Why Europe? Why was it that the second great transformation in human existence - the development of capitalism and industrial society - was pioneered on the western edge of the Eurasian land-mass?
At first, it seems surprising. Europe is but an excrescence of Asia, and the first great civilisations were those of the Nile, the Tigris/Euphrates, the Indus, and the Yellow rivers. By comparison, prehistoric Europe appears peripheral and backward.
Yet, Europe is uniquely blessed by its distinctive geography. The relationship between Europe and the sea is more intimate than that of any other continent. Europe is a small continent formed of fingers and fists of land that project into the seas surrounding it on three sides - the Baltic, the North Sea, the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Black Sea.
There is no great expanse of continental interior. No European is ever far from the sea. As Socrates put it, Europeans cluster like ‘ants or frogs around a pond’.
Europe’s deeply indented coastline is 23,000 miles long - equivalent to the circumference of the Earth - and the interior is penetrated by numerous, long, highly navigable rivers. The Volga, the Dnieper, the Vistula, the Oder, the Elbe, the Rhine, the Seine, the Loire, the Garonne, the Ebro, the Po, the Danube: these and others have been Europe’s great thoroughfares for thousands of years.
Though the continent is dissected by mountain ranges, there are always ways through. The Middle European Corridor runs from the steppes of south Russia, through the Danube’s Iron Gates, across the Hungarian Plain, and on into Western Europe. The Northern European Plain is an open expanse extending from Moscow to Paris.
Both have been routeways of mass movement across Europe from the Neolithic to the Nazis. North-south movement is harder, but the rivers help, and the mountains are crossed by numerous passes. None of the ranges constitutes an impenetrable barrier.
In any case, north-south movement matters less than east-west: Eurasia is aligned east-west, so that is the direction that matters for the passage of people, goods, and ideas.
European topography harbours a greater variety of eco-zones than that of any other area of comparable size on Earth. The Gulf Stream, originating in the tropics and sweeping around the western, northern, and eastern fringes of the Atlantic, moderates the European climate and shapes a series of distinct zones.
Europe contains: the frozen tundra of the far north; the cold forests of the taiga belt of northern Russia and Scandinavia; the wide temperate zone of mixed-oak woodland in Western Europe; the open steppe-land of Central and Eastern Europe, and the warm Mediterranean littoral hemmed in between mountain and sea in the far south.
This geography has had a decisive impact on the development of economy, society, and culture. To grasp its significance, we must distinguish between a single event, a ‘conjuncture’ or state of affairs, and what the historians of the French Annales school call the longue dur√©e (‘long duration’).
The Battle of Naseby in 1645 was a single event. The English Revolution of 1640-1660 was a conjuncture. But the rise of a ‘middling sort’ of minor gentry, yeoman-farmers, and prosperous urban artisans and traders - the people who made the Revolution - was a longue dur√©e process spanning three or four centuries.
Particularly in the context of the longue dur√©e, geography matters. It does not drive history - history is driven by the decisions and actions of human beings - but it helps create the context within which history takes place. Geography both imposes constraints and provides opportunities. Because humans are part of Nature, geography determines what is possible.
Because of its geography, Europe is pre-eminently a continent of communication, conflict, and interaction. People, goods, and ideas can move fast. The weak, the sluggish, the conservative are vulnerable. Europe’s openness puts a premium on dynamism and innovation.
In a world of roads, railways, and airlines, we struggle to grasp the centrality of water-transport before the Industrial Revolution. An ox will consume the equivalent of its own load in a month of haulage work. In the same period, the crew of a river barge or seagoing merchantman will travel much further and consume only a tiny fraction of their cargo.
It is no accident that the most advanced parts of early-modern Europe - and of the world - were also the most watery. The world’s first bourgeois revolution took place in a country of islands, estuaries, reclaimed land, and drainage dikes: Holland. Its second took place in one surrounded by the sea: Britain.
Only once in its history has even half of Europe been united in an enduring imperial polity. The Roman Empire of the 1st to the 5th century CE included the whole of Europe west of the Rhine and south of the Danube. Other comparable imperial projects - those of Charlemagne, Philip II, Louis XIV, Napoleon, and Hitler - have proved abortive. Europe is a continent of ‘warring states’.
Europe’s would-be imperial hegemons have been frustrated by geography. The continent’s easy east-west communications, its seaways and inland waterways, and its diversity of eco-zones and ethnicities have combined to prevent the construction of mega-polities.
Empires, especially long-lived ones, are inherently conservative. The petty polities of medieval and early-modern Europe, on the other hand, could not afford to be. Europe was a continent of conflict - and therefore a continent of change.
On the Nile, the Euphrates, the Ganges, and the Yangtze, history’s cycle predominated throughout medieval history. But on the Rhine, it was history’s arrow.
The first great transformation in the history of homo sapiens - the Neolithic or Agricultural Revolution - was pioneered in the depths of the Middle East and Central Asia in the 8th millennium BCE. The second - the Industrial Revolution - was forged in Europe between the 14th and the 18th centuries CE.
We must now seek the roots of that transformation in the European feudal system that preceded it.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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