One for the A list

16th June 2006 at 01:00
European History for Dummies

By Se n Lang

Wiley Publishing pound;14.99


What do sugar, lederhosen, and Kraftwerk have in common? Along with anti-Semitism and the Black Death, they are all "things Europe could have done without" according to Se n Lang, author of European History for Dummies.

Lang's eclectic lists are amusing and thought-provoking - and probably the only time you'll see Adolf and Abba on the same page of a history book (under "Top ten Europeans who dominated the continent") - typical of his unconventional yet effective approach as he meets the challenge of his opening sentence: "General de Gaulle once said that you could not unite a nation like France that had 265 different types of cheese; it's even harder for Europe, a small continent that can't decide which language to speak, which religion to follow, which money to use, or even where exactly it begins and ends."

The book is divided into: Origins of a Continent; Europe of the Ancients;

The Middle Ages; New Ideas, New Worlds (the Renaissance period); Europe Rules the World (the growth of imperialism); Europe Tears Itself in Two;

and the aforementioned lists. Laid out in the usual "for Dummies" style, the sections encourage you to dip into topics.

Sections of text are highlighted with icons, eg "Did it really happen?" and "From past to present". The former would provide great lesson starters or "fascinating facts" to drop into lessons - did you know that when Stalin had a stroke his advisers didn't call a doctor because they feared he was playing a trick on them? Or that Attila's Huns bound their babies' skulls to elongate them? Lang believes this is why adult Huns were "incredibly smelly". He notes that Attila is a popular name in modern Hungary and that horseback archery is enjoying resurgence there, but thankfully they no longer bind heads.

The "On the one hand" sections, which encourage comparison of differing opinions on historical events, also work well. For example, Lang notes that during the French Revolution Corday was pilloried by the revolutionaries who saw Marat as a martyr, but that modern historians see her in a far better light. And historians are still arguing over events such as the causes of the First World War - was it the fault of the Germans or, as AJP Taylor believed, an accident waiting to happen?

Much more than an "irreverent romp" in the vein of 1066 and All That, this manages to be a serious history book, covering topics like the Western Front with appropriate gravity.

The sections on the causes and events of the First World War are in fact superb and would be invaluable for exam revision (Lang is an examiner himself). Additionally, the chronological approach would encourage students to link periods and events together to see the bigger picture. Schemes of work embracing the thematic model may fulfil good educational practice, but undergraduate lecturers are often frustrated by their students' poor chronological understanding.

The "for Dummies" series has helped me to use the internet, do my tax return, play poker, and even have a baby, but the whole of European history in 400 pages? An impossible task, you may think. However, Lang has produced a comprehensive, concise, fascinating and occasionally very funny account stretching from Stone Age to space race and covering the main events that have helped shape modern Europe. It would make a great summer read for prospective A-level students or for NQTs seeking to fill gaps in their knowledge.

Rebecca Hewlitt, former head of history in a large comprehensive, is now an education consultant

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