Sure-footed treks through a continent's past

1st November 1996 at 00:00
EUROPE:A HISTORY by Norman Davies Oxford University Press Pounds 25. A HISTORY OF EUROPE By J M Roberts Helicon Pounds 25. A HISTORY OF MODERN EUROPE FROM THE RENAISSANCE TO THE PRESENT By John Merriman Norton Pounds 18.95

Three new titles on European history give the reader much to chew over, says Jessica Saraga.

At a moment in history, some time less than five million years ago, the waters of the Atlantic Ocean breached the natural dam joining what the Greeks were later to call the Pillars of Hercules, and rushed in to fill the shallows between the Alps and the Atlas Mountains. Some time later, colder Northern seas gouged out the Danish Sound to create the Baltic. The English Channel - having come and gone more than once - eventually stayed, while the ice, after at times immobilising the area north of a line from Devon to Kiev, finally retreated.

This was Europe, geographically distinct on three of its four sides, while it still merged with Asia. The area enjoyed an immense variety in geology, soil and vegetation, with a temperate climate and navigable rivers flowing in all directions. Its high ratio of coastline to landmass provided seaside habitats where harvesting the abundant marine food supply felicitously involved harnessing brainpower to the study of the stars, whose sparkle aroused glimmers of understanding about time and change. The cultivation of wheat, which requires only seasonal labour, allowed time to cultivate other crops, to explore, to build and to wonder. Not surprising, perhaps, that Europe should have become the most dynamic of the world's cradles of civilisation.

Professor Davies and Dr Roberts both begin here, with what Dr Roberts calls bedrock, the creation of the European landmass. Both end, after magisterial sweeps through time and history, looking forward into the next millennium. Professor Davies gives us twice as many pages for our money. Inside is an intellectual banquet, a gourmet selection, a feast of feasts.

Salting the narrative with 300 "time capsules" sprinkled in the text, he can make room for - well, anything he likes, from codpieces and condoms to usury and propaganda. His 12 extra "snapshots" enable him to show us events in European history as diverse as the first performance of Don Giovanni on October 29 1787 in Prague (it was a Monday) and the eruption of Santorini, which some say marked the beginning of the end of Minoan civilisation in 1628 BC. Each capsule has a one word title, for which Professor Davies seems to prefer another language, so the Alps become Alpi,the Mass, Missa and the Rights of Woman, Femme.

It all adds to the zest, though taking his penchant for the Latin into chapter titles (Medium - the Middle Ages; Dynamo - Powerhouse of the World; Tenebrae - Europe in Eclipse) is rather more eccentric than inspired.

This is a marvellous book for dipping into and finding answers to all sorts of questions you hadn't thought to ask. It may not be quite so good for looking up specifics. You have a fair chance of finding them in 1,300 pages, but you just might not, if the topic hasn't caught the author's fancy.

This is a compendium more than a history, a collation of encyclopaedic knowledge, around which Professor Davies is a whimsical, but only sporadic guide. He refuses to show us the handle on any door to a world of certainties, or even a map of the terrain. "Reconstructing the past is rather like translating poetry," he says, "It can be done, but never exactly." Should we make links between the accumulation of mercantile capital in Italian cities, the clear glass mirrors newly made in Venice, the fashion for portrait-painting, and the individualistic philosophy and etiquette of the Renaissance? Professor Davies does not say. We must draw our own conclusions.

If you prefer a clear trail blazed through your history, a history emphasising cause and consequence, and, to resume the gastronomic analogy, a more considered nutritional and calorific balance, you might turn to Dr Roberts. He will explain the economic imperatives behind the vast phenomena of European history - monasticism, feudalism, the Crusades among the many - and their lasting legacy.

He is a prolific writer who already has the history of the world under his belt, twice. After the world, one continent might appear to be a pushover.

But this is not to say that he has mined his own work. The focus is productively on Europe, the narrative is coherent, and Dr Roberts, like Professor Davies, is sure-footed through more than 2,000 years.

Both books have excellent maps, and Professor Davies' appendices (over 100 pages) could be a volume on its own.

These books are aimed at the general reader, and will appeal to anyone with a real interest in history, though their conception and scope preclude either being a book for students with a narrow focus. John Merriman's Modern Europe, a giant paperback equalling Professor Davies' book both in length and physical weight, could be a comprehensive starting point to furnish A-level students with both context and detail for any British or European syllabus in the early modern or modern period.

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