Europe: A History

Europe: A History

by Norman Davies

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"In the beginning," writes Norman Davies, "there was no Europe. All there was, for five million years, was a long, sinuous peninsula with no name, set like the figurehead of a ship on the prow of the world's largest land mass. To the west lay the ocean which no one had crossed. To the south lay two enclosed and interlinked seas, sprinkled with


"In the beginning," writes Norman Davies, "there was no Europe. All there was, for five million years, was a long, sinuous peninsula with no name, set like the figurehead of a ship on the prow of the world's largest land mass. To the west lay the ocean which no one had crossed. To the south lay two enclosed and interlinked seas, sprinkled with islands, inlets, and peninsulas of their own. To the north lay the great polar icecap, expanding and contracting across the ages like some monstrous, freezing jellyfish. To the east lay the land-bridge to the rest of the world, whence all peoples and all civilizations were to come." So begins Davies's magisterial Europe, a master work of history that stretches from the Ice Age to the Atomic Age, as it tells the story of Europe, East and West, from prehistory to the present day.
Davies's absorbing narrative captures the full drama of European history, on a sweeping canvas filled with fascinating detail, analysis, and anecdotes. It is a glorious chronicle packed with momentous events: the rise and fall of Rome, the sweeping invasions of Alaric (leader of the Vandals) and Atilla (leader of the Huns), the Norman conquests of Sicily and England, the Papal struggles for power, the Crusades, the Black Death, the sack of Constantinople, the growth of cities such as Venice, Ghent, London, and Paris, the Renaissance and the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, Europe's rise to become the powerhouse of the world, and its eclipse in our own century, following two devastating World Wars. Davies omits nothing. We read not only of the great figures and events of European history—battles, usurpations, tyrants, and saints—but of philosophers, scientists, writers, and artists; the great explorations; the stateless nation and the nation-state. Minority communities, from heretics and lepers to Jews, Romanies, and Muslims, have not been forgotten in this vast tapestry. And Davies has also added 299 "time-capsules," small, self-contained sections that focus intensely on an aspect of an age, to attain a greater sense of immediacy, a sharper picture of life as it was—articles that range from "Erotic Graffiti at Pompeii," to "Stradivarius," to "Psychoanalyzing Hitler." And there are also twelve "snapshots"—fascinating glimpses of moments frozen in time, such as "Knossos 1628 BC," or "Constantinople AD 230," or "Nuremberg 1945." And finally, the book features over one hundred superbly detailed maps and diagrams, and seventy-two black-and-white plates.
Never before has such an ambitious history of Europe been attempted. In range and ambition, originality of structure and glittering style, Norman Davies's Europe represents one of the most important and illuminating histories to be published in recent years.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Mr. Davies...describes Europe in all its diversity with immense learning and panache in a book weighing almost two kilos that sweeps from Hellas to the collapse of the Soviet empire."—The Economist

"Stone Age recipes, ancient Greek jokes and the origins of the condom—these are the sorts of small, delectable facts that punctuate Europe: A History.—The Wall Street Journal

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The pre-eminent scholar of Polish history, Davies (God's Playground and Heart of Europe) expands his focus to all of Europe. While the book is bulky, its size is hardly adequate to a complete history of the continent from pre-history to the dismantling of the Soviet Union. In addition, as one might expect, Davies has taken great pains to treat countries other than England, France and Germany as legitimate parts of Europe not just as the thresholds over which barbarians crossed. ("For some reason it has been the fashion among some historians to minimize the impact of the Magyars," Davies writes when discussing what would become central Europe. "All this means is that the Magyars did not reach Cambridge.") The book works because his subject is not the constituent countries but the continent as a whole. Thus, while Elizabeth I gets one brief mention in passing, Aristide Briand, the French foreign minister who tried to effect a Franco-German reconciliation until the Nazis won power, gets several paragraphs. Aside from defining what Europe is and giving all countries their due, Davies also tries to show the joys of an inclusive reading of historical subjects (he disparages excessive specialization and writes admiringly of the Annales school). A master of broad-brushstroke synthesis, Davies navigates through the larger historical currents with the detail necessary to a well-written engaging narrative. (Oct.)
Library Journal
Historian Davies (Heart of Europe, 1984) is perfect for this ambitious project, a panoramic history of Europe from prehistoric times to the present. He reminds readers that East and West have much in common, beginning with a long, conjoined history of events, personalities, movements, and concepts. Narrative chapters alternate with tableaux of specific events; there are numerous digressive inserts. The prose is elegant throughout; Davies's comments are always insightful and frequently witty. (Of the Western historians' dismissal of the Magyars as "not a creative factor in Western history," he comments: "All this means is that the Magyars did not reach Cambridge.") The author muses on "the extreme contrast between the material advancement of European civilization and the terrible regression in political and intellectual values." At last, a truly pan-European history that rests firmly on solid scholarship and exhibits wisdom and literary elegance; highly recommended.-David Keymer, California State Univ., Stanislaus
An ambitious, well-written history of Europe chronicling the continent's first five million years of development to the close of the 20th century. Davies (history, U. of London) presents a map of time and space filled with topics and in-depth analysis of the human, national, and international stories well-known to readers as well as neglected subjects such as Europe's stateless nations, and minority groups from heretics and lepers to Romanies and Muslims. Each discussion highlights a specific issue that cuts across the chronology and concludes with a "snapshot" of the whole continent captured during one symbolic moment, creating a historical picture album effect. Includes maps, illustrations, and a historical compendium. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.

