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Europe as we know it has evolved over centuries, shaped by its history, wars, empires, neighbors, and encounters with different peoples and cultures, both near and far. Today Europe is considered a continental home, but the notion of a European continent was not born until the sixteenth century. It has few natural boundaries and it defined more by its relations with other regions than by its geography.
Europe was an idea long before it acquired anything like its present geographical contours, internal structures and relationships, or connection to the rest of the world. The idea of a European continent may seem to belong to the natural order of things, but the idea of a continent is relatively modern, dating from the sixteenth century. Europe belonged to the realm of myth before it acquired a concrete physical location. The name comes from Greek myth, the story of Europa. In that story, Europa, the daughter of a Phoenician king, is abducted and raped by the Greek god Zeus. He takes her from her home on the Asian coast of the Mediterranean to Crete, where she bears three sons, giving birth to Minoan civilization. As a mother figure, Europa provided the Greeks, and later Europe itself, with a powerful myth of origins. But Europe did not originally refer to the geographical space that now bears that name. It was originally attached to the Aegean coast and only gradually came to be attached to its northern and western hinterlands, to the areas we now associate with the Balkans.
The Greeks used other allegorical female figures, Asia and Africa, to name the lands to their east and south, thereby creating a tripartite division of the world, which they thought of as an island (Orbis Terrarum) encircled by an impassable river, which they called Oceanus. Europe, Asia, and Africa were not originally conceived of as separate continents, but as parts of a single landmass. The Judeo-Christian myth of Noah’s three sons also presents the idea of an earth island divided into three parts, each inherited by one of the sons, with Shem coming into the possession of Asia, Ham of Africa, and Japheth Europe. It was not until the existence of another landmass was established in the wake of the voyages of Columbus, and identified with another female figure, America, that the concept of continents came into being. When the ancient notion of Orbis Terrarum became obsolete, so did the idea of Oceanus. The idea of the encircling river gave way to the notion of several seas connecting the newfound continents.
Today Europe is one of seven recognized continents, though its claim to that status is not founded in physical geography. Europe is not surrounded by water and it lacks any clear natural boundaries that would differentiate it from Asia. From the beginning, Europe was a floating signifier, attached to a variety of territories, expanding and contracting in scale, changing meaning according to the purposes of those who defined it. As the historian Hugh Seton-Watson observed: “The word ‘Europe’ had been used and misused, interpreted and misinterpreted in as many different meanings as any word in any language. There are many Europes. . . .” (Wilson and van der Dussen 1993, 8).
Europe is by no means alone in this respect. Most continents are mythical in the sense that they are names given to geographies whose external boundaries are rarely self-evident and whose internal divisions may be greater than those between them and other landmasses. Names like Europe, Africa, and America are very good at conveying meaning, but not very useful in revealing the actual boundaries of populations, economies, or cultures. It is with good reason that geographers such as Martin Wigan and historians such as Karen Lewis have recently begun to talk about the “myth of continents” as standing in the way of a better understanding of the world at large. Yet we are unlikely to see the concept of continents disappear in the near future. The term Europe remains a very powerful signifier despite the fact that it has changed content and meaning so many times over the centuries.
Ancient and Medieval Notions
Europe was only a vague geographical expression to the Greeks, who identified it with the neighboring lands to their north and west, which were thought to share a similar climate and therefore whose people were thought to possess a civilized temperament conducive to self-government. The Greeks were fond of contrasting their own freedoms with the supposed despotism of their great enemies, the Persians, which by extension they attributed to all the peoples of Asia. Lands far to the north were thought to be cold and barbaric, while lands further south were considered too hot for human habitation.
The flexibility of the concept of Europe is due to the fact that it was not generated by any one state, nation, or culture. As was the case with the Americas and Australia, Europe was named by outsiders, one of the reasons the term has been so fraught with uncertainty and ambiguity ever since. Those peoples residing in what the ancient Greeks called Europe did not know themselves as Europeans any more than the peoples living in Asia knew themselves as Asians or peoples of Africa called themselves Africans. They identified primarily with their locality. Even the Greeks did not think of themselves primarily as Europeans, for they identified with their particular city-states. They were Athenians and Spartans before they were Greeks, much less Europeans. The term European was never used by them or by the Romans, another city-people who had no particular attachment to the territories that lay between cities. At the peak of Roman imperial expansion, the European, Asian, and African parts of the empire appeared to Romans to constitute the whole world. Identified with a language, a body of law, and a culture rather than a specific territory, Rome saw itself as universal, a claim that was reinforced when its emperor declared Christianity to be the state religion in 313 CE. A world empire wedded to a world religion left no room for a separate European identity.
