History as Panorama, as Snapshot

A definitive, and engaging history of Europe; a sad but defining event in Anglo-Indian affairs


A History

By Norman Davies

Oxford University Press

1365 pp., $25

Our Bones are Scattered:

The Cawnpore Massacres and the Indian Mutiny of 1857

By Andrew Ward

Henry Holt

703 pp., $25

A book review is not, by its very nature, intended to be a rave notice for an author, however famous or beloved of the publicity gang he might be. That said, Norman Davies's historical perception and understanding is so unrivaled, its breadth so unparalleled, that it is impossible not to stand in awe of this author, who fully comprehends, communicates and explains his mammoth subject in one behemoth volume (weighing 3 pounds, 14 ounces; 1,365 pages), Europe: A History.

Unusually, Davies begins with Europe's environmental history: the glacial formation of the continent that left vital mineral deposits, ample fresh water, and a rich swath of farmland, thus encouraging the various nomadic peoples to settle, farm, and trade.

Prehistory evolves into classical Greek civilization and culture, which then gives way to the better-organized Roman empire and the advent of Christianity. The empire falls prey to the marauders on its boundaries and to internal corruption and strife, though Christianity survives.

Hegemonies - from Ireland to Ukraine - rose and fell before anything resembling our modern conception of a nation-state was formed. Eventually, some 1,500 eventful years later, Davies arrives in 1992, with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, war in the Balkans, and the controversy over the European Union.

To many, this millennial parade of empires, princes, armies, and peasants will not be new. Indeed, Davies himself avers that his work contains nothing original. That is to grossly simplify and underrate his work, for his approach is both innovative and exhaustive.

Too often, "European history" denotes a combined history of England, France, Spain, and Germany, with Italian interludes. Davies redefines the term by including all those places (for example, Poland-Lithuania, Ukraine, Scandinavia, Ireland) and peoples neglected by other historians.

Not only does he provide this mass of previously ignored information, but he also reveals its integral importance to a proper understanding of Europe as we know it. His explanation of the barbarian migrations from the east, circa AD 330 to 800, is surely the most cogent and comprehensible on record.

Likewise, the analysis of France's Louis XIV and his alteration of the political structures of that country is wonderfully incisive. And it was a revelation to learn that previous assessments of Poland-Lithuania's relative unimportance resulted from a political ploy by Catherine II of Russia: Upon the final partition of Poland-Lithuania in 1795, she resolved to suppress every memory of the kingdom of Poland. Her gambit worked. (The Western powers, too concerned with the threat posed by Napoleon and his revolutionary Army, ignored Poland's fate and allied themselves with Russia, an event eerily similar to the Grand Alliance of 1942.)

Davies does not confine himself to the social, political and economic spectra. Rather, he weaves the diverse strands of musical, artistic, scientific, literary, philosophical, and religious history through the text, charting their evolution and interrelations within their proper contexts.

Significantly, for example, he demonstrates that the threat of Islam in the early Middle Ages, encroaching from the east and south on its Christian neighbors, by default cemented the Christian identity of Europe. It was this religious identity of "Christendom," rather than any concept of a continental or racial "Europe" that was the defining feature of Europe and Europeans until the 18th century.

In addition to a fine collection of maps and appendixes, the text is punctuated with what the author calls "capsules." Through a range of subjects, from Brie to Samphire (on prehistoric man's gastronomic treats) and Xativah (in which he details the creation of writing paper), Davies explores in fascinating and diverting detail the minutiae of human progress and regress. This zoom-lens approach, which enables the reader to see both the forest and the individual trees, transforms the work from yet another black-and-white textbook into a technicolor tapestry.

Davies dons the mantle of philosopher-historian to debunk the stale "isms" that hijack the past to subserve their own ends. His prose, like a purebred Arab horse, is paced and elegant, skimming over rough ground with grace and fluidity.

By comparison, Our Bones are Scattered (a mere welterweight at 2 pounds, 9-1/4 ounces, 703 pp.) by Andrew Ward is an amateur examination of the Indian rebellion of 1857 and its tragic aftermath.

In the late spring of 1857, 90 Sepoys (a native of India serving in the British army) rebelled against their British commanders, (ostensibly for insisting they use rifle cartridges that they believed contained animal fat), slaughtering the British soldiers and their wives and children at Meerut.

The rebellion spread rapidly - to Delhi, to other towns throughout north India and eventually to Cawnpore, a large British military station. There, the huge rebel army massacred all Europeans. By the autumn, the British were in the ascendant again and their reprisals against suspected Indian rebels were equally savage.

Ward chronicles these genocidal atrocities, in full graphic, even gratuitous, detail. But like a student's essay, the text is too generously peppered with quotations from the works of other historians.

* Melissa Bennetts regularly reviews books on history and historical fiction.

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