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The best books on Global History

recommended by Felipe Fernández-Armesto

The Oxford Illustrated History of the World by Felipe Fernández-Armesto

The Oxford Illustrated History of the World
by Felipe Fernández-Armesto


Embracing global history allows us to see humans with a much clearer perspective. Historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto introduces us to some of the trailblazing books in the field, starting in the 2nd century BCE.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

The Oxford Illustrated History of the World by Felipe Fernández-Armesto

The Oxford Illustrated History of the World
by Felipe Fernández-Armesto

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What is global history? I like the quote in the introduction to your latest book: “Our aim is to see the world whole with objectivity hard to attain for humans trapped in our own history.”

You’ve put it very well, although you are of course quoting me. People often ask me what I do and when I say global history they say, ‘That doesn’t sound very specialized.’ And I say, ‘I only do one planet. That’s specialized enough for me—I think specialization is a terrible academic vice.’

If you want to understand anything that happens in the world, you need to understand it in the broadest possible context. Context always enriches and enhances understanding. So whatever I’m doing I look for first the local, regional or national, then the environmental context and end up encompassing the entire planet.

Global history is about trying to see the world whole, asking the question, ‘What has happened so widely across the entire planet—or so much of it—that the places where it didn’t happen seem anomalous? What are those historical events and episodes?’ When you know what those are, then it seems to me that you can understand the detail better. Whereas if you start with the detail—which is what most people do—you can never fully understand it, because you don’t have a sufficiently broad context for it.

The book you’ve edited, The Oxford Illustrated History of the World, covers 200,000 years. How have human beings changed during that period and how have we stayed the same?

In my opinion, the really surprising things are those that have stayed the same, because change is a universal law. On the whole, humans are conspicuous on this planet in being the most mutable creatures around. We have more culture, more cultural divergence, more change—in a word, more history than any other animal on the planet. And that means any other animal, as far as we know, in the cosmos, because we don’t know of any species on other planets, or at least we don’t know about them yet. So that’s a very extraordinary thing.

“To be a really good historian you also have to be a zoologist and especially a primatologist”

Against that background, it becomes even more extraordinary that there are ways in which we don’t change. There are constant features of human nature. Maybe the most worrying of them is our limited intelligence and our limited moral sense. Our species, as far as we can tell, hasn’t grown in intelligence or moral sense since it first emerged in the fossil record nearly 200,000 years ago.

So you disagree with books like Steven Pinker’s on the decline of violence and the idea that we’ve progressed as a species?

That’s a lot of old nonsense. His book is really just talking about the 1980s. You can’t judge the whole trend of a species over its existence on the basis of pretty much a single decade of evidence. And I think what really happened in that decade wasn’t that violence diminished, it’s that it got shifted to different kinds of fields. The state completed a long historical struggle to achieve a near monopoly of violence. But violence has continued and it’s found other outlets. If you’re a euthanasia or an abortion victim, you’re not going to agree that violence has diminished.

So you’re not optimistic about the human race?

Oh God no! I recommend pessimism to everybody as the best way of avoiding disillusionment. Pessimism is the only means of happiness—optimists end up miserable because they’re always disappointed. The best thing to do is to anticipate the worst. What we think about as the worst is actually very consoling. I mean, if you’re looking at the world from a narrowly human point of view, the worst thing you can anticipate is the extinction of humankind. That would be terrible for humankind, I guess, but it would be pretty good for almost every other species on the planet. That’s how I console myself: by looking forward to our own extinction.

Let’s get on to the books you’ve chosen. The first one you selected is a book of the Bible, the book of the prophet Daniel, chapters 7-12. How does it illuminate global history?

I’ve got to recommend chapters 7 to 12 of the Book of Daniel because they constitute, in my opinion, the first genuinely global history ever written. Although some earlier writers—Herodotus in Greece and Sima Qian in China (who was roughly contemporary with Daniel)—have been credited with a global vision, what all previous historians were interested in was really the history of their own people, their own community, their own ethnicity, their own state. They put in stuff about neighbouring peoples only insofar as it was relevant to them.

Daniel—or the writer or writers who produced the Book of Daniel—had two advantages over previous historians. The first is that they were trying to write prophecy. If you want to write prophecy, you’ve got to be a good historian, because the future doesn’t reveal itself in tealeaves or the stars. The only way of telling what the future is going to be like is to study the past.

“The only way of telling what the future is going to be like is to study the past”

Most people suppose that history is a product of the development of mythology. But mythology is not the same, because it’s about presenting the world with a false account of the past. In order to obtain a true account of the past, you’ve got to have a special interest in doing that. That’s what prophets have got. So prophets, or aspiring prophets, are peculiarly well equipped to be historians.