It was only in the wake of the collapse of the Roman Empire that what we now think of as Europe emerged as something more than a hinterland of the Mediterranean littoral. But the consolidation of this new Europe was slow in happening because, while the imperial state disappeared, the universal church did not. Europe remained a part of the larger entity known as Christendom, which included portions of Asia and Africa as well as Europe for the next several hundred years. Throughout the Middle Ages the ancient view of the world as an earth island surrounded by an impassable river held firm. Asia continued to be Christianity’s place of origin, and medieval Europeans continued to be spiritually and materially oriented toward the east, accounting for their designation of it as the Orient. Jerusalem was located on medieval world maps at the center of Orbis Terrarum. Asia, now open by way of the Silk Roads, was seen as a land of superior riches, while Africa too was the locus of European desires for gold and other luxury items. Europe itself was seen as peripheral.
During the Middle Ages Europe remained a geographical expression, without political unity, an economic center, or a strong sense of itself as a distinct civilization. Medieval Europe was anything but Eurocentric. Shown on its own maps as the smallest part of Orbis Terrarum, Europe saw itself as the western peninsula of Asia. Arabic maps of the Middle Ages showed it without distinct features, a reflection of how little it counted in the view of the great Islamic civilizations of the period. The Chinese, who viewed themselves as the center of the world, had no concept of Europe until European Jesuits introduced them to the idea in the late sixteenth century. Even then, they placed Europe on the margins of the Earth, a view shared by many Europeans of the time.
Apart from the Vikings, the peoples occupying that part of earth island known as Europe were not seafaring. They turned their backs to Oceanus and faced eastward spiritually and economically. When the Turks cut off overland access to the Orient in the fifteenth century, Europeans intensified their efforts to venture around Africa. Eventually they turned west to cross the Atlantic. It was only then, and very tentatively, that they began to think of themselves as Europeans. Not until they encountered one another overseas did Englishmen, Flemings, and Genoese begin to use the term “we Europeans,” as Francis Bacon did in 1620 CE. Only after establishing sea-based empires in the sixteenth century did Europeans reorient themselves from east to west. It was only then that they came to see history moving in a new direction. Christianity, born in Asia and nurtured during its first centuries in Africa, was for the first time seen as essentially a European faith. Henceforth, Europe would no longer subordinate itself to Christendom, but would define it. In the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Europe ceased to be a geographical expression and became a core region with its own peripheries. Having cut itself off from the Asian and African parts of the old Christendom, Europe emerged from the Age of Discovery smaller and more compact, but with an integral geography and a sense of itself both as a place and as an independent historical agent.
Europe Becomes a Continent
The notion of a European continent was born in the sixteenth century, but it took much longer before the peoples indigenous to it came to see themselves as Europeans. The idea of a secular Europe, as distinct from Christendom, first took hold among the elite classes. It arose in part out of balance-of-power diplomacy, which was itself a response to the religious wars of the seventeenth century, brought to an end by the Peace of Westphalia of 1648. While premised on the notion of internal division, thinking of Europe as a coherent system of competing territorial states—the origins of the Westphalian states system—was the first step toward separating it from the rest of the world. It took a much longer time for the idea of “European-ness” to trickle down to the lower classes, who were slow to exchange their local identities for national ones, and even slower to consider themselves Europeans.
But before Europe identified itself entirely with its continental geography, it saw itself as a civilization with boundaries that extended westward. European overseas expansion in the early modern period established the New World in the Americas, a series of what can be called “neo-Europes.” European settlers’ identification with the homeland was so strong that it seemed in the eighteenth century that Europe might ultimately span the Atlantic. The conquest of Ireland was the first step in the construction of what the British saw as a greater Britain bridging the Atlantic. Spain established colonies in the Americas from the early sixteenth century onward; France and England established colonies there in the early seventeenth century. The colonial revolts of the later eighteenth century put an end to the idea of a pan-Atlantic Europe politically, but the imprint of European culture remained strong, encouraging the idea that it was, like Roman culture, universal, transcending geographical limits.
By the eighteenth century Europe identified itself with “civilization,” a term coined by the French politician Count Mirabeau in the 1750s. For the first time Europe shed its ancient sense of inferiority to Asia, especially to China. In the minds of Europeans, their culture had become the universal standard, available to all the world’s peoples willing to subscribe to its tenets. Defined initially as a loose package of values, techniques, and ways of life—the essence of the Enlightenment—the European concept of civilization became, by the nineteenth century, a kind of natural law of human progress, seen as spreading inevitably from Europe to the Americas and then to all the world.
