Speaking Volumes: Fontana History of Europe

September 1, 1995

Jeremy Black on the Fontana History of Europe series.

History in your pocket. Growing up, I was very dependent for books on my local library. The shelves of Edgware library took me from Sutcliffe and Trease to Sellmann, from whom I acquired my love of maps, and then the "adult section", Anglocentric but with a reasonable coverage of other countries and distant continents. These were happy years in which I was able to establish a range of historical reading that I have tried to maintain since.

But I also wanted my own books. Library hardbacks were a weight when youth hostelling, and pride in possession began young. Hardbacks seemed expensive. They were also less comfortable than paperbacks.

The first series I bought was the Fontana History of Europe, still today unfinished and then with great gaps. It was, and is, an uneven series much of which needs replacing, but I bought all the books then available and continued to do so as others were published.

My favourites were Hale's Renaissance Europe, Elton's Reformation Europe, Elliott's Europe Divided and Stoye's Europe Unfolding. I was particularly impressed with their cartography of concern that placed due weight on eastern and northern Europe. These regions were not treated as largely inconsequential borderlands, the marches of civilisation, but rather as integral and dynamic parts of the story.

And stories they were. Clear narrative frameworks, especially in the volumes by Elliott and Stoye, provided exciting reads. Their authors' ability to retain control, to introduce a large cast and a complex plot and to produce a coherent account that comprehended all, was stimulating and reminded me of the fiction I then enjoyed, works such as Lord of the Rings, The Moonstone and Balzac's novels, especially The History of the Thirteen.

I reread the series at university and then subsequently when preparing lectures. By then it was possible to see joins and gaps, but greater knowledge also led me to admire their combination of clarity and scholarship, insight and exposition. I turned again to read the books when considering whether to write the Europe in the Eighteenth Century Macmillan had asked me to tackle.

I have never felt comfortable with a hierarchical model of historical writing that places the heavyweight monograph, generally published by a heavyweight publisher, at the apex and treats other work as low life. Nor have I liked the idea that God gave history to Bishop Stubbs and Bishop Stubbs laid it down for mankind. I feel that a major justification of historical work is that it should be read. Historians in Britain are are paid by the community and should feel under an obligation to probe, discuss and explain the past for the benefit of others and to encourage and sustain their interest.

Historians have the challenge not only of explaining their work but also of educating themselves. A narrow approach to the past is analytically deficient because explanations can best be advanced, tested and qualified in a comparative context. For this reason, I have never been able to understand how historians of Britain can be comfortable unless they have reasonable knowledge of contemporaneous developments on the Continent.

The Fontana series encouraged me because again I saw major scholars embarking on bold projects, providing accounts that ranged across a continent and were not restricted to any one type of history. Historians should be mindful of the need to make their approaches interesting and rewarding. When I contemplate some aspects of the profession, not least their apotheosis in the ability to impersonate Olympian detachment and oracular judgement when awarding marks to the works of others, the Research Assessment Exercise in short, and look back at the wide-ranging books that encouraged and inspired me, I find myself anxious.

Jeremy Black is professor of history, University of Durham.

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