A concise and somewhat quirky treatment of European history from ancient times to the present.
In a natural follow-up to A Short History of England (2011), Guardian and Evening Standard columnist Jenkins (Britain's Hundred Best Railway Stations, 2017, etc.) begins and ends with classical metaphors. He opens by noting how Europe was named for the place on the island of Crete where Zeus, after seducing the Phoenician princess Europa, swam with her to engender a new civilization. The author ends with the story of the magnificent Piraeus lion, carved in Greece in the fourth century B.C.E. and removed to Venice, where it stands outside the Arsenal in Venice, revealing what Jenkins sees as a metaphor “to free ourselves from our own place in history and see the past as a distant land.” Indeed, the cultural currents forming Europe and shaping its destiny have been staggering. From the ascendancy of Rome to its overrun by barbarian invaders to the establishment of a Frankish kingdom by Charlemagne to the invasions of the Vikings, Europe experienced a violent founding characterized by many forced migrations of diverse peoples. Yet it has also been the crucible of enlightened civilizations, from the enterprising Scandinavian tribes to the Norman builders to the rise of powerful nation-states to the galvanizing ideas of the Renaissance and Reformation. Throughout this chronological work, Jenkins touches on many usual suspects—e.g., Julius Caesar, Constantine, Catherine de’ Medici, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Hitler, and Putin—yet he deals with schisms and wars of dynasty with admirable restraint, distilling the research to the bare essentials. He organizes his work by themes such as “The Old Order’s Last Cry: 1840-1850,” and he manages to capture the dwindling “strains” of a disunited present-day Europe. The 20 pages of maps at the beginning, as well as the timeline, are endlessly helpful in navigating this vast history.
Jenkins says it best: “This short book is aimed at those without the time and inclination for a longer one.” An accomplished introduction for any nonscholar interested in European history.