In the nineteenth century Europe took on a clearer territorial definition, focused on its western regions. Following Napoleon’s failure to impose continental political and economic unity, the thrust of the industrial and democratic revolutions in Western Europe produced powerful economies within the boundaries of new nation-states. The evident differences between western European nations and the regions to the east and south became accentuated. Autocratic Russia now became Europe’s “window on the East.” During the New Imperialism of the later nineteenth century, Europeans’ consciousness of their Europeanness was again reinforced by encounters with non-European peoples, affirming the observation that “Europe did not simply expand overseas, it made itself through expansion” (Asad 2002, 220). European anthropology and ethnology supposedly gave scientific credence to Europeans’ heightened sense of difference and superiority. Evolutionary conceptions of history, which organized the world’s societies in terms of stages of development from savagery to civilization, reinforced Europeans’ sense of being at the forefront of the march of progress.
In the eighteenth century Europe gained a geography; in the nineteenth century it acquired a history. The French Revolution had marked a decisive break with the past and triggered a quest for an historical account that would provide Europeans with a sense of common origins. Political conservatives imagined the Middle Ages as laying the foundations of a unique European civilization, while radicals took Greek democracy as their starting point. The fact that neither the ancient Greeks nor medieval Christians would have recognized themselves as the first Europeans was no deterrent to this project. Despite the fact that both versions of the past were wholly anachronistic, they remain the favorite starting points for European history in schools and universities, distorting the past but providing a powerful myth of origins. Histories of Europe (and of the world) have tended to characterize it as being set apart from and superior to other world regions, cultures, and religions.
The notion of European superiority lost some credibility after the two world wars of the twentieth century, but the notion of one universal path of human development persisted. Modernization, a term more frequently used in the United States than in Europe, replaced civilization as the key word in the vocabulary of comparison. Although clearly biased toward Western interests and values, modernization was supposedly universal in character, knowing no geographical boundaries. Today, globalization is the term most frequently used to describe the supposedly inevitable processes that will transform the whole world, erasing geographical boundaries and cultural differences. This is but the latest example of the universalizing tendency of European culture, now fortified by the wealth and power of the neo-European United States.
There have been many Europes, and today we see yet another emerging. The entity that is unfolding before our eyes began as a core of western European nations defining themselves against the Soviet Union and its Communist allies. The Cold War division between West and East provided a powerful unifying factor, but since the collapse of Eastern European Communism beginning in 1989, Europe has had no obvious “other” to define its boundaries. Now that former Communist nations are joining the European Union, the boundaries of Europe are again in flux. Should Turkey become a member of the Union, the ancient boundary between Europe and Asia would also be breeched, and the notion of absolute difference between the western freedom and eastern despotism would finally be renegotiated.
This is also a time when geographers and historians are reexamining the idea of the continent itself. After all, Europe has few natural boundaries and has always been defined by its relations with other world regions rather than by something internal to itself. What Europe means to Europeans has been inseparable from world history from the very moment that the Greeks adopted the origin myth of Europa to define themselves against the Persians.
It is therefore wholly appropriate that in this age of intense global interaction, when the identities of all the world’s regions are being formed and reformed at their various points of contact, we recognize just how relative and contingent the notion of Europe has been from the very beginning. The accelerated speed of communications and travel has rendered old geographical boundaries largely obsolete, but it has by no means led to the abolition of a sense of difference. In fact, the processes associated with globalization have accelerated the rate at which both internal and external differences are produced and institutionalized. These differences are less likely to be national than regional and subregional. Even as they construct a larger political-economic unit in the form of the European Union, Europeans seem to be moving toward a new localism, emphasizing indigenous languages, cultures, and traditions. Today’s typical European has multiple identities, those of locality, region, nation, continent, and for some, the world at large. These are often in tension and can sometimes flare into conflict as has happened in the Balkans following the collapse of Communism and the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.
Is it time to abandon the notion of Europe? We may wish to move away from a Eurocentric history, which assumes a homogeneous Europe with fixed boundaries and a single point of origin, but we cannot ignore the idea of Europe, which has been so vital not just in European history but in the histories of all the peoples who have come into contact with Europeans. The idea of Europe is still associated with universal values in the minds of many people, including Europe’s enemies. Europe no longer endeavors by force to impose its version of civilization on the world, but European influences can be detected everywhere one looks. Together with the equally powerful symbolic concepts of Asia, Africa, and America, Europe as a signifier remains fundamental to any understanding of the world at large. World history cannot afford to be Eurocentric, but it runs an enormous risk if it neglects the ways in which the idea of Europe has, for better and for worse, shaped and been shaped over centuries of contacts with other world regions.
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