Foxes offer a taste of history

The Pursuit of Glory
July 20, 2007

The economics of publishing ensure that the Penguin History of Europe will enjoy a prominence that few other comparable series might attain, and the appearance of this work is thus of considerable interest not simply because of the eminence of the author but also due to the likely impact of his book. It is at once exhilarating - and yet...

The former is readily explained and, as the book will receive good reviews from others, need not detain us at length. Tim Blanning writes wonderfully, both because he is a master of prose and because he does not seem encumbered by doubt.

A welcome, though arguably misleading, clarity is joined to a formidable knowledge of the period and to its published sources in a number of languages and, as a result, the reader is taken through a discussion that is shot through with pertinent quotations from a truly impressive range of sources.

There is an especially striking discussion of communications in most of its aspects at the outset, and Blanning is also particularly strong in the correctly generous sections of his book devoted to religion and to culture.

The discussion of communications brings in other themes. Thus, the development of the turnpike in England helped to take Leicestershire closer to the world of London, which had hitherto been cut off by the limited effectiveness of roads built across clay. Similarly, the hedging and ditching linked to enclosure ensured that jumping became more important in hunting. This was also encouraged by the development of a special hunting saddle.

Knowledge flows with fecundity: apparently the French ate fox. Throughout, there is a critical intelligence at play, and the reader is given the benefit of a rich understanding of the period that is insightful as well as deft.

So why the "and yet"? In part, there is the problem that, although Blanning, at the close, invites the reader to consider whether they want the optimistic or the pessimistic conclusions he offers, elsewhere he is not sufficiently sensitive to different interpretations.

This is particularly so with his heavy reliance on the public sphere, a quasi orthodoxy he has already deployed in The Culture of Power and the Power of Culture: Old Regime Europe 1660-1789 (2002), which in many respects is the template for this new book.

This is a quasi-orthodoxy that is ripe for critical examination. For example, alongside the coffeehouses and newspapers, Newton and Voltaire, it was still widely believed that astrological anatomies and zodiacs were keys to character and guides to the future, that extraterrestrial forces intervened in the affairs of the world - particularly human and animal health and the state of the crops and weather - and that each constellation in the zodiac presided over a particular part of man, with guidance to this process being provided by almanacs.

Blanning is well aware of this diversity, but his emphasis is very much on the model of transformation through and in the public sphere.

Linked to this, from the perspective of a teacher (and probably this is not Blanning's audience), is the absence of explicit debate with the other studies of the period, which include such distinguished works as those of Matthew Anderson and William Doyle. In this context, it would be useful if Anderson (or someone else) could update his Historians and Eighteenth-Century Europe (1979).

Other problems include the somewhat unoriginal narrative account of the "War and peace" section, which contrasts so markedly with the abandonment of narrative elsewhere in the study, the relative lack of attention devoted to Ottoman Europe - Greece and Serbia scarcely feature, while Albania, Bosnia, and Bulgaria are largely absent - and to Europe beyond the oceans, and, leading from this, a lack of engagement with the comparative global dimension.

This highlights the question of what is to be expected in a history of Europe. There is, of course, no single answer, but, at the academic level, it would be helpful to see more of an explicit discussion of how far and why Europe was becoming different, a subject of growing attention of late, and, indeed, what Europe meant, not only to contemporaries but also to outsiders.

Europe, after all, was as much about traders in Canton, explorers in the South Pacific and the tendrils of the slave trade in the African interior as the predictable cast of Louis XIV, Frederick the Great and Napoleon.

How far and why Europe was becoming different, and with what consequences for Europe and the remainder of the world, is also extremely important from the perspective of the following century.

In part of his book, Blanning displays a welcome willingness to reach beyond conventional approaches and constraints; but, elsewhere, less so. There are some attractive illustrations, several territorial maps, and a suggested reading section, but no notes. The Tiepolo cover is tremendous.

Jeremy Black is professor of history at Exeter University.

The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648-1815

Author - Tim Blanning
Publisher - Allen Lane
Pages - 735
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 9780713990874

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