EUROPE. A HISTORY by Norman Davies

Oxford University Press 1996. ISBN - 0-19-820171-0

A history of Europe is an ambitious project and Norman Davies succeeds magnificently in integrating the different strands of European history from the earliest settlement to the present day.

He argues that identity doesn't have to stop at a national frontier and that Europe has seen radical changes in tribal boundaries with no notion (until recently) of national "homelands". If a peasant of the Middle Ages had been asked where he lived he would probably have replied Christendom. Equally he shows how ubiquitous nationalist inspired historical reconstruction has distorted historical reality.

As he says,"A kingdom of England did exist (1265), on the ruins of the Plantagenet empire; but it still had stronger connections with the Continent, in Gascony and Aquitaine, than with Wales or Ireland. Its French speaking Anglo-Norman aristocracy did not yet share a common culture with the English people, and the baronial opposition was led by Continental adventurers like de Montfort. There was no concept of Britishness whatsoever. The kingdom of Scotland was was still disputing its territory with the Norwegians who had just invaded the northern isles."

A surprising chart in the appendix shows the Indo-European foundation of Europe in its language branches from a Proto-Indo-European to the West including Celtic, Germanic, Hellenic, Italic and Anatolian, and to the East including Balto-Slavonic, Armenian, Albanian and Indo-Iranian (Romany here in a long list with Hindi and Punjabi). Apart from a racial identity that sets it apart from Asiatic, Arab and African people he sees a common cultural inheritance deriving from major century spanning events.

The Greek influenced Roman Empire was a predominantly European phenomenon including present day England and France and all the land south of the Danube. Recognisable features of European civilisation grew out of Roman Law and the Pax Romana. As he says, "Latin lex means "the bond", "that which binds". The same idea underlies that other keystone of Roman legality, the pactum or "contract". Once freely agreed by two parties, whether for commercial, matrimonial or political purposes, the conditions of the contract bind the parties to observe it. As the Romans knew, the rule of law ensures sound government, commercial confidence, and orderly society."

The following "Barbarian Ages" are not as barbaric as they are usually portrayed. The Germanic invaders of the Western Empire adopted Roman law wholesale creating a functional Barbarian-Roman fusion and the Eastern orthodox Empire with its capital of Constantinople survived for a further 13 centuries providing a foundation for Slavonic Christendom. He quotes Salvian of Marseilles, describing Romans of good birth and education taking refuge among Goths and Franks, "seeking a Roman humanity among the barbarians, because they could no longer support barbarian inhumanity among the Romans."

Davies shows a European civilisation being created by the continuity of the Roman and Christian traditions and finding a common identity through a series of Europe wide events, the principal of which were the Moslem invasions. Islamic armies occupied and settled the Iberian peninsula and reached the Frankish city of Tours by 734. In the east Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 and by 1683 they were at the gates of Vienna.

He brings out very well the way in which medieval Europe saw itself as Christian Europe, the "alliance of nobles and priests" and he traces Christianity from its birth in the Roman Republic through its adoption by Europe's people, bulwark against Islam, domination of medieval life and eventual slide  into disrepute in the late Middle Ages, (top)

setting the scene for the Enlightenment. As he puts it,"... the Middle Ages, whose religiosity and mysticism were reinforced by exactly the opposite conviction - that men and women were the helpless pawns of Providence, overwhelmed by the incomprehensible workings of their environment and of their nature. Medieval attitudes were dominated by a paralysing anxiety about human inadequacy, ignorance, impotence - in short the concept of universal sin.

He suggests that the Enlightenment is best understood...."by reference to the darkness that this "light of reason" was trying to illuminate. The darkness was provided, not by religion as such, which was taken by the philosophes to be filling a basic human need, but by all the unthinking, irrational dogmatic attitudes with which European Christianity had become encrusted.

As he says, "The prime quality of the Renaissance has been defined as "independence of mind". Its ideal was a person who, by mastering all branches of art and thought, need depend on no outside authority for the formation of knowledge, tastes and beliefs. Such a person was l'uomo universale, the "complete man"".

From this foundation we can recognise the development of a modern Europe. In the middle ages a city dwelling bourgeoisie had already broken away from the feudal relations beyond the city walls but it was the new intellectual climate (reaction? fashion?) that generated an explosion of trade, industry and information that was to continue into modern times leading to scientific and technological change at a vertiginous rate and an entirely new kind of life in giant cities.

Davies shows that it wasn't an exclusive one way street. The Romanticism of the late 18th and 19th centuries reacted against everything that the Enlightenment represented and he illustrates in an interesting way how passionate, supernatural and emotional Romanticism coexisted with the harmony and restraint of the Classical Enlightenment. In fact it became a class system, "Where the Enlightenment catered for an intellectual Úlite, the Romantics catered for the newly liberated and educated masses." Classical public schools vs.Dickens?

Nationalism is seen as a very modern and troublesome phenomenon. States such as Germany and Italy only came into existence in the late 19th century with the new "nation state" idea destroying the loose and peaceable Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires and unleashing unprecedented destruction on Europe. WW1 and WW2 are seen as part of the same conflict with German (Romantic) Totalitarian Nationalism only being defeated in the west by the Democratic (Enlightenment) British and Americans. In the east it was defeated by a strange totalitarian Communist state that flashed into prominence and disappeared less than half  a century later having the distinction of having murdered more of its own people (40 million not counting WW2) than any country in world history. As the Marxists explained in most un-enlightenment terms, "The notion of a political order based on consensus, tolerance, compromise, restraint or mutual respect for the law is a "bourgeois illusion".

The prosperous and democratic Europe of today is shown as growing out of the extraordinarily enlightened (that word again) American Marshall Plan (1948- 1951) and the European Economic Community. The later has grown into a common currency, trade and legal union from its 1951 start as the European Coal and Steel Community and has been largely successful in its implicit aim of preventing European nationalist conflict. Needless to say Norman Davies strongly supports the E.E.C.

I can't recommend this book too highly.

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