A Little History of the World, E. H. Gombrich, translated by Caroline Mustill, illustrated by Clifford Harper. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.
Summary: A history of the world, written for children, by a famous art historian and illustrated with woodcut drawings.
E. H. Gombrich was best known as an art historian whose most well-known work is The Story of Art. In 1935, while unemployed, a publishing acquaintance asked him if he would look at a children’s history book with the idea of translating it into German. Gombrich did, and responded that he could probably write something better himself and was invited to submit a chapter. He wrote one on chivalry. Here is how the published version begins:
“I am sure you have heard of knights of old from the Age of Chivalry. And you have probably read books about knights and their squires who set out in search of adventure; stories full of shining armour, plumed helmets and noble steeds, blazoned escutcheons and impregnable fortresses, jousting and tournaments where fair ladies give prizes to the victors, wandering minstrels, forsaken damsels and departures for the Holy Land. The best thing is that all of it really existed. All the glitter and romance is no invention. Once upon a time the world really was full of colour and adventure, and people joyfully took part in that strange and wonderful game called chivalry, which was often played in deadly earnest” (p. 137).
Gombrich ended up writing the whole book in six weeks. Late in life, after the formation of the European Union in 1990, he agreed to update his work in English translation, and added a chapter on world events in his lifetime, including the horror of the Holocaust, working with translator Caroline Mustill.
As you may sense, Gombrich is a story teller which, as both Barbara Tuchman and David McCullough have noted, is basic to the good writing of history. Gombrich gives us enough of the significant factors and people behind events without becoming laborious. Chapters are short, five to ten pages in length. Woodcut illustrations and maps at needed points complement the readable text.
Of course, a work of this size has to be a selective history of the world, but Gombrich’s account extends from pre-historic eras to the beginnings of civilization in Egypt and the Middle East, Jewish history, the Persians and Greeks, India and Chinese history, Rome, the beginnings of Christianity, the zenith and fall of the Roman empire, the Middle Ages, the rise of cities, Renaissance, Reformation, the age of discovery, wars and the rise of modern states in Europe, World War 1, and then the Second World War, holocaust, and the bomb. Along the way are chapters on literacy, chivalry, and machines. The focus is European history while touching on important developments in the Americas, India, China and Japan. There is almost nothing about Africa. All this reflects a work written for European school children. Someone writing today might have included more material on ancient Central and South American peoples and African tribal life. Yet as an account helping European students understand the history that shaped Europe, it makes total sense.
I think this the perfect book for an adult who finds themselves wanting a basic sense of the flow of human history. Many of us weren’t paying attention in our history classes, or they weren’t presented in such an interesting fashion. Even for history lovers, this might suggest periods of history you’ve overlooked. I realized that I really haven’t read much medieval history — the period between the fall of the Roman empire and the Reformation is pretty much a blank for me. Above all, in Gombrich we have a deeply thoughtful, gentle, and clear voice introducing us to the human story through the ages, which is the story of us all.