Rachel Fulton
Department of History
The University of Chicago

Autumn 2002-Winter 2003


"European Civilization" is a two-quarter sequence designed to introduce students to the nature and history of European civilization from the early Middle Ages to the twentieth century. It complements parallel sequences in Ancient Mediterranean, Byzantine, Islamic, and American civilization, and may be supplemented by a third quarter designed to expand students' understanding of European civilization in a particular direction. Emphasis will be placed throughout on the recurring tension between universal aspirations and localizing boundaries, and on the fundamental rhythms of tradition and change. Method consists of close reading of primary sources intended to illuminate the formation and development of a characteristically European way of life in the high middle ages; the collapse of ecclesiastical universalism in the early modern period; and the development of modern politics, society, and culture in the centuries to follow. Individual instructors may choose different sources to illuminate those themes, but some of the most important readings will be the same in all sections.

Presentation for Trustees' Meeting
The University of Chicago
June 6, 2002


Beginning in the academic year 2002-2003, a group of senior faculty in the Department of History and in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures will be teaching a new three-quarter sequence in the History of European Civilization for first- and second-year students in the College.

The course has been under development for some five years now. In our initial discussions, what we proposed was a revision of the existing History of Western Civilization sequence, but it soon became clear that to accomplish what we wanted to in the sequence, it would be necessary to begin building again from the ground up.

This does not mean, of course, that we have not learned from our experiences in teaching the older sequence. We have retained those elements of the course that have always worked best.

Like the older sequence, the new sequence will be taught in small discussion groups of not more than 22 students, using original documents and other original historical materials. And like the older sequence, we have arranged the reading of these documents in chronological order.

The first quarter (European Civ 1) will cover the period 500 to 1750, the second (European Civ 2) will cover the period 1750 to 2002. The third quarter (European Civ 3) offers students the opportunity to select a major problem or theme in European history and study it intensively for ten weeks.

These "major problems" seminars are open only to those students who have completed the first two quarters of a civilization sequence. For the 2002-2003 academic year, the "major problems" seminars will have the following themes: The Enlightenment and its Critics; The British Empire; The Idea of Civilization; Totalitarianism and Culture in the 20th Century; and Religion in Modern European Society.

These "major problems" seminars will also be taught in small groups so as to facilitate class discussions, and they will also read and analyze original documents and sources. Students will have a choice of which "major problems" seminar they wish to enroll in, and all of the seminars will explore issues that flow from the materials discussed in the first two quarters of the course.

Every year all students in all sections of European Civilization during the first two quarters will read a number of major works in common. For 2002-2003 these works include Beowulf; Jean de Joinville, Life of Saint Louis; Niccol˛ Macchiavelli, The Discourses; Martin Luther, On Christian Liberty; John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration; Denis Diderot, The Definition of an Encyclopedia; The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789); Maximilien Robespierre, Report on the Principles of Political Morality; Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto; John Stuart Mill, On Liberty; Nikolay Bukharin and Yevgeny Preobrashenzsky, The ABC of Commuism; and Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents.

In addition, each of the individual sections will also study a careful selection of other key historical sources, such as The Song of Roland; Peter Abelard, The Story of My Misfortunes; St. Francis, The Rule and Testament; Marsilius of Padua, Defender of the Peace; Leon Battista Alberti, On the Family; Shakespeare, Henry V; Bernal Diaz, The Conquest of New Spain; Emmanuel-Joseph SieyŔs, What is the Third Estate?; Thomas Macaulay, "Speech on Parliamentary Reform in 1831"; Alexis de Tocqueville, The Recollections; F.T. Marinetti, The Futurist Manifestos; Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf; Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill, "Addresses to the House of Commons during the Munich Crisis of October 1938"; William Beveridge, New Britain; Jean Monnet, A Red-Letter Day for European Unity; and Hannah Arendt, On Humanity in Dark Times: Thoughts about Lessing.

For those of you who have taken the older course or who are familiar with its various syllabi, much of this will sound fairly familiar.

If so much is similar in the new course, why the need for a change? I will try to explain. This will take a moment, but I hope it helps you see the logic behind the new course.

There are several strands of development involved, beginning in the 19th century.

In the 19th century, European historians developed the idea that there was such a thing as a quintessential moment in the development of a culture at which it achieved its fullest, most perfect form--its natural or evolutionary perfection. Such moments in European civilization included Athens in the 5th century B.C., Christian Rome under the Emperor Constantine, northern Italy (particular Florence) during the Renaissance, or France under Louis XIV.

