A Guide to Western Europe History

Western Europe is a small continent of immense diversity. Its people have a history of warfare and cultural conflict, both internal and external. But, as a whole, the region has also been a source of peace, prosperity and culture. This guide focuses on the history of the nations and cultures of Western Europe from their origins to the present day. It provides links to resources that support research in the humanities and social sciences, including anthropology, classical studies, economics, European history, history of religion, international affairs, law, literature, musicology, philosophy, political science, and sociology.

European societies have been profoundly shaped by war. They have also been marked by long periods of peace and prosperity, but the continent remains deeply divided over its modern future.

Europe’s rich agricultural soils and temperate climate made it uniquely susceptible to successive waves of invaders from the east. Over the course of a thousand years, a series of kingdoms emerged in what had once been the Roman Empire. These largely Germanic peoples, from the Visigoths of North Africa to the Ostrogoths of Italy, developed a society that emphasized the division between those who worked and prayed and those who fought.

In the late Middle Ages, however, a new force emerged in the form of Charlemagne, who conquered the remaining fragments of the ancient Roman Empire and established the Carolingian Renaissance in the west. A schism between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism also reinforced the cultural distinctiveness of western Europe from the rest of the world.

The emergence of modern scientific thinking brought a secular force to European intellectual life. Post services were established, and a network of humanistic intellectuals spread across the continent despite religious differences. This paved the way for the Enlightenment, a philosophical movement that gave rise to the idea of European superiority. Its ideas would give momentum to the Industrial Revolution after 1750 and shape a post-World War I era in which European governments began to embrace democracy instead of dictatorship.

The world changed radically after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Germany was reunified, the Soviet Union dissolved, and several countries that had been formerly part of the Soviet bloc regained their independence. As a result, many of the political boundaries that had separated the continent of Europe from Asia and Russia were shifted in a process known as Euro-enlargement. The political philosophies that guided this change were largely driven by exhaustion with the futility of war and the promise of continued economic growth. The political institutions of the reunified Europe have varied widely, but parliamentary democracy has become the dominant model. It has since been exported to many other parts of the world. Despite the continuing divisions that divide western europe, these democratic states share the belief that their citizens have more in common than what separates them. The USC Libraries’ collection on Western European history reflects this view of what unites rather than divides Europe. This collection includes books, e-books, journal articles, primary sources, multimedia, and more.

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