Old School

The Atlantic’s literary editor Benjamin Schwarz has this to say about Oxford Emeritus archeologist Sir Barry Cunliffe’s new book Europe Between the Oceans,

…Cunliffe…has synthesized the voluminous recent record of excavations from Iceland to Turkey, the burgeoning scholarship on DNA and ancient populations, and research on topics ranging from Stone Age shipbuilding to trade in Muslim Spain and from salinity levels in the ancient Black Sea to state formation in Early Iron Age Denmark. This all serves to elucidate the “complex interaction of human groups with their environment, and with each other” in Europe from 9000 B.C. to 1000 A.D.—10,000 years of cultural, social, and material development, starting at the close of the last ice age and ending with the emergence of the European nation-states.

Cunliffe’s approach will jar readers accustomed to being informed of the epoch-making quality of every inauguration speech. Not for him “the events and personalities flitting on the surface” of conventional history. Rather, he focuses resolutely on the underlying forces—primarily geography and climate—that influenced societies, and specifically on the ways those forces shaped and constrained the “intricate social networks by means of which commodities were exchanged and ideas and beliefs were disseminated.” Cunliffe is intellectually indebted to Fernand Braudel and the Annales school of French economic and social historians, which emphasized largely static environmental influences and long-term historical continuity and regarded political events as little more than trivia. The Annales approach works better for the millennia Cunliffe examines, in which very, very few individuals can even be identified, than for the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the periods Braudel assessed.

Geography forms the essential basis of Cunliffe’s history. The waters encircling Europe, the transpeninsular rivers that penetrated it, and its topography, currents, tides, and seasonal wind patterns all determined millennia-old sailing routes, and thus the goods and beliefs transported along them. From Cunliffe’s perspective, even the Roman Empire was just an interlude, and perhaps its main achievement was to institutionalize through its ports, roads, and market centers Europe-wide networks of exchange that had been operating since the Middle Stone Age.

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