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History of the World

Updated on May 26, 2010

The remarkable growth of a global perspective since 1920 and the parallel development of world organizations and activities lend special interest to the subject of the gradual rise of a global orientation in the writing of history, taking the form of world history or universal history. Not only has a global sweep become more popular in modern times, but the term "world" has come to imply a far more comprehensive geographical and cultural entity. Prior to modern times, even if an author pretended to be writing world history, his "world" was usually much circumscribed—his own country and its neighbors, with some vague rumors and gossip about the records of peoples on their periphery.

Ancient World Histories

In a rough and general way, the first world histories are to be found in the myths of creation which appeared in the ancient Orient, such as the Egyptian creation myths, the Gilgamesh Epic of early Mesopotamia, and the Biblical tale of creation in Genesis, all of which told of the origins and development of mankind under divine auspices. The first abandonment of this approach and the rise of a secular treatment of human origins is to be found in the Genealogies of Hecataeus of Miletus (c. 550-c. 476 B.C. ), who ridiculed the creation tales of the Greeks.

The first work that could be regarded, literally, as in any sense a world history was the History of Herodotus of Halicarnassus (485 - 425 B.C.). Although planned as an account of the wars between Persia and Greece, his work broadened into a treatment of the peoples and cultures of the Asiatic and Mediterranean regions in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C., this being virtually all of the world that was known by any classical historian or scholar of the time. In this sense, one can say that world history was bom as a byproduct of a secular interest in the history of civilization, to which frame of reference world history has returned only during the 20th century. The ancient world produced nothing else that could be regarded as world history save for the rather inferior, if ambitious, compilation called Historical Library, written by Diodorus Siculus (fl. 20 B.C.).

Early Christian and Medieval World Histories

With the triumph of Christianity, there was a reversion to the Biblical perspective. Hebrew history became the central fact in the human past, and the doings of the pagans were not regarded as important save as they impinged on the experiences of the Hebrews or taught object lessons about the penalties of wickedness. This limited and highly selective presentation of world history was first thoroughly worked out in the Chronicle of Eusebius of Caesarea (260 - 340 A.D.). Translated into Latin by St. Jerome in 379 A.D., it served as the general framework for world history throughout the Middle Ages, and writers on national and regional history made it the prelude to their more systematic and detailed historical writing. The theological approach of this work produced a very restricted conception of world history, sacrificing both accuracy and all secular perspective.

Another notable work in this pattern was what many regard as the first avowed world history— the famous Seven Books of History Against the Pagans by Paulus Orosius (fl. 418 A.D. ), a protege of St. Augustine, dealing with the history of the world down to 417 A.D. Its aim was to demonstrate that the evils of the past were the product of paganism, while all admirable achievements were the work of the Christians and their Jewish forebears. This viewpoint was reinforced with a broad philosophy by St. Augustine (354-430 A.D. ) in his City of God (413-426), a work that provided the historical perspective of the medieval annalists and chroniclers.

The most famous attempt by a historian during the Middle Ages to produce a world history was The Two Cities by Bishop Otto of Freising (1114P-1158), the most notable effort during this era to force "the whole story of humanity into a system of foreordained causes and effects." Most historians during the medieval period knew of only a small portion of the world and cared only about what went on in the limited area with which they were familiar. There were exceptions, however. Of the several other excursions into world history by medieval historians, the most successful were the Polychronicon of Ranulf Hig-den (d. 1364) in England; the Chronographia of Sigebert of Gembloux (1030?-! 112) in Belgium; the Florentine Chronicle of Giovanni Villani (1275P-1348) in Italy; the Universal Chronicle of Marianus Scotus (1028-1082/1083); and the Chronicle of the World begun by Frutholf of Michelsberg before 1100 and revived by Ekkehard of Urach, who was the chief author and carried the work down to 1125. Of these, much the best were those by Frutholf-Ekkehard, Higden, and Villani.

It is not surprising that the more successful attempts to deal with world history during the Middle Ages were the works of Byzantine and Muslim historians, whose outlook was not so circumscribed by the chronology of Eusebius or the biases of Orosius and Augustine. The best of the Byzantine world histories were the Universal Chronicle of Joannes Zonaras and the World History of Michael Glycas, both composed in the 12th century. The Muslims produced no true world histories, the nearest approach being the Experiences of the Nations by ibn-Miskawaih (d. 1030). But in the works of ibn-Khaldun (1332-1406), Prolegomena to Universal History and Universal History, we find the ablest statement of the philosophy of history and of the desirable approach to world history that was produced prior to modern times.

Modern World History to 1900

The coming of the Renaissance and the rise of humanism broadened historical perspective by once more directing attention to the achievements of the Greeks and Romans and the pagan world in general. The chronological tables of Eusebius and Jerome and the antipagan bias of Orosius and Augustine lost some of their prestige and authority and had less effect on the perspective and values of historical writers.

