Europe: A History (1996)


The big book that got me flagged by TSA. I was travelling to Boston recently and, as always before a trip, I was in the throes of anxiety over what reading material to take (I’m afraid I’m of the die-hard printed-book persuasion). With two hundred pages left to go in Davies’s sprawling tome, I didn’t want to lose the momentum of weeks of reading, so, despite its significant heft, I stuffed it into my carry-on bag. And that bag got promptly flagged and taken aside at airport security. After several questions about what might be in the bag, my anxiety growing sharper, the agent pulled out the ample brick. In the agent’s words, “this book is too dense for the scanner.” Luckily, its physical density does not also apply to its content.

There’s no getting around it: at 1,392 pages, the book poses a serious challenge to potential readers. Even excluding the end notes, appendixes, and index, the text still clocks in at 1,136 pages. Furthermore, the book is larger in dimension than even a trade paperback: 6.1 x 2.3 x 9.2 inches versus 5.3 x 1.5 x 8 inches; the font roughly two points smaller; and barely enough margin for any marginalia (a kept a separate journal for notes). So, each of the 1,136 pages presents a staggering wall of text (save for a handful of maps and two sections of glossy illustration inserts). The only saving grace are the so-called capsules that function as interesting asides. Still, if one chooses to read Europe: A History, one chooses to embark on a journey—it took me from 3 August to 11 September to read the work.

The good news is that the endeavor guarantees huge returns on investment, at least if your goal is similar to mine. I’ve never had what I could confidently call a sound grounding in history. My grasp of history has largely been the product of reading literature and literary criticism—I can pin certain dates and events and figures to works from Homer, Virgil, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, Joyce, Proust, Woolf, et al., but with the literary filter removed, I’m rather lost. History, in my mind, is like a chaotic constellation of names (rather like a tag cloud): Pericles, Magyars, Alaric, Erik the Red, Mary Queen of Scots, the Borgia family, the Medici family, Cromwell, Robespierre, Bismarck, Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and so on. I wanted some way to take all of this western history, from ancient Greece and Rome to the Middle Ages to the Renaissance to the Reformation to the Enlightenment and on into present day, and make sense of its progression. I needed someone in whom I could intellectually trust to come along and synthesize it all. This person is noted historian Norman Davies, who helped make sense of my heap of puzzle pieces.

Davies, best known as an authority of Polish history (Heart of Europe, God’s Playground), conceived a monumental project and succeeded on all counts. As he states in the 46-page introduction, one of his main goals was to produce a history of Europe that included all points of European history (meaning, inclusive of the Eastern European and Eurasian entities that are often overshadowed by Western Europe). Other reviewers have decried this element of the book, stating that there is too much about Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Russia. While there is more on these countries than, say, Spain, Davies is not superfluous; everything is relevant to the history of Europe as a whole. Plus, there is much more on Briton (the non-continental powers), France, and Germany, than the eastern portions, so it all balances out. One can hardly pan the book for its inclusion of Eastern Europe when that purpose is made plain at the start. Davies himself includes various warnings of various centrisms throughout.

Davies also succeeds in the writing itself. It takes a master craftsman to produce 1,136 pages of history without becoming dry or redundant. The vocabulary and syntax remain varied and the content maintains a constant thrum of interest. There is a strong narrative line that never lapses into digression. This, of course, is partly due to the decision to intersperse the text with the aforementioned capsules. For me, these were the powdered sugar of the book. Each one was like an anecdotal footnote to something mentioned in the text proper. They are like looking interesting things up on Wikipedia (though the book predates the online encyclopedia by a half-decade). One can choose to read the capsules as one moves through the text, thus slowing down the reading a bit, or go back through the book after finishing and read through the capsules for your amusement and reinforcement.

Each of the 12 divisions has a deft format: (1) lay out the conventional overview of the subject at hand; (2) examine the successes and failures of scholarship in that area; (3) guide the reader through a more careful and informed investigation; (4) conclude with a lead into the next epoch; and (5) provide a map depicting Europe at that time. Davies’s sober prose (though he does allow himself one self-effacing jest at his family’s expense) and erudition (spoiler alert: you will never study as much history as he has) combine to give the reader a sense of trust in the accuracy of the facts presented. After all, when looking to a book as one’s first step toward remediation in a given subject, one is sensitive to ensuring sources of integrity.

If you’re looking to lay or freshen up your foundation of European history, Davies has you covered from prehistory to the end of the Cold War. If, like me, you’re not an avid history reader (I can count on my two hands all of the history books I’ve read), you may do well to supplement your reading with documentaries and trivia games in parallel—no one wants a reading investment like this one to go to waste. Throughout the text, Davies includes significant works of literature, so I wasn’t totally alienated, but at the same time he piqued my interest in continuing with my self-prescribed project of history remediation. Europe: A History is now the giant upon whose shoulders I can see farther than I did before.

2 thoughts on “Europe: A History (1996)

  1. beetleypete September 16, 2017 / 3:35 pm

    Thanks for following my blog, which is much appreciated.
    Best wishes, Pete.


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