The second advantage that the Daniel writers had was that they were Jewish. So although they regarded themselves as God’s chosen people they also regarded him—by the time the Book of Daniel was written, probably in the 2nd century BC—as the one universal God who mattered to everybody. So the whole world known to the Daniel writers comes into their account of history in that very compressed little section of the Bible. And although it seems terribly dull because it’s all these names of great kings no one cares about anymore, I find it very exciting to read those chapters, because I feel I’m in on the very beginnings of the branch of the historical discipline that eventually has produced The Oxford Illustrated History of the World.

Do you think that Daniel—or whoever the writers were—thought they were writing history?

They represented it as prophecy because they wanted people to believe in their power to foretell the future. Another little trick that prophets have got is to recount the past as if they were predicting it in order to boost people’s confidence in their powers of prophecy. So prophecy and history are often interchangeable.

The Book of Daniel isn’t the only example. In some Mesoamerican cultures, especially amongst the Maya, history and prophecy are indistinguishable, because every historical writer is a prophet and every prophet is a historical writer. The two genres are very mixed. So if you’d asked one of the Daniel writers whether it was history or prophecy, he would probably say it was prophecy, but if you asked him in private when he was drunk, he’d probably admit it was history.

You mention leaders we no longer care about. Does Alexander the Great feature or what are these chapters actually about?

Alexander the Great does feature. It’s about the historical context in which the book was written. So it gives you a potted version of global events in the few hundred years preceding the writing of the book. Obviously what I’m saying is going to be very offensive to fundamentalists and evangelicals, people who think that every word in the Bible is literally true and who think that the Daniel writers were genuine prophets, but of course they weren’t. The detail in which they recount events shows that they were writing what they knew had already happened.

And when did you say it was written?

The book purports to have been written in about the 7th century BC. The events described don’t start until after that. So unless you’re childish or superstitious enough to believe in prophecy, it’s obviously written at the date at which that series of events ends, which is in the 2nd century BC.

Let’s move on to the next book on your list, which is Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah.

The reason I chose this book is that it’s the first work of global history that has what we might now qualify as a social scientific theory, instead of just representing history as providential—although Ibn Khaldun is a fatalist: he does believe that everything is in the hands of God. But he sees God as working in history through what we might call social mechanisms, in particular through the antipathy, the struggle, the dialectic, if you like, between settled and pastoral peoples.

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He has an idea of a development of society through pastoral to settled conditions. He sees people who are at different stages in that process of development, and connects that to the struggles that forge historical change. The sort of changes he is interested in are primarily changes of dynasty, of power structure at a very high level. But he does have an overall vision, a pattern, what we might now call a ‘master narrative’ of how those changes happened. So he’s a very exciting new voice in global history in the 14th century.

So that’s really the first time somebody had approached history in that way?

Yes it is. You can see vestiges of general theories before then. You might go back to Thucydides and say, ‘Well, he had at least a general theory of war, that it was a response to fear.’ You can go back to the 12th century and see Gerald of Wales, in his historical works about Wales and Ireland, anticipating Ibn Khaldun by suggesting that history is a succession of developmental stages in the way society unfolds from nomadism to pastoralism to sedentarism. But Ibn Khaldun is the first person systematically to apply that model to the whole of history. Up until then, I don’t think you can honestly say that anybody had a master narrative that wasn’t providential or fatalistic.

And do you still find it a convincing book?

It depends what you mean by convincing. Books don’t have to be right to be great. Greatness is often the result of very creative and intelligent mistakes. I don’t endorse Ibn Khaldun’s theory, but I acknowledge its brilliance and as a historical document about his own thought and the thought of his own time it’s infinitely precious and inestimable.

Ibn Khaldun came from Tunis but also lived in a few other places. Do people who write global history tend to be people who’ve travelled a bit in the world?

We don’t know about the Daniel writers, who they were, or who he was, or anything about them, except that they were very well informed historically. I think the answer is that global historical writers who do travel sometimes show it and reveal the benefit of it. One of the books I put on my list is Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization in China. That’s a book I admire tremendously, and obviously Needham would never have begun to think about that if he hadn’t been on a mission for the British government in China during World War II. Sometimes real experience of different environments has an impact on stimulating a historian’s imagination.