The first world history produced by a humanist historian was the Enneades of the Venetian historian Marcantonio Coccio (1436-1506), better known by his classicized name of Sabelli-cus. While not a remarkable monument to erudition or accuracy, the book was epoch making in concepts and compass and was especially notable for its success in escaping to a considerable extent from the adherence to the Biblical framework and chronology that had circumscribed the work of early Christian and medieval historians. The most important world histories produced during the epoch of humanism were Francois de Belle-forest's L'histoire universelle du monde (1570) in France, Giovanni Doglioni's Compendia histo-rico universale (1594) in Italy, Sir Walter Raleigh's History of the World (1614) in England, and Johannes Cluever's Historiarum totius mundi epitome (1637) in Holland. Of these, probably the ablest was Doglioni's, and the most famous and widely read was Raleigh's. The latter was most notable for its reflections on human affairs and institutions and its classic literary style.

The Reformation and Counter Reformation made few contributions to the formulation or writing of world history. The historians were mainly interested in religious controversy or the history of religious movements and figures. The only work which bordered on world history was the Discourse on Universal History (1681) by Bishop Jacques Benigne Bossuet, which revived the approach of Orosius in a somewhat more urbane and sophisticated manner.

The first notable contribution to interest in genuine world history and toward preparation for writing it came as a result of the period of geographical discoveries and colonization following the late medieval travels of Marco Polo (1254— 1324) and the voyages of Columbus and Vasco da Gama. These events and achievements not only served to increase interest in the history of mankind but greatly broadened the historians' knowledge of the real extent of the world. Those who wished to write world history at last had a considerable world to write about. There were scores of historians who described the discoveries and newly found regions. Perhaps the best of their books were The History of America by William Robertson (1721-1793); the Asia of Joao de Bar-ros (1496-1570); and the History of Japan and Siam by Engelbert Kampfer (1651-1716). The most notable effort to philosophize about the significance of these momentous developments was embodied in The Philosophical and Political History of the Settlements and Trade of Europeans in the East and West Indies (1770) by Guillaume Thomas Francois Raynal.

The combined influences of the era of discovery and the rise of modern science produced what has been called rationalism and the Enlightenment. The outstanding figure in this movement, Voltaire, also wrote the leading rationalistic world history, his Essay on the Manners and Spirit of the Nations (1756), the first extensive history of civilization and a work regarded by many as the first real world history. Rationalism, with its broad concern with humanity as a whole and its espousal of a universal deistic religion, broke through the restricted perspective of a city, nation, creed, or sect.

When the stimulus of rationalism was added to the earlier growth of humanism, a series of world histories and universal histories appeared in the decades following 1750. The first was a cooperative work by English scholars, such as John Campbell and George Sale, brought out between 1736 and 1768 and entitled An Universal History from the Earliest Account of Time. Among the more important of the books that followed were Claude F. X. Millet's Elemens d'histoire generale (1772-73); Johann Christoph Gatterer's World History (1785-87); Karl Rotteck's Universal History (1813-27); and Francois Laurent's Studies on the History of Humanity (1855-70). World history had finally come into its own.

Also encouraging a world point of view in history were the works on the philosophy of history which grew mainly out of the romanticists' reaction against rationalism. Among the more notable of these were the Ideas for the Philosophy of the History of Mankind (1784—91) by Johann Gottfried von Herder and the introduction to the French translation of this work, by Edgar Quinet (1827); The Philosophy'of History (1829) by Friedrich von Schlegel; and The Philosophy of History (tr. 1857) by Georg W. F. Hegel.

The intensification of nationalism in the middle third of the 19th century tended to restrain the growth of interest in universal or world history, but the improvements in historical scholarship following the work of Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886) enabled historians to deal more competently with history on the grand scale when the inclination to do so appeared. Indeed, von Ranke himself crowned his historical labors with an ambitious World History (9 vols. 1881-88), which he was able to carry through the Middle Ages.

In the era of von Ranke, by far the ablest work in world history was that of the German scholar Georg Weber. His first book, Lehrbuch der Weltgeschichte, appeared in 1846. On a far vaster scale was his Allgemeine Weltgeschichte (19 vols., 1857-81), the most impressive achievement of the period by a single historian. Long before Weber's time it had become evident that comprehensive world histories should be cooperative affairs. The most extensive of all world histories was planned by the German publisher Fried-rich Perthes as early as 1822 and appeared as some 60 separate works in many more volumes as Allgemeine Staatengeschichte (1829-1927); among the editors were Arnold Heeren, Friedrich A. Ukert, Wilhelm von Giesebrecht, Karl Lamprecht, and Wilhelm Oncken. Better organized and planned, and written by leading Germanic authorities, was Allgemeine Geschichte in Einzeldarstel-lungen (46 vols., 1877-93), edited by Oncken. The comparable but much more slender French enterprise was L'histoire generale (12 vols., 1893-1901), edited by Ernest Lavisse and Alfred Ram-baud, which was limited to medieval and modern history. The most competent British venture in the field before 1900 was Periods of European History, edited by Arthur Hassall and published in 9 volumes between 1893 and 1941. There was no American contribution worthy of mention in this period.

