In the Hands of the Cannibals

Neal Ascherson

  • Europe: A History by Norman Davies
    Oxford, 1365 pp, £25.00, October 1996, ISBN 0 19 820171 0

In this supposedly scientific age, the imaginative side of the historical profession has undoubtedly been downgraded. The value of unreadable academic papers and of undigested research data is exaggerated. Imaginative historians such as Thomas Carlyle have not simply been censured for an excess of poetic licence. They have been forgotten. Yet Carlyle’s convictions on the relationship of history and poetry are at least worthy of consideration. It is important to check and verify, as Carlyle sometimes failed to do. But ‘telling it right’ is also important. All historians must tell their tale convincingly, or be ignored.

So writes Norman Davies, in the introductory pages of this huge, heroic book. Carlyle claimed in 1834 that ‘the only Poetry is History, could we tell it right.’ In this sense, Europe: A History is an epic work of the imagination. It achieves (among many other things) one unexpected effect more commonly achieved by epic poetry or fiction than by encyclopedic histories: in spite of being well over a thousand pages long, the book demands to be read from start to finish, from the Ice Ages to the New World Disorder, without selectivity. To begin by dipping and skipping is to miss the point, to break the spell and deprive oneself of a profound pleasure. In short, the bulk and the scope do not prevent this single volume from being a narrative rather than a work of reference. ‘Gibbon Goes East’, the headline on the TLS review, was not entirely over the top.

After Davies, it will never be possible to write a history of Europe in the old way again. Almost single-handed, he has shifted Europe’s historiographical centre of gravity eastwards. This is an account in which Prague, Kraków or Kiev is as prominent as Paris, Rome or Seville, in which Comenius ranks with Erasmus and the rebellion of Bogdan Chmielnicki is treated as seriously as the War of the Spanish Succession. And this is not just a matter of ‘restoring’ Eastern and East-Central Europe to the general story, the story itself becomes a quite different one. All those ‘European histories’ which are really self-congratulatory chronicles of Western Civilisation – with obligatory references to dark, peripheral events like the Partitions of Poland or the reforms of Peter the Great – now fa1l into oblivion, not because they are incomplete but because they are distortions. Neither is this a matter of crude ‘equating’: of setting out to prove that the Counter-Reformation in Central Europe was as important as it was in the West, or that Poland’s doomed dash towards constitutionalism in the late 18th century was as significant as the French Revolution. What happened in the West often mattered more. But Davies is saying that it is impossible to grasp how or why these developments mattered unless they are put in the wider European context.

Davies was not the first Western scholar to understand this distortion. One of his models, Hugh Seton-Watson, spent a lifetime attacking the provincialism of conventional Western history writing. (Another model and tutor, the late A.J.P. Taylor, took a different line, treating the smaller nations of Eastern Europe with impatient contempt.) But he is the first to offer the general public a convincing alternative. It was high time. The old versions were already losing credibility. As Davies says,

the really vicious quality shared by almost all accounts of ‘Western civilisation’ lies in the fact that they present idealised, and hence essentially false, pictures of past reality ... judging from some of the textbooks, one gets the distinct impression that everyone in the ‘West’ was a genius, a philosopher, a pioneer, a democrat or a saint, that it was a world inhabited exclusively by Platos and Marie Curies ... Overblown talk about ‘Western civilisation’ threatens to render the European legacy, which has so much to be said in its favour, disreputable.

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