But particularly in modern times, when every part of the world is relatively well informed about every other part, it’s possible to write global history without ever leaving your armchair. Gibbon wrote these wonderful, meticulous, vivid descriptions of Constantinople even though he’d never been there, he’d just read about it. I once wrote a book called Millennium—which was my first attempt to write global history—and when the Japanese publisher took me out to lunch to celebrate the launch of the Japanese translation he asked me what I’d thought about my visit to Japan. I had to confess to him that I’d never been there and that I wrote it entirely on the basis of other people’s accounts. He was terribly shocked and said that it was misleading the public to write so vividly about a place I hadn’t seen but, you know, you can do that nowadays.

Let’s go on to the next book on your list, which is Marx and Engels: The Communist Manifesto. This is quite short compared to some of the books on your list. You could read it in a couple of hours. Maybe not understand it, but read it, at least.

It’s a manifesto! It’s meant to be easy to understand. Marx and Engels’s historical analysis is breathtakingly, brilliantly simple. I think it’s wrong but, again, you’ve just got to admire its genius. Obviously, without understanding the historical basis of Marx’s thought you can’t understand anything else in Marxism. So I always think The Communist Manifesto is a great place to start. Its brevity is one of its great virtues. The theory—that all history is class struggle, that it progresses dialectically, and that the key to the distribution of power is the distribution of the means of production, the basis of wealth—is comprised of stunning elements which one can’t fail to be favourably impressed by.

And when you take into account the influence that Marx has had since The Communist Manifesto, it’s just an inescapably important book. If you’re talking about global history, it should be part of anybody’s top five.

Is it important in terms of global history because he’s taking an international approach? Is it that he’s not looking at a particular national history, he’s saying these things are true across humankind?

It’s because it’s ideological. He’s got a theory that really does explain everything, at least in his own opinion and that of Engels and their followers. It saves you troubling with the details because you have got a very slick formula which you can apply to anything that you’re studying. Of course, many Marxist historians did just that, sometimes with disastrous results for their own understanding of the detail. But I come back to my point that it doesn’t matter whether ultimately the theory fails or is based on false data. The brilliance of it and its influence qualify it for supreme importance.

I’m surprised, rereading it, of the extent to which he has it in for the bourgeoisie.

Yes, particularly since he was one himself and some of the things which he criticizes—particularly their shabby morals and their tendency to abuse power for sexual ends—was exactly how he behaved with his own maid.

Let’s go on to your fourth book. You’ve selected Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, which is twelve volumes. It covers 5,000 years and took 40 years to write. So quite an ambitious work.

Yes. It’s the opposite of The Communist Manifesto in that respect. But, of course, it’s also been criticized for grossly oversimplifying. Toynbee is still not very popular in the historical profession. He was savagely lampooned by another historian I greatly admire, Hugh Trevor-Roper. Trevor-Roper’s criticisms really undermined Toynbee’s reputation for generations, although I think he’s now beginning to be appreciated more.

The reasons why I appreciate him are not the conventional reasons. Most people will say, ‘Well, you know, Toynbee’s great virtue was the breadth of his vision, his ability to make comparisons between different parts of the world, his sheer command of data, the innovative way in which he used civilizations as units of study. Also, the resolve with which he pursued his purported agenda of being a historical pragmatist, of basing what he said on the facts rather than on theory (although he wasn’t entirely honest about that. He had plenty of theoretical prejudices that shaped the way he wrote).’

“Books don’t have to be right to be great. Greatness is often the result of very creative and intelligent mistakes”

I have a slightly different take on Toynbee from the conventional one. For me, the reason I greatly admire him and love his work is that he realized that you can’t write any history without seeing it in its environmental framework. People don’t usually think of him as a pioneer of environmental history, because he didn’t write a work that was exclusively environmental until the 1970s. Mankind and Mother Earth was his first explicitly environmental book. But in A Study of History, you can see that he always refers to the environmental framework—those conditioning, limiting influences that never determine what happen in the past but do control the limits of what it’s possible for humans to achieve.

So, for that reason, Toynbee is a bit of a hero of mine because I think he was right about that. You can’t understand what we do as human beings unless you understand what nature has given us to work with. That’s why in the Oxford Illustrated History of the World it’s divided into five big chronological bands and in each of those bands half to a third of the material is about the way the environment was shaped and reshaped in the period concerned and how that influenced events.

Yes, because I can’t remember in which book I was reading—whether it was one of yours or one of the ones you recommended—I was fascinated to read about English/North American industrial development being so much faster partly because unlike the Spaniards in South America, there were no silver mines or other natural resources to exploit. I’d never thought about it in that way before.

