Slabs of data worth mining for the gold

March 1, 2002

Tired of indifferent, unanalytical history textbooks? Jeremy Black opts for surprising alternatives that first appeared in 1902 - the Cambridge Histories.

Textbooks. We all think we know what they are. Books of 80-250 pages written by an author desperately trying to summarise a wide field and all too often so bogged down in providing a narrative that he or she is unable to offer sufficient analysis or, sometimes, anything other than a pedestrian summary of established views. No wonder then that they appear lower in the academic chain of being (and reputation and self-regard) than the monograph and learned essay or article.

In fact, producing a thoughtful survey text is a more formidable task than writing many a monograph, but the purpose of this piece is to look at alternatives to the conventional textbook. Many students are using a new form of compendium: what is available on the internet. Much of this material, however, is of indifferent quality and lacks sufficient analysis. Furthermore, the western emphasis seen in many textbooks is repeated on the internet and, if anything, accentuated.

An older source addresses many of these issues. It is one I have recommended for many years while teaching and one that I used extensively as a student. The serried and continually growing ranks of the Cambridge Histories have a number of advantages. Availability, range, analysis and ease of use are all important. Availability is no problem: there are many copies of the Cambridge Histories in institutional and public libraries.

Accessibility has been increased by the paperbacking of some of the volumes. For Southeast Asia since 1500, I recommend not the two-volume 1992 hardback edition but the easier-to-use four-volume 1999 edition. This makes what is an outstanding attempt to move beyond European attitudes and sources more readily available. Similarly, the Cambridge History of Islam , first published in 1970, appeared in paperback in 1977. Some other Cambridge Histories have been paperbacked, including some of the volumes in the New Cambridge Modern History , but there are still many volumes that await this treatment and the accompanying opportunity, seen in the Southeast Asia series, to make necessary revisions.

Range is very important. In the case of the Cambridge Histories, this is regional, chronological and thematic. In the first, there is not only the treatment of Europe, but also the eight-volume History of Africa , the four-volume History of American Foreign Relations , the 15-volume History of China (of which 11 volumes are available), with the Cambridge History of Ancient China as well, the History of Early Inner Asia , the two-volume History of Egypt , the eight-volume History of Iran , the six-volume History of Japan , the 11-volume History of Latin America , the two-volume History of Southeast Asia and the 21-volume History of India . Together these give students valuable access to continents outside Europe, most of which are poorly covered in more conventional textbooks, and also makes it possible to refer them to comparable works dealing with different areas in the same period.

The range is also chronological. Although the best-known series is the New Cambridge Modern History , which tackles European history from the late 15th century, there is also an excellent range of material for earlier periods. One of the most exciting developments in recent years has been the appearance of the New Cambridge Medieval History . Intended to replace the Cambridge Medieval History, which was published between 1911 and 1936, books in the new seven-volume series have been appearing since 1995. For the period before that there is the 18-volume Cambridge Ancient History (with five supplementary volumes of plates), a series supported by the 11-volume History of Classical Literature , as well as by volumes on Greek and Roman political thought and Hellenistic philosophy. Prehistory is catered for at insufficient length, but everything later is abundantly covered. In thematic terms, there is, for example, the eight-volume Cambridge Economic History of Europe , as well as the three-volume Cambridge Economic History of the United States .

Some of the thematic volumes are easier to use than others. Students trying to find their way round the 1,250 pages of The Industrial Economies : The Development of Economic and Social Policies , volume eight of the Cambridge Economic History of Europe, are definitely not helped by the absence of an introduction and a conclusion, but, in contrast, P. M. Holt's introduction to the first volume of the Cambridge History of Islam is clear and useful and that series amply fulfils its objective of presenting the history of Islam as a cultural whole. Furthermore, it is explicitly written with the student in mind, including "students in other fields of history".

The last point has not been taken on board by most economic historians, but the area specialists are on the whole first-rate in this respect. Thus, Denis Twitchett and Frederick Mote in their editorial introduction to The Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644 , part two, volume eight of the Cambridge History of China , ably highlight the need to describe specific phenomena in their regional setting. They also mention lacunae and draw attention to the way in which scholarship changes and alters. It is important that students are made aware of this; all too frequently, textbooks fail to point this out.

The result is books that offer the student cutting-edge accounts and analysis by leading scholars. While many scholars are unwilling to write conventional textbooks, they are clearly prepared to produce and edit essays and monographs for the Cambridge Histories, which have the reputation of books of record.

