Friday, October 17, 2008

Is British History European?

There is an interesting debate on the question of whether British history should be studied as European history on History Compass Theory and Methods Blog, with posts by Stefan Berger, University of Manchester; Andrew Gow, University of Alberta; Malcolm Smuts, University of Massachusetts Boston; and Laura Smoller, University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Hat tip to AHA Blog. Here's a snippet from Berger's opening post:
The Blackwell History Compass has different editorial sections for Britain and for Europe. Anyone looking for literature on Britain will find next to nothing on Britain in the section on Europe - despite the fact that to all intents and purposes Britain is a European nation state and has been so for many centuries. Not only its geography indicates that it is at the margins of Europe but still it is clearly identifiable as European, and its membership in the European Union, somewhat reluctant at times, also seems to confirm its position as a European nation. Britain was integral to a range of European storylines in the past: the Industrial Revolution, democratisation, colonialism and imperialism, free trade, the world wars of the twentieth century, the Cold War, the development of popular culture and consumption patterns, to mention but the most obvious ones. And yet, British history, at least in the Anglo-Saxon world, has a separate status from European history. People are hired at universities as specialists in either European or British history. Research centres are often designated as either British or European. Editors’ catalogues are subdivided into British (sometimes Irish is added here) and European sections, and, to come back to the beginning, our journal is also subdivided into British and European sections.

If we ask why this is so, the answer lies, of course, in history. I would argue that it has much to do with the prevalence of national history in history writing between (roughly) the 1850s and 1950s....

Berger concludes that
continued exclusion of the British Isles from continental Europe will only prolong the mistaken assumption of an alleged ’splendid isolation’ of Britain within European history. The continued widespread division of university courses in Britain into British and European history is a most unfortunate one and needs to be challenged. The history of the European continent can neither be taught nor written without proper reference to the British Isles. Hence I conclude by calling for the abolition of distinctions between British and European history.

You can follow the debate, and add your two cents, here.

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps the "Anglo-Saxon world" is a myth. Within the past year, the NYTimes had an extensive article indicating that the British Isles was other than "Anglo-Saxon." When the Colonies revolted from British rule, they relied to a great extent upon the "Anglo-Saxon" foundation, distinguishing it from that of continental Europe. And these three combined into Western Civilization that ignored the rest of the world for a long time.

    Is it continental Europe that excludes the British Isles or the choice of the latter and its connections to America? And can American history be taught or written "without proper reference to the British Isles" and continental Europe? We may be oceans apart, but it's still one world, and getting closer all the time.

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