That’s a great point, because one of the most controversial debates in the history of the Americas is why relationships between colonizers and their victims—if I can use that word—were so different in areas settled by British people and people under the British crown and those settled by Spanish people and people under the Spanish crown. This sort of debate often degenerates into a lot of moral rubbish about whether Spaniards are inherently better than British or vice versa. I can speak with some authority about this because I’m both—my father was Spanish and my mother was British; I have both nationalities. I can absolutely assure you there is no moral difference: both peoples are equally corrupted by vice and wickedness.

But the Spaniards ended up having much more positive relationships with the native populations of their regions because the environment demanded that they use the labour of the indigenous people. Whereas in British-settled parts of the Americas, the native peoples were irrelevant and therefore could be exterminated or expelled.

In Toynbee’s book, I read the chapter where he makes the case that you can’t understand British history—or any country’s history—by looking at it just as a nation state.

You and I are both very aware of the limitations of the nation state as a useful unit in which to create prosperity and peace and happiness.

What I wanted to ask is why that remains the method through which people learn history at school.

It’s because they’re not learning history, they’re learning nationalist propaganda. They’re learning the myths that are nourished by the state. When the historical profession was founded in the 19th century and all these university history departments were founded, the purpose was to promote national interests and national unity and to make nations more efficient in competition and war against each other. It wasn’t in order to know the truth.

And of course all of those universities in Europe—and to a lesser extent in Britain— were essentially dependent on the state for their funding. Even in the United States, where many of the great universities were private institutions that didn’t depend on state funding, they nevertheless picked up on the importance of the national agenda. In a way, for the United States in the 19th century, self-misrepresentation as a nation state was even more important than it was for states in Europe because the United States was manifestly not a nation in any traditional sense of the word. It was a conglomeration of migrants, natives, former slaves (or until the 1860s actual slaves) and people from all over Europe. In order to try and forge those people into a coherent mass with a common allegiance, historians bought into this job of creating national myths. Thank God we’ve got away from that now, but of course now people are less inclined to take notice of what historians say.

They haven’t made your list, but I still wanted to ask: are you a fan of some of the popular global histories that are around at the moment?

No. They’re often terribly superficial and I find it distressing that books that say so little that is worth saying should attract such a big public. For me what’s interesting are the things people don’t know about and haven’t thought of. The charm of the Oxford Illustrated History of the World is that it’s a cooperative work by a lot of excellent historians (I exclude myself from that) who disagree with each other. So when you read it you don’t get the simplified version of history that you get from some of these other commercially successful books, but a real insight into what historical scholarship is like. It’s an arena of debate and of exploration of open-ended questions and unresolved problems. And unresolved problems are the most interesting problems because as soon as you find the solution to a problem, it loses its magic.

You’ve already referred to it, but let’s talk about Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization in China now. Why is this work on your list of global history books?

I love this book. I have a personal, emotional investment in it because I read it in my teens and it was just such a revelation to have a book that was so broad in its scope and so sharp in its vision. And of course it’s written by a biochemist, not by a professional historian. It’s rather chastening to think of how someone coming from outside the discipline can bring that freshness of perspective, that innovative insight that isn’t always easily attained by people who’ve been through the historical treadmill and been browbeaten into agreeing with their own teachers. So it was a very fresh and new kind of book for me.

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Although it’s called Science and Civilization in China and is therefore focusing on just one part of the world, it’s a genuinely global historical book for two reasons. The first is that it makes these marvellous, rich, life-enhancing comparisons across the world—between China and the West and Islam and the Americas. Secondly, because it asks a globally vital question, which is why, given its many centuries of superiority in technological and scientific innovation, did China yield that pride of place to scientists from the West? Why were the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution primarily the work of Westerners? Perhaps not as exclusively as many people suppose, but one has to acknowledge that those great world-shaping movements pretty much started in Europe. Whereas up till that time, China had really been the most influential culture in the world. How did that reversal happen?

We’re still arguing about the question Needham asked. In some ways, it’s been the most productive question anybody has ever asked about global history.

And what’s the answer, do you think?

I don’t want to know the answer because I don’t want to spoil the magic of the problem, but there are some possible answers in the Oxford Illustrated History of the World. I think the critical fulcrum is the so-called Scientific Revolution, the liberation of Western scientists to do a lot of new thinking in the 16th and 17th centuries. Partly that’s the result of the empowerment of practitioners of magic, who in the course of trying to control the universe magically realized they needed to understand how it really worked in order to influence it. That was aided by the world-ranging explorations of Europeans at that time who were able to bring back to Europe samples of geology, flora and fauna, ethnography and readings of the heavens from all over the world and, finally, stimulated by social changes which liberated very rich people from their responsibility for warfare and gave them the leisure to engage in science and scholarship.

