europe

February 1 2008

Very few historians have dared to write a history of Europe.

I’m speaking of detailed, comprehensive histories by one person in English, not essays or textbooks.

It has been more attractive, or easier, to write world histories. I’m not suggesting that Toynbee took an easy path in writing his Study, but many others, especially recently, have considered themselves qualified to write world histories of one sort or another (comprehensive or not) who wouldn’t have had the temerity to write one of Europe or, come to that, of any other single part of the world.

There were only two major attempts in the twentieth century: HAL Fisher’s and Norman Davies’.

I am not sure that I would put JM Roberts’ rather dull History of Europe alongside them, and isn’t it extracted from his History of the World, which at various times has been called the Hutchinson History of the World, the Pelican History of the World and the Penguin History of the World?

There must have been some in other languages, but why don’t they come to mind? Henri Pirenne’s was unfinished and was not intended to run to the present. His son, Jacques, wrote world history.

In the nineteenth century, what was there? I’ve mentioned Bryce in this blog. His Holy Roman Empire (1864) was a history of much of Europe. There was a primer by Freeman in a series edited by JR Green. (It summarises European history in 150 pages and covers what a Victorian schoolboy would have been expected to know. But it’s a textbook.) What else?

Some ancient writers had a conception of world history, so did some medieval; I’ve mentioned the Nuremberg Chronicle. In the early modern age there were ecclesiastical histories (though as Belloc said, “the faith is Europe and Europe is the faith”) and histories of times and places, but not histories of Europe.

The twentieth century rediscovered world history, and comprehensiveness for its own sake. Wells’s Outline of History attracted attention in 1920 because the subject was so new.

Fisher’s calm History of Europe appeared, at first in three volumes, in 1935. Davies’ Europe appeared in 1996.

Fisher’s Preface to the one-volume edition of his work in 1936 contained an almost anti-Toynbeean disclaimer (the first three volumes of Toynbee’s work had appeared in 1934):

“One intellectual excitement has […] been denied to me. Men wiser and more learned than I have discerned in history a plot, a rhythm, a predetermined pattern. These harmonies are concealed from me. I can see only one emergency following upon another as wave follows upon wave, only one great fact with respect to which, since it is unique, there can be no generalizations, only one safe rule for this historian: that he should recognize in the development of human destinies the play of the contingent and the unforeseen.”

4 Responses to “Histories of Europe”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Barry Cunliffe’s Europe between the Oceans: 9000 BC to AD 1000 is a major new study. It moves from what used to be called prehistory into history without a break and, in effect, raises the historical curtain far earlier than Fisher would have dreamed of doing.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    A letter by Fisher to Viscount Bryce was published in 1916 in Toynbee’s “Blue Book” on the Armenian Massacres. Fisher commissioned a work by Toynbee, written with Kenneth P Kirkwood: Turkey, in a Modern Nations series published by Benn, 1926.


  3. […] view of world affairs” after the war. But a large part of its allure, as I have already suggested, came from the fact that the idea of a world history was itself new. There had been ancient and […]

  4. davidderrick Says:

    John Burrow, in A History of Histories, Allen Lane, 2007, writes about world history before Spengler, Wells and Toynbee:

    “World history, which is still more an aspiration than an established body of historical writing, has many precedents. The older term, going back to Polybius, was ‘universal history’ and medieval chronicles characteristically began with universal history before narrowing to often very local concerns. ‘Universal’, of course, has to be understood relatively. Polybius made his focus the rise of Rome to domination of the Mediterranean and its hinterlands; even in his day it would have been recognized that this excluded the Persian empire. Medieval universal history, derived from Orosius, Jerome and Isidore of Seville, arose from attempts to blend Judaeo-Christian biblical history with the history of the Graeco-Roman world […]. New versions appeared in the twelfth century and beyond. Germany and Italy, lacking the focus of a nation state, were particularly receptive to schematized and apocalyptic versions of universal history, including prophecy, as in the strongly Augustinian work of Otto of Freising (1114-58), who was a member of the imperial family, and the writings of the Franciscan mystic Joachim of Flores […]. Joachim had an enduring influence on later apocalyptic ideas.

    “The best-known universal history of the Renaissance period, at least in England, Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World (1614), was emphatically biblical. The eighteenth-century Enlightenment […] produced what were in effect though not in name universal histories that were emphatically and even polemically secular. Voltaire’s Essay on Customs, which exalted the Egyptians as against the Jews, was written against the Universal History (1681) of the Catholic Bishop Bossuet. The new concept of civilization provided a kind of key, and the history of mankind was presented, highly schematically and conjecturally, in two kinds of story: the history of the human mind, in which the overcoming of superstition was crucial, and the history of the socio-economic stages of civil society. The writinggs of Marx and Engels, in their historical dimension, can be seen as a continuation of the ‘civil society’ tradition, in which the economic organization of civil society was seen as determining the political order and ideas of each of its stages.

    “Germany continued to be receptive to the idea of universal history. In the later eighteenth century it was a major theme in the flourishing historical school based in Göttingen. Although this was supplanted in the nineteenth century […] by the school of Ranke, with its major focus on the political and diplomatic history of early modern Europe, Ranke himself, in old age, reverted to the earlier interest in universal history by producing a seventeen-volume world history (1880-86).”

    The passage (which does not mention Herodotus) is too compressed to be of much value, but suggests a framework for further investigation.


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