In the early 20th century in America, this idea of civilization as something that could be more or less perfectly realized was coupled with the conviction that the single most perfect realization of human civilization was European and that the United States, as heir to Europe, shared in this perfection. This perfected form of civilization was called "Western" rather than "European" because it had extended outward from Europe across the Atlantic.

Following World War I, a number of universities in the United States began to develop courses that would instruct students in the essentials of this "Western" civilization and thus make them as citizens "safe for democracy" (with the implication, "safe from socialism or communism").

Interestingly, however, at The University of Chicago, the introduction of such a course was delayed until 1931 because the faculty in the Humanities was at that time deeply suspicious of any approach to cultural artifacts such as texts that presumed to suggest that they were things made in time, rather than more or less perfect expressions of particular aesthetic forms.

In the end, the historians at Chicago "won" the fight to introduce a History of Western Civilization course only indirectly, by agreeing to teach a course that was not in fact a history course, but rather a course in the appreciation of a series of more or less disconnected cultural moments.

The result was a course that was in effect neither fish nor fowl--neither a course in "Great Texts" to be appreciated for their aesthetic form and articulation of transhistorical "Great Ideas" nor a course in History dealing with cause and effect, contingency, development and change.

Rather, as one faculty member put it, the course presented students with a series of "beads on a string"--quintessential moments at which European culture had achieved its most celebrated forms. The connecting "string" of historical narrative was supplied not in the discussion of primary texts, but rather through a series of lectures by senior professors, later supplemented by a textbook written by William McNeill (History of Western Civilization: A Handbook, [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953]).

This is the course that in one form or another has been taught at Chicago since as the "History of Western Civilization": a disconnected series of "topics" bound together not by a narrative of historical change but rather by the assumption that in each "topic" some quintessential cultural crisis or concept was most perfectly represented by certain actors rather than others--e.g. Francis of Assisi or Martin Luther rather than Alexander Nequam or Rabelais.

This is what our new course will do differently. It will present the history of European civilization as a narrative of process and change--not as a discrete series of quintessential moments, but rather as a on-going effort to create a society, a polity, an intellectual and aesthetic life; an effort always contingent, always dependent on the participation of the community as a whole, frequently at the risk of the very existence of that community as a whole.

Accordingly, the texts for the course have been chosen and will be read not as "representative types" of this or that quintessential moment, but rather as artifacts made at a particular point in time by authors for reasons specific to the moment in which they were made. Insofar as the texts must stand as part for the whole, what we hope to teach our students is that civilization itself is an artifact made in time-both in its particulars and in its largest forms.

Our emphasis will therefore be more on the choices that European people made at particular times to adopt examples from the other civilizations with which they were in contact-that of ancient Greece and Rome, but also those of Islam, the Americas, and Asia-than on the apparent continuity of the civilizational forms. What is the most important lesson for our students from this perspective? There was nothing natural or necessary in the history of European civilization about the appeal either to the classical world of the past or to the other cultures of the present.

European civilization was not the natural product of essential forms laid out in Antiquity. Rather, it was and is a complex entity constructed on the ruins of Rome by choices that medieval and modern Europeans made consciously to preserve certain elements of the classical past (e.g. Christianity, Aristotelian science) but only on their own terms--not because Antiquity carried a "germ" of civilization that could only be "revived" once certain "barbarian accretions" had been cleared away.

European civilization in this vision is the human product of a series of choices and conflicts, both internal and external. What we want our students to see is that a civilization, any civilization, is a work in progress--not only in the present but also at every moment over the course of its history. There is nothing inevitable about the choices people make--to preserve what they inherit from the past or to destroy it. At every point it could have gone otherwise, based on the decisions of the people alive at the time.

The story of the new course is a story of contingency rather than essence, of human agency in the face of conflict, of the choices made at given points in time and of the effects of those choices over time.

This is what we want to teach our students in our new course: history as contingency and agency rather than history as the realization of essential forms. We want them to see the string, not just the beads, because without the string, there would be no necklace in the first place.


Gilbert Allardyce, "The Rise and Fall of the Western Civilization Course," The American Historical Review 87.3 (1982): 695-725.

Karl J. Weintraub, Visions of Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966).

For more on the history of the study of Western Civilization at the University of Chicago and the relationship of the development of the core curriculum to the "Great Books," see Jay Satterfield, "The Great Ideas: The University of Chicago and the Ideal of Liberal Education," An Exhibition in the Department of Special Collections, Regenstein Library.

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