A Global History of History

February 23, 2012

Author: Daniel Woolf

Edition: First

Publisher: Cambridge University Press

Pages: 596

Price: £60.00 and £22.99

ISBN: 9780521875752 and 699082

The past decade has seen global history become part of the standard history curriculum at many institutions. For teachers and students alike, this presents a severe challenge, not least in the field of historiography, which has traditionally been dominated by a Eurocentric representation of the past.

But is it possible to do justice to several millennia of history writing and practice across the world in one volume? I approached Daniel Woolf’s textbook with a great deal of scepticism, doubting that he would be able to synthesise effectively the competing historiographies of ancient Egypt and China alongside the current debates on post-colonialism and the linguistic turn. My reservations were swept aside as soon as I started reading this dazzling and masterly narrative. Woolf has a warm, pragmatic and engaging style, and enthuses the reader with his obvious fascination with historiographical traditions, customs and debates. Students who have struggled with impenetrable texts on arcane aspects of the development of the discipline of history will welcome his lucid and accessible prose.

Woolf adopts a truly global approach. The historical writings of Korea, Thailand, Iceland, Tibet and Persia are examined seriously and given weight equal to that of the better-known intellectual contributions of the Renaissance and Enlightenment in the West. The reader is introduced to the work of the Mughal princess Gul-Badan Begam and to the Andean chronicler Guaman Poma de Ayala, and their histories are compared with the more familiar voices of Francesco Guicciardini, Leopold von Ranke and Voltaire.

This is not a bite-sized procession of fragmented stories. Woolf weaves the threads together into a coherent, chronological narrative in nine chapters from the 24th century BC to the present day. His synthesis is scaffolded with timelines, short text extracts from key writers, subject boxes, illustrations and suggestions for further reading.

His use of images is particularly innovative. They highlight the fact that communication of history is not dependent on the text or the book. So he includes the example of an Inca quipu, a series of coloured knotted cords on a carved wooden stick used as an aide-memoire to preserve memories and to recount histories. Statues, cuneiform tablets, chronicles, screens, photographs, wood carvings and manuscripts are all employed to deepen an appreciation of interpretations of the past.

The subject boxes and selected extracts are equally diverse and eclectic. Where else could you learn about the Hamitic hypothesis, the ars historica, the Glass Palace Chronicle, Assyrian historical propaganda and Johann Gottfried Herder on the succession of cultures? These illustrations and examples ensure that subject matter that can sometimes be daunting and dense for students becomes fun and accessible.

Woolf’s synthesis is a masterpiece and deserves to become a key text for history programmes in the 21st century.

Who is it for? History undergraduates and postgraduates at all levels.

Presentation: Impressive, lucid and accessible.

Would you recommend it? If you want a fresh and comprehensive analysis of global historiography, buy this book.

Highly recommended

Feminism

Author: June Hannam

Edition: First

Publisher: Longman/Pearson Education

Pages: 200

Price: £15.99

ISBN: 9781408255575

 

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