Global Context (Europe): The Penguin History of Europe

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This series of posts deals with the global context in its many dimensions-historical, social, cultural, political, economic, and religious. We will provide book notices, book reviews, and brief essays on these topics. We hope that you will find this series helpful as you live and bear witness in a complex and increasingly hyper-connected world.

J. M. Roberts’ The Penguin History of Europe is the best one-stop history of Europe available. (Norman Davies’ Europe: A History is of comparable quality, although it weighs in at nearly 1400 pages.) Roberts writes for an audience who has some knowledge of the history of Europe, but who would like to put that knowledge into broader context and analyze the broader patterns and themes that surface.

In the first third of the book, he begins with ancient European civilization and works all the way up to late Christendom. In the second third, he walks the reader through modern history from the 16th through the 19th centuries. In the final third, he treats the twentieth century, with the two world wars and the Cold War as structural markers.

Roberts is a fair-minded historian, not given to writing revisionist and special interest history. He focuses primarily on the political and economic aspects of European history and secondarily on its socio-cultural aspects. In so doing, he chooses to leave out certain socio-cultural elements that I wish he had included, such as history of philosophy and art. This is not a strong criticism, however, because Roberts is attempting to collate, analyze, and communicate a massive amount of historical data in only 700 pages.

This brings us to a brief discussion of historical surveys which are by nature broad but not particularly deep. The positives are that we are introduced to a wide range of historical phenomena and are able to grasp the big picture, putting what we know in a broader context. The negatives are we are left unaware of many interesting and significant details and must trust the author to “get it right” in his interpretation and analysis of the overall patterns of his presentation.

Roberts The Penguin History of Europe is highly recommended for those interested in a concise overview of the history of Europe.

Book: The Penguin History of Europe (1996)

Author: J. M. Roberts

Region: Europe

Genre: History

Length: 722 pp.

Difficulty: Intermediate-Difficult