Doing the Continental

Europe: A History

by Norman Davies
Oxford University Press, 1365 pp., $39.95

Few books command a major field for sixty years. Herbert Albert Laurens Fisher’s long History of Europe, first published in 1935, was one such. It was a book with authority, not least because the writer had been minister of education in Britain, the man who introduced state scholarships to allow pupils to study at university regardless of their means. Yet Fisher’s History was badly timed. He wrote it, from a vantage point within the English establishment, as testimony to the fading Christian values of a continent in decay, to its “squandered treasure of humanity, tolerance and good sense.” Within a very few years—by 1940, in fact, when, as the Second World War reached London, Fisher was killed there by a truck—he already needed a successor.

The successor to Fisher, Norman Davies, born in the year that war broke out, is good on such ironies of history throughout his own equally long volume. A product of the Fish-erite university reform, he does not feel himself part of an establishment: rather he shares the puckish instincts of his teacher, A.J.P. Taylor. The other most striking influence upon Davies is his training as a historian of Eastern Europe, especially Poland. He recognizes a large personal debt to his mentor in this field, Hugh Seton-Watson, and the views of the noted Polish scholar and critic Leszek Kolalakowski are also much in evidence here.

The emphasis on Eastern Europe, the most important intellectual feature of Davies’s work, will engage us later. But it is another distinctive aspect of his approach to which readers are likely to respond first and, on the whole, with delight. They will immediately encounter a cornucopia of ready information, handily packaged and apparently miscellaneous, distributed among some three hundred separate short essays he calls “capsules,” which are set off from the rest of the text, as well as in a wealth of revealing, well-designed maps and tables.

Davies’s capsules are not, as their name surely suggests, “time capsules”: flashbacks or snapshots, like the documents and artefacts sometimes placed for the benefit of posterity in the foundation of new buildings. Rather they are thematic soundings or boreholes, “modules” we might say, averaging about a page in length and ranging across the centuries, from a few deft lines on the significance of earthquakes to a finely-turned mini-disquisition about the Hanseatic trading association in the history of the Baltic. They display literary quality of a high order: wit and terseness, polish and crispness; by turn they can be trenchant and poignant. In the capsule entitled “Murano,” for example, Davies considers the history of glassmaking and, in particular, the silvered mirror, first manufactured at Murano, that revolutionized the way we see ourselves. “The ancients had seen through glass darkly,” Davies concludes. “The moderns saw through it clearly, in a shocking, shining cascade of light that reached into their innermost lives.”

Davies uses his capsules to pursue some fascinating topics: the implications of wheat-growing and plow technology …

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