the geography of europe -- 2/6/24

Today's selection-- from A Radical History of the World by Neil Faulkner. The very geography of Europe makes it a continent of conflict:

 “Europe’s deeply indented coastline is 37,000 km long — equivalent to the circumference of the earth — and the interior is penetrated by numerous long, highly navigable rivers, The Volga, Dnieper, Vistula, Oder, Elbe, Rhine, Seine, Loire, Garonne, Ebro, Po, Danube: these and others have been Europe’s major thoroughfares for thousands of years.

“Though great mountain ranges extend across much of the continent, there are ways round. 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 North European Plain is an open expanse extending from Moscow to Paris. Both have been routes of mass movement across Europe from the Neolithic to the Nazis. 

“North to south movement is harder, but the rivers make it possible, as do the numerous mountain passes. None of the ranges constitutes an impenetrable barrier. In any case, north-south movement matters less than movement from east to west: Eurasia is aligned east-west, and that is generally the way in which people, goods, and ideas have moved. 

The Volga, the longest river in Europe, in Saratov Oblast, Russia.

“European topography harbours a greater variety of eco-zones than that of any other area of comparable size. The Gulf Stream, originating in the tropics and weeping around the western, northern, and eastern fringes of the Atlantic, moderates the European climate and shapes a series of distinct zones. There is the frozen tundra of the far north; the cold forests of the taiga belt of northern Russia and Scandinavia; the wide temperate zone of deciduous woodland in Western Europe; the open steppes of Central and Eastern Europe, and the warm Mediterranean littoral between the mountains and the sea in the far south. This has had a decisive impact on the development of the economy, society, and culture. To grasp its significance, we must distinguish between a single event, a conjuncture (or state of affairs), and what some historians call the longue duree (long duration).

“The Battle of Naseby in 1645 was a single event. The English Revolution of 1640-60 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 duree spanning three to four centuries.

“Particularly in the context of the longue duree, geography matters. It does not drive history – history is driven by the decisions and actions of people – 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 are able to move rapidly. The weak, the sluggish, the conservative are vulnerable. Europe’s openness places 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 a 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 dykes: The Netherlands. Its second took place one surrounded by the sea: Britain.

“Only once in its history has even half of Europe been united in a stable imperial polity. The Roman Empire of the first to the fifth century AD included the whole of Europe west of the Rhine and south of the Danube. Other comparable imperial projects – those of Charlemagne, Philip II, Louis WIV, Napoleon, and Hitler – 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, Euphrates, Ganges, and 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 Early Neolithic or Agricultural Revolution – was pioneered in the Middle East and Central Asia in the eighth millennium BC. The second – the Industrial Revolution – was forged in Europe between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries AD. We must now seek out the roots of that transformation in the European feudal system that preceded it.”



Neil Faulkner


A Radical History of the World


Pluto Press


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