The opinions that float through the air in university history departments create a kind of quiet tyranny that even the grandest historians can't ignore. Sir Steven Runciman, who died on Nov. 1 at the age of 97, mentioned this constraint in the foreword to his 1,400-page masterwork, A History of the Crusades, published in 1951. Rather defensively, as if anticipating hostile reviews, he complained that the modern historian, unnerved by "the watchful severity of his colleagues" (such a perfect phrase), too often takes refuge in narrowly specialized writing. Academic historians know that it's hard enough to master the details of one culture in one period, so they look with a cold eye on anyone who tries to master several cultures over several centuries. Runciman, writing a sweeping account of a long-lived movement that shook Europe and the Middle East, feared the ire and the nitpicking of specialists.
Half a century has passed, but Felipe Fernández-Armesto, one of the stars of the Oxford history faculty, recently discussed precisely these same tensions in a seminar at the University of Toronto. Fernández-Armesto, who carries a splendidly Hispanic name but speaks pure Oxbridge, urged his fellow historians to avoid "that terrible professional inhibition that makes people try to fit into what is already being done."
Fernández-Armesto's books span epochs and come with big ambitions: "I set out consciously to create a work of art, and to me that's as important as conveying information." My guess is about one historian in a thousand would share this ambition. But, as he said, "I'm quite determined to overcome the inhibitions that come with fear of professional rejection." Perhaps only an outsider like me would find it curious that someone of his eminence still thinks such thoughts. Politicians may fear the harsh judgment of historians; historians fear the harsh judgment of the common room.
His books have moved from specialized to broad, from careful to daring. In youth, he wrote an account of the Spanish Armada, a study of Ferdinand and Isabella, and a history of the Canary Islands in the early 16th century. In middle age he's turned to the conquest that followed Columbus and the meaning of the Christian Reformation. In 1996, he gave us Millennium: A History of Our Last Thousand Years, an 830-page tour of diverse cultures and rulers that flourished in the last 1,000 years. I continue to open that book with pleasure, reading again about a great Islamic garden or a king of Mali who was the richest man of the 14th century. My favourite character remains the emir Mahmud (998-1030) in eastern Afghanistan, a pioneer of the arts subsidy, who kept a staff of 400 poets to sing his praises.
Fernández-Armesto's purpose in Millennium was to undermine the idea that our Western way of life is at the centre of human concerns. He's the precise opposite of Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859), the most popular historian of all time, who believed all past events were leading happily toward the Protestant Christian society of Victorian England in which Macaulay flourished. But it wasn't necessary to refute that idea in 1996, since anyone likely to read a book by Fernández-Armesto had long since heard about the death of Eurocentrism. Still, Millennium remains a historian's work of art.
His new book, Civilizations, moves him even farther from his academic specialities and places him within what we might call the history-is-how-you-slice-it movement. Increasingly, ambitious accounts of world history more or less ignore political leaders, kings, etc. and focus instead on controlling themes. We now have environmental history, such as Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies; culture-grounded history, such as Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order; and even history based on the development of human emotion, notably Theodore Zeldin's An Intimate History of Humanity, which argues that the conversation of lovers is as important as the negotiations of diplomats.
Fernández-Armesto slices history according to geography, and defines a civilization by the way people respond to the world around them: Specific forms of human organization arise in response to ecological region-types. He includes the usual suspects, among them coastlines, such as those of the Mediterranean, and river valleys, such as those of Mesopotamia, that old favourite of mega-historians. But others are unexpected. He charts the growth of societies in grasslands, from the North American prairies to the Eurasian Steppe, and even in apparent wastelands, both deserts and polar regions.
He explains, vividly and persuasively, the societies that arise in these radically different contexts. When he deals with forests he ranges over mythical wild men who live in the woods, the impenetrable German forests that produced the enemies of Rome, the Huron of the Great Lakes, and the Arthurian legend, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. On Arctic-dwellers, he mentions that in 1884 a Swedish judge declared that protecting the grazing lands of reindeer was unnecessary and counterproductive, since the Sami (also known as the Laplanders), who lived off the herds, were an inferior culture, doomed to extinction. Saving the Sami would violate the central law of our species, survival of the fittest.
The judge lost that argument, and rightly so. As Fernández-Armesto says, the Sami, inseparable from their reindeer, have created an elaborate and delicate system of "controlled nomadism" by adapting nature to human needs.
Over 11 centuries or more, they have learned to move the reindeer in herds of thousands. They organize the animals, escorting them to grazing grounds, so that the animals can maintain the Sami by providing food, clothing, and implements made from reindeer bone, a more careful version of the relationship between the buffalo and the plains hunters in 19th-century North America. Does this deserve the term "civilization"? Fernández-Armesto's answer is an emphatic yes. How long can it survive? Fernández-Armesto doesn't provide an answer.
"I hate answers," he said at the seminar in Toronto. "I see history as a question-asking activity. It rather spoils things when you find the solution." That attitude adds to the charm of his books, and Civilizations is an unusually enjoyable work of history. How it will play in the common rooms at Oxford is, of course, another matter entirely.