Notes on a smallish peninsula

Jan Morris is full of admiration for a bold new history of Europe; A History of Europe by Norman Davies, Oxford University Press, pounds 25

This is a modern history with a vengeance, in the sense that it employs devices of historiography unthinkable to traditional academe. Norman Davies describes it as "a total history of all Europe in every period", and he talks of it in photographic terms - zooms, telephotos, wide-angle snapshots. Its narrative of 1,300 pages is interrupted by 300 asides which he calls capsules, and supplemented by appendices covering matters as general as European Cultural Circles, as exact as The Jagiellonian Realm up to 1572. I enormously enjoyed the whole display, learnt a vast amount from it (I had never heard of the Jagiellonian Realm), and were it not for its bulk would have read the whole of it happily in my bath.

The book is recognizably akin to Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's dazzling Millennium, which is similarly cybernetic and disarmingly self- satisfied. It reminded me too of Braudel's Mediterranean histories, of Claudio Magris' Danube and of Neal Ascherson's Black Sea. But it is distantly related to OUP's last single-volume history of Europe, written by T.L. Plunkett and R.B. Mowat in 1927: it is an odd feeling in fact to peel off this volume's shiny jacket and discover the Oxford binding of simple blue and gold, unchanged since the days when Europe was the heart of the world.

Actually I still think it is, but one of the great changes between the old-type histories and the new is the abandonment of Eurocentricism. As even I recognize, Europe is no more than a smallish peninsular on the flank of Asia, and the globe does not after all revolve around it. Few of us now get a classical education. Relatively few of us are Christian. We look at Europe through different eyes from those of our grandparents, and it has fallen to Davies to re-define for our generation what Europe really is at the end of the 20th century.

He also corrects some more specific biases. Because he is an authority on Polish history, he has easily done away with the old view of Europe as being generically divided between east and west, and in fact allows its borders to spill over into Russia. He resolutely sets his face against over-specialisation, pernicious political correctness, and the petty rivalries which so often divide the energies of academic historians. Sentiments as well as realities enrich his view of Europe, he is as concerned with the actions of famous men as he is with the progress of humble families. His kind of history is, as he says himself, rather like that theoretical polygon by which Archimedes calculated the ratio between the diameter and the circumference of a circle: the more sides he gave his polygon, the nearer a circle it would be, and similarly the more facets a historical narrative possesses, the more likely it is to approach the truth.

There are snags to this prismatic approach, but they are more literary than historiographical. It is hard to keep up the grand flow of a narrative when it is, so to speak, polygonal. Those capsules keep getting in the way - physically, because they sometimes block an entire page, intellectually because they are often irrelevant to the immediate argument. It is ironic, too, that so intelligent a book should be hampered by one of the most unhelpful systems of footnotes imaginable: the chapter notes are listed only by chapter number, making them maddeningly difficult to find, and there are separately listed notes to those 300 capsules - enough to make the most appreciative reader drop the thing with a curse into the bath water. The maps are irritating too, often printed with west at the top, and just occasionally I was jarred by Davies' lapses into exhibitionism, rather in the A.J.P. Taylor style.

That said, Davies' History of Europe, is a noble monument of scholarship, and all the more noble because it is so full of surprise and feeling: the publishers are surely justified in claiming it to be "one of the most important and illuminating history books ever to be published by Oxford." The tremendous range of its story is matched by its liberal attention to details tragic and comic, mundane and sublime. There are superb assessments of vastly daunting subjects, like the Thirty Years War or the Renaissance. There are steady assessments of the state of contemporary Europe. For one of my views Davies is perhaps a little too intolerant of anything approaching the Communistic; but that is partly because he is anxious to correct what he calls the Allied Version of post-war European history.

Who can complain about a book which not only gives a thorough, more or less conventional account of the continent's story, Black Death, Holy Roman Empire, Hundred Years' War, Napoleon, Industrial Revolution and all, but illuminates it with such eclectic exuberance? The origin of the necktie, biblical allusions of Chernobyl, cocking a snook as a pan-European gesture, prehistoric foods, condoms, famous European last words - such are a handful of the topics with which he illustrates the history of Europe.

His choice of illustrations, or at least their captioning, seems to me too whimsical to be satisfying, but his repeated use of music is masterly. Sometimes with printed extracts from scores, he uses music as a catalyst, distilling the moods and aspirations of the Europe of its time, and bringing to the page some of the emotions of its geniuses, and I suspect of his own. For it is an emotional book in many ways, and there is nothing clinical or lofty about its attitudes. Davies even tells us what kind of car Archduke Franz Ferdinand was driving in, when they shot him at Sarajevo in 1914 (a 28 horsepower Graf and Stift, four years old).

And for some readers in 1996 it will be a liberating work. It is hardly revisionist history, but it is not just a history of the States and Powers, nor simply of the policy-makers or the common man. It takes into account all the in-betweens, the minority peoples, the nations without statehood whose existence has been overshadowed by the terrible comings and goings of history, and who see glimmers of hope in the prospect of a united Europe. Professor Davies is not a Davies for nothing. He (or his publishers) may not be able to spell hwyl, but who would expect to find, in a total history of all Europe, a reference to the native parliament held at Machynlleth, Wales, in 1404?

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