On 4 July 2014, it finally happened, and in Waterstones, Sheffield. Seven years after I began work on it, my contribution to the landmark Penguin History of Europe series was published. The complete series will be in 9 volumes overall – 2 by historians from Cambridge, 2 from Oxford, 2 from Princeton….and 3 from Sheffield! Quite a statement about Sheffield’s contribution to European history.
Every author is secretly proud of a book when it is published. I’m particularly so of this one. Although it was begun in Sheffield, it was mainly written in Paris, Freiburg and Los Angeles. I have carried it with me from place to place like an albatross. At last I feel liberated. Penguin have done a fantastic job on the production. The 36 colour illustrations are stunning. The 4 maps are beautifully clean. The cover – a kind of Walt Disney evocation of a world in collapse – is stunning. Overall it’s an elegant object. And, at 720pp, a substantial and heavy one.
Its title is Christendom Destroyed. Europe 1517-1648. The overall theme is that Christendom was a project which united western Christianity. The period following the Protestant Reformation witnessed the progressive and eventually comprehensive disintegration of that project, and the myth which lay behind it. By 1650, Christendom lay devastated and drained, broken in pieces. There was nothing left beyond the yearning for a vanished unity, a ‘Paradise Lost’.
‘Europe’ – which is how what had once been Christendom was now conceived – was not a project but a geographical projection. That was a map on which its divisions could be represented, a way of delineating its political, economic and social fragmentation. One of the consequences of the discovery and colonisation of America was that Europe’s divisions were reflected in it, as in a mirror. Those divisions were similarly revealed in its relationships with Islam, through the eclipse of Crusade. Atlases and globes that became must-have items in the households of notables were ways of reflecting that new geographical conception of space.
The book paints a picture of the mental and material landscapes of Europe which were rapidly changing. One way of understanding that change is by making it part of ‘modernity’ – in this case ‘early modernity’. But that applies an unhelpful teleology and flattens out the destructive and constructive openness of change. Which ‘early modernity’ are we referring to when the period in question stops in 1648? The perspective here is one of a world which has been lost. That, however, has its own dangers. For every lost world is, to some extent, a golden age.
You do not know how difficult it is to write a history of Europe until you have tried it. The bibliography is immense and uncontrollable. The linguistic barriers considerable. There is no agreed periodisation. The one adopted in this volume was proposed by the series editor (Sir David Cannadine). It reflects a notably Germanic picture of this period of European history (from the 95 Theses of Luther to the Peace of Westphalia). It means little or nothing to those working in French, Spanish, Italian, or English history.
That said, the effort has been worth it. I can think of no time in my adult life when there has been more need for European historians to have something to say about what the history of Europe is all about – and especially about its centrifugal and centripetal forces. This is a book about the end of a project to unite the western European landmass under the aegis of a belief community. History, we are told, teaches no lessons. Just so. But it does contain what people in seventeenth-century Europe would have described as ‘warning-pieces’. Christendom Destroyed contains a message about what happens when projects for Europe’s unity collapse.
Mark Greengrass is Emeritus Professor at the University of Sheffield. For more information, visit www.markgreengrass.co.uk/