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New Left Review I/208, November-December 1994


Chris Wickham

Making Europes

The double celebration of 1992, Maastricht and Columbus, spawned a double debate, each prolonged way beyond its intrinsic interest by media attention and its acolyte, academic scrutiny: it may be years before any of us will be able to read with enthusiasm another book or article on either the identity of Europe or the irruption of Europeans into America. Each of the two debates was and is characterized by celebrators and detractors, people following the long tradition of enthusiasm for European superiority and people concerned to deconstruct and otherwise undermine it, arguing that Europe is imaginary, a long-standing way of defining Us against Them, and that its hegemony over the world is illusory or shameful. Personally, I have no trouble identifying with the second group, but actually a third group is more interesting, for it is comprised of people who try to sidestep the moral issue and focus on explanation: how concepts of Europe arose and what they meant at different times, and why it actually was that parts of western Europe were able to conquer and transform most of the rest of the world in the modern period. If the focus is deep enough, the separate Maastricht and Columbus debates here merge into one, for both have common roots in the central Middle Ages, when the polities of Latin Christendom were beginning to define themselves as ‘Europe’, a Europe moreover already keenly and rapaciously expansionist. It is at this meeting-place that Robert Bartlett has placed his new book, The Making of Europe [*] Robert Bartlett, The Making of Europe. Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change 950–1350, Penguin, London 1993, £8.99.; one of the things he has explicitly tried to do is, precisely, to explain the double face of Latin Europe in the four hundred years before the Black Death, brusquely expansionist and, simultaneously, increasingly homogeneous. The memory of the staleness of 1992 gives an edge to one’s interest in seeing how well he has succeeded.

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