What is Europe Anyway? A review of Europe: A History by Norman Davies
Pimlico, 1997. 1365 pages
This is probably the single biggest volume I have ever read. It has many fans, and rightly so. European history is rather like translations of Homer and films of Shakespeare; each English (speaking) generation needs to have its own. I have read a handful of histories of Europe, and each time a new one comes along it allows itself to believe it has shaken off a few more shibboleths, seen a little more clearly, and perhaps approached nearer to some kind of truth, or at least accuracy. This book, getting on for 20 years old now, is still I think the best recent European history; well, the best one widely available in English in Australia…
First, we have to ask ‘what is Europe?’ Davies is inclusive, and a great strength of the book is the relative prominence it gives to the Eastern half of the promontory (Europe is not a continent, it is a great big promontory of Asia — more than any other continent, Europe is a cultural rather than geographic entity). We even get a textbox on the Khazars. There is no reason why France should get more pages than Poland in a European history, yet many books hardly go east of Prussia. I suppose few European histories written by authors from east of the Rhine, let alone the Vistula get translated into English… Davies has written extensively on Eastern Europe, and is the perfect author to give the east its due.
As I’ve noted before, I have an interest in the empire referred to as Byzantine, simply because I find it fascinating. Old European histories would say how the Roman Empire fell in 476, and I still recall being surprised when I found out that that simply was not true, just an artefact of a reprehensibly skewed view of the past. The Eastern Roman Empire persisted until (at least) 1453, a direct, if many-times transformed, descendant of the Republic of 500BC. It truly was a bulwark against Islam — and I make no judgement on whether a Christian Europe is a better or worse thing than an Islamic one, I simply note that Europe most likely would be Islamic had the Byzantines crumbled sooner — and for that alone needs to be properly integrated into a European history. Davies does this. Russia, Poland, the Ottomans, they all are given reasonable weight. It is a good book, a good popular history. It is very long, but repays the time taken to read it — a task assisted by the author’s direct, unaffected prose which is a model of clarity. I hardly ever noticed Davies’s words, which I think is, in a book like this, a high compliment.
And, though I live in Australia, it is my history, or at least a large chunk of my history. I am a white Australian. My antecedents, at least over the last few centuries, come equally from the British Isles and the Continent (and of course not ‘The Continent’ of Australia). I work as a scientist in the tradition of ‘Western’ science, built up by Europeans from Socrates to Newton and on to today. I am aware that crucial contributions came from elsewhere — our system of numerals is essentially from India, our words algorithm, algebra and others illustrate the role of scholars from the Islamic world (though don’t forget that has included Spain and much of the Balkans at various times). I work in a University of an essentially European model, in a country governed using the ‘Westminster‘ system, writing in English.
Europe: A History gives me a broader, deeper view than any other book I have read that claims the same territory. Were I to construct a top 10 list of my favourite books, it would be in there, probably with a dozen other books.