Europe: A History, Norman Davies, (Oxford University Press, £25). ISBN: 0198201710

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 2 (Summer 1997), Medieval History (pre-1500), Pre-history / Archaeology, Pre-Norman History, Reviews, Volume 5

Eight years after the fall of the Berlin Wall seems an appropriate time for the arrival of new European histories which attempt to give East and West parity of esteem. Such histories are now wending their way to the bookstores. Europe: a History has garnered the most headlines (and sales). The layout is innovative. The text is complemented with almost ninety maps. Davies has included about three hundred ‘capsules’: boxed text which—as he says himself—describe ‘specifics which would otherwise find no place among the generalisations and simplifications of synthetic history-writing’. From Ireland we have ‘Famine’ and ‘Blarney’. The rest are scattered across Europe like historical confetti. He is concerned to give minority cultures their rightful place in these capsules: many have titles in the original language such as ‘Slesvig’, ‘Norge’, ‘Rus’, ‘Shqiperia’, and ‘Eesti’.
Davies’ introduction is required reading for anyone who is interested in the use and abuse of history by ideologues. However, he refrains from defining Europe. His maps suggest the Urals as a cut-off, but are Sverdlovsk and Perm really in different continents? Near the end of the book Davies says ‘somewhere between the depths of Russia and the heart of Europe a new dividing line will have to be established hopefully along a border of peace’. One senses that Davies’ Europe would exclude Russia: his portrayal of Russia is unflattering. But who could think of Dostoyevsky, Mandel’shtam or Tolstoy as non-European writers? Paradoxically, Europe: A History shifts the European centre of gravity eastwards while at the same time refusing to grant Russia access to this new Europe. In the introduction Davies argues that ‘Eastern Europe is no less European for being poor, or undeveloped, or ruled by tyrants’. He doesn’t seem to have realised that this also applies to Russia.
Davies is determined to decentre and re-situate us in this continent. Each chapter opens with a map of Europe, but at ninety degrees to the standard map. Ireland is now at the top and the Urals at the bottom of the page (or vice-versa sometimes). The exact centre of this set of maps is situated in modern-day Poland, just north of Warsaw. This is the essence of Davies’ revisionism: to reinvent Eastern Europe as Central Europe and to re-integrate the former Warsaw Pact and new countries into a new Europe. While one can see this as an immensely political aim in the aftermath of the implosion of the Soviet empire and as the EU drags its heels on admitting the new democracies as members, nevertheless it is refreshing and exciting to read about Europe from this new perspective.
The opening sentence of each chapter is deliberately provocative, challenging our well-worn assumptions about the past. Davies views the grandiose claims for many strands of European culture as mere propaganda. Thus the Renaissance is ‘unreal’, the Age of Reason is ‘naive’, twentieth-century Europe is ‘barbaric’ and so on. One is stimulated to keep reading by this strategy, even if one disagrees with his thesis.

The first chapter includes an excellent guide to the common European linguistic heritage bequeathed us by the Celts. He takes some proto-Celtic root words and notes placenames which are based on these: for example ‘gael’ as in Portugal, Gaul and Galatia (in Asia Minor), or dun as in Dunmurry, London or Thun (Switzerland). In this way, the Celtic ‘fringe’ is rightly placed in a continental European cultural and linguistic context. Davies is careful to give expression to the non-Graeco-Roman origins of much of European culture. He discusses the ‘Black Athena’ controversy, whereby Martin Bernal claimed that much of classical Greek culture originates from sub-Saharan Africa. Interestingly, Davies discusses post-Roman Empire Europe in a chapter called ‘The Birth of Europe’. He points out that the term ‘Dark Ages’ is a misnomer: many Romans took refuge from the barbarian practices of the Empire among the Goths and Franks.
While Davies’ vision and grand narrative is captivating, I found myself irked by various shortcomings. The index is abysmal: names such as Robert Boyle, Jonathan Swift and John Toland are omitted although they are mentioned in the text (curiously Davies calls the latter ‘J.J. Toland’). Spelling is occasionally innovative: Seamus Healey makes the index as author of ‘The Tollund Man’! The illustrations—sandwiched out of textual context in two locations—are appallingly titled, with descriptions of the paintings (disappointingly reproduced in black-and-white) relegated to an appendix at the back, hundreds of pages away.
Much spleen has been vented on Europe: A History by various critics. Many have fumed at the number of factual inaccuracies. This reviewer can add to the list. For example, I am baffled as to why Davies—a champion of the history of small countries in central Europe—calls a Sinn Féin MP (Constance Markiewicz) ‘British’. In a capsule entitled ‘Elektron’, Davies states that the term electron was coined by ‘the British physicist J.D. Stoney’; George Johnstone Stoney (an Offalyman) gave this term to the world. Davies compounds the error in the same capsule by not mentioning the work of J.J. Thomson, who is generally recognised as having offered conclusive proof—in his charge-to-mass ratio (e/m) experiments—that electrons exist; and this in a capsule directly about electrons! No mention is made of the great anatomists Galen and William Harvey. The scientist Jacob Bronowski is called ‘Joseph’ in the Introduction. Ghana, not Nigeria, was the first British African colony to become independent. Could this sloppiness be related to the Oxford University Press’s attempting to publish before other major histories of Europe arrived (by J.M. Roberts and John Merriman)?
While it is true that history can be written at any magnification, the overall effect of Davies’ factual aberrations is to significantly detract from the genuine innovations in his book. Attention to detail and broad narrative sweep should not be mutually exclusive; at times this seems to be the case here. Despite the flaws, it reads very well. It puts the story back into history. Davies is often ironic: he describes the Vatican State as ‘almost as papist as Éire’! The first sentence of the Preface states ‘This book contains little that is original’. One is tempted to say that the many errors constitute originality in themselves. For a non-specialist like this reviewer, the merit of the book lies in its macro-vision of Europe and its gripping narrative. After this book, it will never again be possible to exclude Eastern Europe from ‘European’ history. That is worth cherishing.

Philip McGuinness

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