I think that combination of influences was really responsible for giving Europeans a great boost to their scientific activities at a moment when they also came into contact with the Chinese. They were able to impress China for the first time with the knowledge and skill, ingenuity and innovativeness of people whom the Chinese had previously regarded as marginally relevant barbarians.

“If you look at Needham’s list of the technologies the Chinese were first with, they include all the things that we think are the basis of Western supremacy”

With industrialization, there are other influences involved. I see the advantage of the West as essentially a matter of demography. This is my own view and you won’t necessarily find many of my colleagues agreeing with me about it. But I think the remarkable thing about industrialization is that it happened in the history of the world at a very surprising moment, when muscle power was increasing. There was a population explosion going on, with global populations multiplying at unprecedented rates in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Also, the number of draught and pack animals was increasing enormously. The total volume of muscle power was growing and yet people started mechanising and shifting a lot of the burden of energy to machines. Why would that happen?

You’ve got to look at the demographic context to explain it and my theory is that there’s a demographic threshold. There’s a point beyond which demographic growth stimulates demand for goods more than it stimulates the supply of labour. At that point, people have to shift to mechanical means of production. And I think that point was reached in Europe and not in China.

According to Needham, the Chinese already had gunpowder in the 9th century and were ahead of us with a whole range of inventions: the compass, paper, printing. Why do you think it all happened so early in China?

If you look at Needham’s list of the technologies the Chinese were first with, they include all the things that we think are the basis of Western supremacy. You think of communications. Until very recently, printing was the key communication technology along with paper production. Both of those were Chinese before they were European. If you think about military and naval superiority, it all depends on firepower, direction-finding mechanisms and separable bulkheads—all things that started in China and spread to the West. When you think about capitalism, it depends on paper money, which was a Chinese invention that absolutely baffled Marco Polo and other travellers to medieval China from the West. They really had trouble understanding it, it was such an innovation for them. When you think of scientific progress in general you think of empiricism, the theory that knowledge is derived from experiment and observation. The Chinese were practising that consistently over centuries when people in Europe had forgotten about or ignored it.

So really almost everything that we think of as basic to Western supremacy we actually got from the Chinese. You ask why that is, and I think part of the answer is that that empirical tradition is very deeply embedded in the Chinese past. I accept Needham’s argument that it originates in Daoism and the idea that nature is divine and that in order to understand God we have to observe nature very closely. That’s really the key to understanding why so much work goes on in science in China when in the west people just aren’t very interested in it.

Quite a few of these books we’ve talked about use the word ‘civilization.’ Do you think that’s a good unit for viewing global history?

Not really. I think the best unit for viewing global history is the world. All the other units that we conventionally deploy—including that ghastly nation-state unit that you and I both recoil from—all of these, right down to the family and the individual, are part of the structure. You can’t build a vast edifice without having bricks and stones and mortar. So you build your picture up out of details.

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To me, civilization best designates not a particular kind of society, but a process of change, a process of subjecting the natural environment to human priorities. So, when we build cities, we are, in a sense, engaging in a process of civilization because we’re imposing on nature a new pattern of our own devising which is adjusted to our priorities. Or when we cook food, we’re engaging in a civilizing process because we’re turning the raw material that nature provides us with into a new kind of constituent of our lives of our own designing. So that’s what I understand by civilization, although in practice you have to deploy all these different units of study in the service of attaining a global vision. I’m not recommending them in any absolute fashion. They’re not particularly good in themselves. They’re just the best materials that we have to work with.

My own preferred technique is comparison. In order to understand the human species as a whole, you have to compare us with other species. To be a really good historian you also have to be a zoologist and especially a primatologist because the other animals that are most like us—and therefore most suitable to compare us with—are other primates. If you make that comparison, you can see that what’s really interesting about us, what is the really key problem for understanding human history, is that we are the most diverse cultural species on the planet. We’ve had this stunningly divergent history that no other species remotely approaches. The key story of our past told in The Oxford Illustrated History of the World is in great part—although there are other stories woven into it—this story of divergence. It’s the story of how humans have parted, have formed different societies and become unlike each other and have developed peculiar traditions and cultures in different places and at different times. If there is a master narrative, one thread which runs through all the arguments and conflicts and mutually contradictory fragments of evidence that fill the book, it’s this story of divergent culture.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

January 23, 2019

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Felipe Fernández-Armesto

Felipe Fernández-Armesto

Felipe Fernández-Armesto is William P. Reynolds Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto

Felipe Fernández-Armesto

Felipe Fernández-Armesto is William P. Reynolds Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.