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Book Review: The Shape of European History

Book Review: The Shape of European History by William H. McNeill


William H. McNeill was the Robert A. Milikin Professor of History at the University of Chicago from 1947-1987. He earned his Bachelor of Art and Master of Art degrees from the University of Chicago before being drafted into the U.S. Army in 1941, where he served in the European theatre. Upon his return to the United States, he worked towards his PhD under Carl L. Becker at Cornell University. After a long and distinguished career, he died in 2016.

In contrast to Oswald Spengler’s view of detached and independent civilizations in his work, Decline of the West, McNeill wrote The Shape of European History, where he argued that contact and exchange between civilizations is the driving force behind human history. Through a process of cultural exchange, conquest and appropriation of technology, art, and music, societies innovate, or in some cases, are subsumed into the dominant culture (e.g., the Roman’s adopted Greek art, religion and theater). McNeill emphasized European contributions to world civilizations and posited that the main causes of historical change have been through encounters amongst strangers. In the first two chapters of The Shape of European History, McNeill discusses theory. He noted that throughout much of the middle ages, and up until the seventeenth century, historians had a fundamentally Christian view of history as exemplified by St. Augustine.[1]This view was weakened with the development of physics and astronomy in the seventeenth century. Then, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as philosophers debated the nature of God and concepts such as free will and reason became more prevalent, the older Providential view of human history faded.[2] It was during this time that the field of history became professionalized and the “scientific” method was utilized to critique sources. As religion became a less significant factor in human affairs, the state as exemplified by the values of liberty, equalityand fraternityreplaced Christian doctrines as the dominant themes in European and by extension, American political discourse and culture and shaped the field of history for many generations.


McNeill’s thesis, “This essay, as an effort to provoke reflection upon and to invite clarification of the share of European history…” accomplishes his goal. In the second chapter of the book, he treats the historical method and social process and defines the role of the historian; to assemble relevant facts, to identify and analyze patterns of behavior, and to shift and arrange data in ways that make sense so that a better understanding of the present can be determined through the events of the past. As historians are concerned with public affairs, they use common language so that their work is more accessible.

The subsequent chapters of the book take the reader on a journey through nearly 2000 years of European history in a concise and thorough way. He chronicles the genesis of high culture in each different region of Europe and reclaims Spanish Moslem culture and the Islamic steppe culture which, he noted, are usually not regarded as European at all, despite having occupied European territory. He acknowledged that this omission is the result of long-standing religious bias which characterized all virtuous things with Christianity and detested Islamic culture and contributions.[3]

McNeill noted that, “As of 1973, at least, it looks as though Europe’s political history since 1917 had been dominated by two conflicting yet complimentary processes.”[4] The first process, was the dominance of American and Russian wealth, power and influence where by this time, nearly every country in the world was aligned through politics, economics, or philosophy with each the West or East. He explained that this dominance replaced that of western European powers who had held sway during the nineteenth century. The second process he described was that of the consolidation of Europe into the European Union. At the time of the author’s writing, it was too early to know what the fate of these two processes would be. But, now, with forty-five years of hindsight, we know that these processes are in danger; the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, there are calls to dismantle the European Union, and the United States’ influence in the world is waning due to many factors including unending wars and internal political upheaval.

William H. McNeill admitted in his later years during an interview that his work suggested a bias characterized as intellectual imperialism through his emphasis the contribution of European civilization on the cultures of the world. However, his inclusion of Russian and Moslem contributions were refreshing and not topics typically included (in my experience) in European history.

Questions for Discussion

  • Does McNeill’s military service impact his perspective about the importance of European civilization on human history?

  • Is there evidence of bias in his work?

  • McNeill proposed that Greek Athenians reached high culture because of agriculture and solidarity building. He attributed these same causes to other civilizations throughout the book. Which ones?


McNeill, William H. The Shape of European History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.

[1]William H. McNeill, The Shape of European History(New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), 6.

[2]McNeill, 7.

[3]McNeill, 94.

[4]Ibid., 170.

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