Furthermore, the essay format provides an opportunity to offer work by leading foreign scholars, including those whose first language is not English. So, volume three of the New Cambridge Medieval History , covering c . 900 to c . 1024, includes essays not only by leading British scholars but also by two scholars from American universities, four from German, three from French, two from Italian and one each from Austrian and Polish universities. The foreign contributions help to provide coverage of regions and topics that are generally less well covered by British scholars. Thus, in volume six of the New Cambridge Medieval History , covering c . 1300 to c . 1415, there is a chapter on the Holy Roman Empire, the first half by Peter Herde at Würzburg and the second half by Ivan Hlavácek at Prague. In 54 pages, they provide an effective account not only of the domestic and international politics of the empire, but also of ecclesiastical developments, the foundation of universities, urban dynamism, the establishment of a flourishing literature in the vernacular and the role of religious themes in the arts. Aside from description, there is also analysis. The writing is clear and the chapter well organised.

The same is true of the Cambridge Ancient History . The recently published volume 14, Late Antiquity : Empire and Successors , AD 425-600 , is a valuable bridging book that reflects the vitality of the Cambridge Histories. Whereas the first edition in 1938 closed in AD324, the new series makes a determined effort to address late antiquity, providing students, and their teachers, with an effective bridge from ancient to medieval history. Like other books in the Cambridge Histories, this shows the value of multiple authorship that covers geographical and thematic range. Indeed, the latter is particularly impressive, encompassing, for example, monasticism, building and architecture, government, law and education. The 23 maps, 63 figures, chronological table and five-part bibliography all make the volume more user friendly. This volume also has a theme: the vitality of the specifically eastern polity that was shaped from the Roman empire. In place of inappropriate categories and subjective and moral terms, such as decline and fall, readers are introduced to a more varied model, with a stress on new developments and multiculturalism. Again, in place of an account largely devoted to war, politics and religion, there is a valuable use of other material, and readers are encouraged to question traditional aesthetic judgements, for example about the differences between Classical and Byzantine art and the reasons for the supposed transition.

But surely these tombstone books will scare off students? Maybe so, if they only look at them, but, in fact the books are easy to use. The chapters are ably sectionalised and, more particularly, each has a very thorough index. When I tell my undergraduate students to look at the Cambridge Histories, I stress the value of both the tables of contents and the indexes. The very size of the books makes it easier to underline the extent to which students need to learn to understand how to use books, and that this does not necessarily mean reading them from cover to cover. Indeed, part of the attraction of the Cambridge Histories is that there is no need to do so, and that their size acts as a discouragement. To that extent they are an information system more in keeping with the age of the internet than the conventional textbook.

There are naturally problems with any collective volume. The delays attendant on any such project have dulled the cutting edge of several volumes. However, powerful introductions add coherence. Many, for example those of J. P. Cooper in volume four of the New Cambridge Modern History and J. S. Bromley in volume six, are important works of insight and analysis in their own right. There is nothing to provide comparable coherence for individual series. The Modern History series unfortunately tails off in the later volumes, although the companion volume, edited by Peter Burke, provides superb longue durée essays, such as those of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie on peasants, Gerald Aylmer on bureaucracy and Geoffrey Parker on warfare. While the atlas volume, edited by H. C. Darby and Harold Fullard, is, for its precision, the best historical atlas to tackle European history, the coverage of the rest of the world is less good. It would be very useful to have similar companion and atlas volumes for other series.

For students, the Cambridge Histories are a goldmine of information and analysis, while for teachers who want to provide comparison and context, for, say the debate over absolutism, they offer effective and scholarly summaries of the histories of much of the world. There are naturally gaps and weaknesses. Much of the Modern History needs replacing, and some volumes, such as J. O. Lindsay on the Old Regime 1713-63 (published in 1957), are badly dated. It would also be helpful to have the editors of individual volumes look out for comparisons with other regions of the world.

Nevertheless, as a dynamic format in which important new series and volumes continue to appear, the Cambridge Histories cannot be bettered. As an alternative to conventional textbooks, they have much to offer. I benefited from them, my students do so, and colleagues in other fields praise them. All we need to do is to overcome resistance to what appears large and forbidding.

Jeremy Black is professor of history, University of Exeter.

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