It is usually best to start with the good news. Simon Jenkins’s survey of European history is wide-ranging, pithy and, for the most part, accurate. The narrative proceeds at breakneck speed but, in a way, this helps to capture the chaotic story of the continent. In just five pages, for example, we are told about the Mongol intrusions of the 13th century; Henry III and the development of the English parliament; and the curious tale of the Avignon papacy. Your head will spin but perhaps this is the intended, and not entirely unpleasant, sensation. Jenkins is also bold when it comes to passing judgement on historical figures: we are left in no doubt as to what he thinks about emperors such as Augustus or Justinian, or statesmen such as Pericles and Bismarck. This is rather refreshing. Jenkins also conjures up his share of witty lines. The Borgias, he writes, were ‘a family that made the Medici look like saints’ and, on Napoleon’s assault on Venice in 1797, he concludes that ‘the best that can be said… is that, by rendering the city insignificant, he probably saved it from rebuilding’. This is, assuredly, a book crammed with facts but it also raises a gentle chuckle once in a while.
The bad news is that it is hard to pin down the purpose of the book. We already have many, many accounts of European history – some longer, some shorter – so there must be a very good reason to add to the pile: some fresh perspective, or some revelation. Regrettably, Jenkins’s book adds little that is new, aside, perhaps, from some useful commentary on how Europe’s present woes are simply the latest chapter in an age-old quest to ‘find a balance between unity and diversity’. And even this is a tune that has been whistled no few times in recent years.
Jenkins is candid about the remit of his book. This is a political history, a ‘narrative of power’, and the themes Jenkins develops are entirely legitimate. War has always been a bad European habit, so we encounter most of the major episodes in ‘a tale of violence’. Debate about the nature and purpose of government has always been a European obsession, so we hear all about clashes between popes and kings, between this theory and that theory. If there are lacunae in your knowledge of Europe’s past, then this book will serve you well: think of an important conflict, ruler or historical episode and you are likely to find them mentioned in these pages.
This, no doubt, is something of an achievement, but it would have been lovely to have seen the book offer deeper analysis. There are glimpses of this, but not nearly enough of them. Here, then, we have a very conventional history book (not an insult, in and of itself) though Jenkins veers between acceptance and rejection of prevailing historiographical orthodoxies. And this turns out to be one of the book’s more interesting features. His analysis of the period between the 15th and 18th centuries belongs to another age: Jenkins credits the Renaissance with an ‘opening of the mind’ in a fashion that Jacob Burckhardt would have applauded and, apparently, the Enlightenment meant that ‘a wall erected round the European mind... had finally crumbled’. The muddled, more complex aspects of both periods are overlooked. Earlier on, Jenkins suggests – against so much evidence of cultural vibrancy – that the ‘Dark Ages’ is still a useful term to describe the period after Rome’s fall, and the poor old Vikings are portrayed in a decidedly cartoonish manner.
For all that, Jenkins’s book has guts. I’m not quite sure what a phrase such as ‘collective continental consciousness’ means, but such a thing probably exists and while having so many stories thrown at you in a few hundred pages can be rather irritating it sometimes provokes unexpected thoughts and allows unlikely connections to be made. Jenkins also captures the poignancy of the European story: a tale of so much anger and antipathy it prompts him to quote Tacitus on the ludicrous consequences and half-baked resolutions of warfare: ‘They make a wasteland and they call it peace.’
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