Next year I will teach a course entitled Narrating Europe. How do historians today tell the European story in academic books, on the internet, in museums, in films…? The goal is to make students aware of the advantages and problems of such narratives by discussing it with people working on the topic. In order to prepare the class, I started a small reading group with some colleagues. During this term we will try to go through Norman Davies’ Europe. Written in 1990 by a specialist of Polish-Russian history, the book is certainly one of the most well-known synthesis on Europe. I doubt that is the most-read on the topic: my paperback version from 1997 has 1365 pages. Last week we read the “Introduction” and I would like to stress third points.
- First of all, Norman Davies loves to experiment with historical writings. In a book on Polish history he tells the story backward, starting with Post-War Poland and then travelling back in time1. In this volume he follows a classical chronological narrative, but by inserting so-called “capsules” he regularly tries to change of scale in his account. He also uses the concept of hyperlinks by frequently referring the readers to other parts of the book.
- Second, in order to prevent critics to blame him for an essentialist approach of Europe – after all he begins his narrative with prehistory – he presents the different meanings Europe had since the Middle Ages. The geographic discussion of the Eastern frontier, which was first defined as being the Don River and became only in the 18th century the Ural, was particularly interesting to me. The map2, I choose to illustrate this post, shows nicely how many different frontiers cross Europe. Davies also strongly argues against a “Western” definition of Europe by emphasising the place of what we call today Central or/and Eastern Europe.
- Third, despite this methodological safeguards, Davies does not always escape an essentialist view. This is probably due to the fact, that he stays in a somewhat modern, 19th century approach of history. He clearly hates post-modernism3 and defends a history that has a direct role to play in the the political construction of societies: “Sooner or later, a convincing new picture of Europe’s past will have to be composed to accompany the new aspirations for Europe’s future.” (p. 45). And so even in this “Introduction”, which wants to deconstruct the stories that has been told over Europe, Davies sometimes does not escape these narratives. The most striking example was the central role he gave to Christendom, defined as an amalgamation of classical and barbarian worlds. Its emergence is the moment in history when “European history ceased to be an assortment of unrelated events” (p. 15).
- Davies, Norman (2001) Heart of Europe : the past in Poland’s present (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press).
- Moving frontiers inside Europe (Davies, Norman (1996) Europe : a history (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p. 18
- “‘Postmodernism’ has been a pastime in recent years for all those who give precedence to the study of historians over the study of the past.” p. 6