The History of Western Europe

western europe history

The history of western europe, like that of any other region in the world, is not something that can be reduced to an easy generalization. It is complex and varied, a continent in many ways shaped by the physical environment and populated with peoples who are amazingly diverse. But there are certain patterns that stand out.

One is that change in the West has tended to come more quickly and spread more widely than elsewhere. That has made a huge difference in the way that societies have evolved and the way that they interact. It has influenced the development of the world economy and the global balance of power. It has influenced politics, wars and diplomacy, notably the rise of nationalism and the growth of political liberalism. And it has influenced culture.

Another pattern is that Europeans have been more interested in the past than have others. It is not just that they have tended to be more concerned with local history and less interested in world history, though that is true. It is also that they have been more willing to take a Eurocentric view of the world, in particular when it comes to the Middle Ages. This is a profoundly problematic approach to history and has left us with an unbalanced picture of the past.

The period from the 11th to around 1000 is known as the late Middle Ages or high Middle Ages, and it was a time of major population increase and resettlement. The vast forests and marshes of northern Europe were cleared and cultivated, new cities and towns were built and the European idea of feudalism emerged as a powerful force.

It was a century that saw the European idea of science develop, and it spread fast throughout the continent. It was a time when humanistic intellectuals such as Montaigne and Francis Bacon sought to find unity in humanity by finding it in nature. It was a time when parliaments began to assert their authority in places such as England and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and when new kinds of states developed that combined territory ruling by monarchs with co-operation agreements among towns, merchants, farmers and knights.

After World War II, European statesmen began to seek ways of uniting Europe peacefully on a more equal basis, instead of being subjected to domination by the world’s great powers; to eschew protectionism and “beggar-my-neighbour” policies; to match the military might of the world’s new superpowers but on a civilian rather than a military basis; and to begin to civilize international relations. The result was the European Union. The European project, however, has a long way to go. Public opinion has turned against enlargement, and there is growing concern over the EU’s inability to deal with the current refugee crisis. Changing these perceptions is essential if the European project is to survive.

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