World History in the 20th Century

While the writing of world history in the 20th century inevitably became increasingly cooperative, there were two impressive individual achievements begun in the period before World War I: Hans Del-bruck's Weltgeschichte, which was completed in 5 volumes in 1928; and Theodor Lindner's Weltgeschichte (9 vols., 1901-16). The former was especially strong in political and constitutional history, and the latter gave unusual attention to the history of civilization for a book of that period. Authoritative and well written was the cooperative Weltgeschichte (7 vols., 1908-1926), edited by Julius A. G. Pflugk-Harttung. Two great cooperative historical works were started in Britain: The Cambridge Modern History, planned by Lord Acton (John E. E. Dalberg-Acton) and launched in 1902; and The Cambridge Medieval History (8 vols., 1911-36), planned by J. B. Bury. The most comprehensive project in this period was published in the United States: A History of All Nations from the Earliest Times (24 vols., 1902), edited by John H. Wright and written by both European and American scholars.

The appalling destruction and misery produced by World War I brought a temporary reaction toward internationalism, which was all too weakly implemented by the League of Nations. This trend inspired the most widely read world history ever published, The Outline of History (2 vols., 1920) by H. G. Wells. Unfortunately, the forces making for war were not effectively restrained, and Wells' efforts to produce sounder and more universal historical ideas were engulfed in the trends toward a second world conflict. The spirit of pessimism engendered by World War I and its aftermath was reflected in the much-discussed Decline of the West (2 vols., 1918-22) by Oswald Spengler.

Despite the revival of nationalism as a result of postwar quarrels and rivalries after 1920, many impressive cooperative world histories were planned. They reflected the spirit of Wells' internationalism, the increased interest in historical writing, and the improved facilities for writing and publishing historical works. Among the outstanding cooperative world histories started and at least partly completed between the two world wars was Ludo M. Hartmann's Weltgeschichte, begun in 1919 in Germany and designed to run to 12 volumes. There were also three excellent French projects: Histoire generale (12 vols., 1925-47), edited by Gustave Glotz; Peuples et civilisations (20 vols., 1926-48), edited by Louis Halphen and Philippe Sagnac; and Histoire du monde (13 vols., 1922-48), edited by Eugene Cavaignac. The valuable British work, Universal World History (10 vols., 1927-37), was edited by J. A. Hammerton. Also notable was The Cambridge Ancient History (12 vols., 1923-39), edited by J. B. Bury and others.

The most novel and important trend in cooperative world histories since World War II has been the shift from political, diplomatic, and military history to the history of civilization. This new emphasis had been stimulated by John Richard Green in England, by Karl Lamprecht and Walter Goetz in Germany, by Charles Seignobos, Alfred Rambaud, and Henri Berr in France, and by James Harvey Robinson, Lynn Thorndike, and Harry Elmer Barnes in the United States. Outstanding enterprises in this field have been Propy-Iden Weltgeschichte (10 vols., 1929-33), edited by Walter Goetz; L'evolution de I'humanite, edited by Henri Berr, begun in 1920 and projected in 100 volumes; and the even more ambitious History of Civilization, edited by C. K. Ogden and H. E. Barnes and based in part on translations of books in the Berr series. The last-named project was disrupted by World War II and had not been resumed by 1963. The most ambitious history of civilization by a single author was Will Durant's The Story of Civilization, begun in 1935; its ninth and final volume was published in 1968. It is probably the most satisfactory world history for the general reader.

The most impressive individual effort in this field was A Study of History (12 vols., 1934-61) by the English historian Arnold J. Toynbee, which reflected the pessimism and uncertainty engendered by two world wars. Toynbee sought to explain the rise and fall of 21 main civilizations in the course of human history. While immensely learned, the work was more a theodicy than a history, seeking to "vindicate divine justice for permitting evil to exist in the world." Its undercurrent of religious fervor attracted a wide following among those who have been appalled by the problems of a war-torn and war-threatened age. A less pretentious reflection of this pessimism was exemplified in the four-volume work of Pitirim A. Sorokin, Social and Cultural Dynamics, completed in 1941.

The well-intentioned but ill-fated effort of H. G. Wells to promote world history in the cause of peace after World War I was revised on a much more lavish scale after World War II in the project of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for an extensive cooperative history of mankind, edited by'Julian S. Huxley and Ralph E. Turner, aided by an international advisory board, and designed to promote international thinking and support for the United Nations; the first volume was published in 1963. Also reflecting intellectual and political trends after World War II were the ambitious achievement of Jacques Pirenne, Les grands courants de I'histoire universeUe (7 vols., 1944-56), and L'histoire generale des civilisations (7 vols., 1953-59).


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