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Oxford University Press
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6.50(w) x 9.62(h) x 2.55(d)

Read an Excerpt


A History
By Norman Davies

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Norman Davies
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060974680

Chapter One


Environment and Prehistory

There is a marked determinism about many descriptions of Europe's environmental history. Many Europeans have assumed that their 'continent' was so magnificently endowed that it was destined by Nature for world supremacy. And many have imagined that Europe's good fortune would somehow last forever. 'The empire of climate', wrote Montesquieu in 1748, 'is the first of all empires'; and he proceeded to show that the European climate had no rival. For Montesquieu, as for his many successors, Europe was synonymous with Progress.1

There has also been a good deal of national parochialism. Even the founder of human geography, the great Paul Vidal de la Blache (1845-1918), one of the intellectual ancestors of the Annales school, was not above a touch of Gallic chauvinizing. The geography of France, he stressed, was marked by the keynote of variety. 'Against the diversities which assail her', he wrote, 'France sets her force d'assimilarion, her power of assimilation. She transforms everything that she receives.' On Britain, in contrast, he quotes the doggerel lines about 'this paltry little isle, I with acres few and weather vile'. Onehundred years later one finds Fernand Braudel doing similar things.2 Variety is indeed a characteristic of France's superb make-up. But it is not a French monopoly; it is a hallmark of Europe as a whole.

In fact, the Peninsula of Europe is not really a 'continent' at all: it is not a self-contained land mass. At c.10 million km2 (3.6 million square miles), it is less than one-quarter the size of Asia, one-third of Africa, one-half of each of the Americas. Modern geographers classify it, like India, as a subcontinent of Eurasia: 'a cape of the old continent, a western appendix of Asia'. Even so, it is impossible to deny that Europe has been endowed with a formidable repertoire of physical features. Europe's landforms, climate, geology, and fauna have combined to produce a benign environment that is essential to an understanding of its development.

Europe's landforms do not resemble those of any other continent or sub-continent. The depressions to north and south have been flooded by the ocean to form two parallel sea-chains which penetrate deep into the interior. In the north, the North Sea-Baltic sea lane stretches 1,500 miles (2,500 km) from the Atlantic to Russia. In the south, the Mediterranean-Black Sea system stretches over 2,400 miles (4,000 km) from Gibraltar to the Caucasus. Within these protected seas lie a vast complex of lesser gulfs and a huge spangle of islands. As a result, the ratio of shoreline to landmass is exceptionally high: at c.37,000 km, or more than 23,000 miles, the European shoreline is almost exactly the length of the Equator. For early Man, this was perhaps the most important measure of accessibility.

What is more, since the shores of the Peninsula lie in the temperate latitudes of Eurasia's western extremity, they are served by a user-friendly climate. Prevailing ocean winds blow westerly; and it is the western coasts of the great continents that stand to benefit most from the moderating influx of sea air. Yet few other west-facing continental coasts can actually enjoy the advantage. Elsewhere, if the western shore is not blocked by towering peaks or icy currents, it is lined by deserts such as the Sahara, the Kalahari, or the Atacama.

The climate of Europe, therefore, is unusually temperate for its latitude. Generally speaking, under the influence of the Gulf Stream, northern Europe is mild and moist; southern Europe is relatively warm, dry, and sunny. Central and eastern Europe enjoy elements of a true continental climate, with clear, cold winters and baking hot summers. But everywhere the weather is changeable. Extremes are usually avoided. Even in European Russia, where the difference between the mean temperatures of January and July can approach 45°C, the range is only half what it is in Siberia. The wettest district in Europe is in western Norway, with an average annual precipitation of 3,500 mm (138 inches). The dryest district surrounds the Caspian Sea, with less than 250 mm ( inches) per annum. The coldest spot is Vorkuta, with a mean January chill of -20 °C; the hottest is disputed between Seville and Astrakhan, both with mean July roasts of +29 °C. These extremes do not compare with their counterparts in Asia, Africa, or the Americas.

Europe's temperate climate favoured the requirements of primitive agriculture. Most of the Peninsula lies within the natural zone of cultivable grasses. There were abundant woodlands to provide fuel and shelter. Upland pasture often occurs in close proximity to fertile valleys. In the west and south, livestock can winter in the open. Local conditions frequently encouraged special adaptations. The extensive coastline, combined with the broad Continental Shelf, gave fishermen rich rewards. The open plains, especially of the Danube Basin, preserved the nomadic horse-rearing and cattle-driving of the Eurasian steppes. In the Alps -- which take their name from the high pastures above the tree-line -- transhumance has been practised from an early date.

Europe's climate was probably also responsible for the prevalent skin-colour of its human fauna. Moderate levels of sunshine, and hence of ultra-violet radiation, meant that moderate levels of pigmentation came to be encoded in the Peninsula's gene pool. Certainly, in historic times pale faces have predominated, together with blond or golden hair and blue eyes in the northern regions. The great majority of Europeans and their descendants can be easily recognized as such from their looks.

Until recently, of course, it was impossible to take anything but the most superficial racial factors into consideration. The analysis of blood groups, body tissues, and DNA imprints, for example, was unknown until the late twentieth century; and it was not realized just how much genetic material all human beings have in common. As a result, racial theorists were apt to draw conclusions from external criteria such as skin colour, stature, or skull form. In reality, the racial make-up of Europe's population has always displayed considerable variety. The tall, blue-eyed, fair-skinned, platinum blonds of the so-called 'Nordic race' which established itself in Scandinavia forms the only group remotely qualified for the label of 'white'. They bore little resemblance to the squat, brown-eyed, swarthy-skinned and black-haired people of the so-called 'Mediterranean' or 'Indo-Mediterranean Race' which dominated large parts of the south. . . .


Excerpted from Europe by Norman Davies Copyright © 2006 by Norman Davies. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

About the Author:
Norman Davies is Professor of Polish History at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London. His previous books include God's Playground, A History of Europe (2 volumes), and Heart of Europe: A Short History of Poland.

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