It isn’t difficult to find a good non-fiction book about the Middle Ages; nor is it difficult to find an equally good book about the Modern world, starting somewhere within eyeshot of the French Revolution, but a book about the period in between is a rarity. Enter “A Short History of Europe 1600-1815” by Lisa Rosner and John Theibault.
Both authors are established in academic environments and have written other books regarding the in between era of European history, and it is their sound expertise and teaching experience that gives them the unique opportunity to introduce 215 years of history in 400 pages in a very reader-friendly way. Luckily, Rosner and Theibault (I love that name) don’t attempt to write a comprehensive history of the period, but provide an overview. In their own words: “Our goal is to be engaging for students, by giving ample coverage of personalities and events, while integrating insights from the last generation’s research on social and cultural history, including women’s history.” I would add that “A Short History of Europe 1600-1815” isn’t just for students; it is readable by anyone, regardless of prior knowledge to European history. The chapters are short and accessible, full of interesting characters that in one way or another had a role to play. In addition, each chapter includes a table of important dates and further reading.
I greatly appreciate historical overview like “A Short History of Europe 1600-1815” because I get to see the red thread through history. Causalities and different movements become more clear and memorable largely due the way Rosner and Theibault have approached their material.
On the flipside, perhaps caused by my fledgling patriotism, I always consider any overview of the European countries – one for all, all for one – as a disillusion. The countries, governments, and in some countries regions and regional governments, are so diverse, that a single – European – overview is an insurmountable task that merely becomes superficial. Denmark, my home country, is usually only mentioned a couple of times – in “A Short History of Europe 1600-1815” three times! However, this is also the dilemma of a comprehensible survey and a country- or whatever-specific survey.
I just realized that I have yet to write something about the contents of “A Short History of Europe 1600-1815”. I will of course spare you a complete summary, but merely point out one of the curious facts that I find compelling: the social aspect of intellectual enterprise.
During the in between period of Europe, universities and schools didn’t have the monopoly on intellectual enterprise and learning. A number of influential characters were tutors to various rich and/or influential families, using their free time to study and conduct correspondences with other intellectually endowed. Social get-togethers in form of salons, reading-groups or patronages also played an essential role in on-going discussion and the development of new ideas. Perhaps this is one reason why there was such a surge in intellectual enterprise during this period.
Where are the equivalent fora today? I wonder. Universities, colleges, schools, but where else? Perhaps study or reading groups, but in my experience, they are rare. I definitely want to participate in a reading group, if I get the opportunity.