How Cultures Change, Evolve

As the world map is redrawn and new economic and political groupings are formed, questions of identity and culture - of civilization - loom. Three recent books illumine some of these issues: one a broad survey of civilizations; one an in-depth look at the civilization of medieval Europe; and one an essay on the nettlesome issue of nationalism.

A HISTORY OF CIVILIZATIONS, by Fernand Braudel, translated by Richard Mayne (Penguin Press, 600 pp., $30). Fernand Braudel is hardly to be faulted for too narrow a subject. He undertakes nothing less than a survey of major civilizations.

Refreshingly broad-brush in its approach, Braudel's book harks back to the time before general information overload, when it was still possible on any number of subjects to tell just about all that was known in a single volume. This history provides the big picture - not just the answer to the dozen questions most often asked of a given country, but the broad insights that more specialized volumes, for all their detail, may well never get around to.

Braudel, who died in 1989, was a founder of a school of history-writing that sought to get away from history as the record of government, and especially of war. The title of the English version of one of his most important works gives an indication of his approach: ``The Structures of Everyday Life.'' He sought to give more emphasis to economic life and to the role of women in various societies, which he (rightly) saw as a good indicator on a number of different social skills.

He also sought to include non-Western cultures in his writing, as is evidenced in the present work. This book, originally intended as a textbook for French high schools, was at one point a few years after publication quietly withdrawn from school use because it was deemed inadequately supportive of French and, more broadly, Western culture.

Still, there is something old-fashioned about Braudel - and not just in the sweeping scope of the ambition of his project. He is politically incorrect enough to say, for instance, in a section about Australia, that however badly the Aborigines were treated, they could not have survived as long as they did without contact with whites.

This book comes across occasionally as Francocentric, which may provide a useful element of balance for an English-speaking readership, and also occasionally reads like a translation, which it is.

One of the most interesting parts is the introductory section detailing some of Braudel's ideas about civilizations generally, such as that what a culture decides to reject may be as important as what it decides to adopt: France, for instance, at a certain point parted company with the Protestant Reformation in a way its neighbors to the north did not. Religion is central to culture, Braudel maintains; and he provides an interesting discussion of how Western civilization is informed by both Christianity and rationalism.

Braudel divides the world into Europe and not-Europe (and defines Europe to include both the Americas and the Antipodes). Particularly useful among the reports on specific cultures is the one on Islamic culture, based, paradoxically, on one of the newest world religions while centered geographically at one of the oldest crossroads of civilization.

THE CIVILIZATION OF THE MIDDLE AGES: A COMPLETELY REVISED AND EXPANDED EDITION OF MEDIEVAL HISTORY, THE LIFE AND DEATH OF A CIVILIZATION, by Norman F. Cantor (HarperCollins, 604 pp., $35). Norman Cantor's book is the kind that many general readers will not think of trying to fit into their program, and that's too bad. It is a highly readable history of a period sometimes misunderstood but now generally appreciated for its cultural richness.

While not exactly beach reading, this tome rewards both the determined, beginning-to-end history buff and the more casual dipper-in, who will find much food for thought in even just a few pages.

In an introductory section on the classical foundations of the Middle Ages, for instance, Cantor gives an analysis en passant of Roman courts versus those derived from the English common-law traditions, mentions that torture was part of the Roman legal procedure until the 18th century, and adds: ``Vestiges of the Roman procedure of pressuring the defendant survive even today on the Continent, although the more liberal countries now have juries.''

The Middle Ages is a period already much written about; Cantor includes not only the standard types of bibliography but also a short list of recommended reading that will enable you to ``hold your own in any discussion ... around the faculty lunch table,'' as he puts it, and a list of relatively recent movies that will help inform the general reader/viewer.

THE WRATH OF NATIONS: CIVILIZATION AND THE FURIES OF NATIONALISM, by William Pfaff (Simon & Schuster, 256 pp., $22). William Pfaff considers a subject much on people's minds now that the geopolitical landscape has largely thawed out from the cold war and ethnic rather than ideological animosities are seen to be driving international relations. Well-written and essay-like rather than encyclopedic in scale, the Pfaff work, like the Braudel, takes the larger perspective in search of big-picture insights.

Nationalism comes out badly in this book, even worse than imperialism, which is more often regarded as an evil: Empires, after all, could be more inclusive and pluralistic than nationalists are wont to be. Nationalism, on the other hand, was once what we might call the ``progressive'' position on the political spectrum, since it was oriented away from dynasties and other personal connections and toward larger political entities than mere duchies or provinces.

Another point: The homogeneity that is seen as crucial to a nation-state is less ethnic than cultural. England and France were the two original nation-states, Pfaff notes, and although each has a strong national culture, each also has a rich ethnic mix.

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