Wednesday, September 2, 2009

John Hirst on his new book The Shortest History of Europe

When I turned my lectures on European history into a book, The Shortest History of Europe, I was told that they could not be called lectures. Lectures are boring. So they are called chapters. But my lectures were not boring—they were interesting, varied and arresting. Since the scope of the course was so broad—from classical times to the French Revolution— I wanted very specific, memorable things to happen in the lectures to anchor the broad concepts and give them meaning.

I paid actors to stage a debate from the Assembly in classical Athens as recorded by Thucydides. I showed the early scenes from films of Romeo and Juliet and King Lear, the first to show how aristocrats lived and feuded in Italian towns, the second to show how German kings divided up their kingdoms among their children as Charlemagne did with his. I did lots of readings—the rape of Lucretia from Livy’s History of Rome, the Ten Commandments, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. I demonstrated how clever the Greeks were by doing a geometrical proof on the blackboard.

At the end of the lecture on political history I paired off the students in the aisles and had them demonstrate the mode of salutation to rulers through the ages: in Rome from the republican salute (similar to the fascist salute) to prone on the floor before the later emperors; kneeling before a feudal monarch while he grasped your hands and then rising to kiss as equals; kissing the hand of absolute monarchs while kneeling; and finally the reappearance of the republican salute in revolutionary France. Learning by doing!

How much of this could survive in a printed book? A good deal. It doesn’t look like a normal history book. There are many readings, a geometrical proof, a Newtonian law, a good deal of what I put on the blackboard —summaries, time lines and short cuts. The whole history of Europe is reduced to a one-page diagram.

My talk has been tidied up but I wanted to keep the feel of a spoken lecture. In lectures scholars have the licence to be bolder than on the printed page. Except I am not a scholar of Europe. My expertise is in Australian history. Only a non-specialist could take the leaps I do. 

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