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Book Review


Wiesner, Merry E., William Bruce Wheeler, Franklin M. Doeringer, and Kenneth R. Curtis. Discovering the Global Past: A Look at the Evidence, Volume I: To 1650. Third Edition (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007). 445 pp, $53.96

Wiesner, Merry E., William Bruce Wheeler, Franklin M. Doeringer, and Kenneth R. Curtis. Discovering the Global Past: A Look at the Evidence, Volume II: Since 1400. Third Edition (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007). 489 pp, $53.96.


     As most readers of this journal know, Merry Wiesner is a distinguished professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a well-known specialist in the history of early modern Europe, women's and gender history, the history of Christianity, and world history. Together with her collaborators William Bruce Wheeler, Franklin M. Doeringer, and Kenneth R. Curtis, Professor Wiesner has produced another welcome "hands-on" work that will serve undergraduate students of world history very well. The authors make a passionate plea on behalf of world history: "ésome sort of world history is the only way a college can do justice to students who live in a world where events in Asia, Africa, and Latin America are as likely to involve the United States in critical action as anything happening in Europe or North America." (vol. I, xiv) This pragmatic appeal aside, the methodological merits of the books are impressive.

     The scope and focus of the volumes are somewhat of a departure from similar works published by the same authors which focus more on the Western world. However, in the volumes discussed here the primary goal is to "allow students enrolled in world history courses to do history in the same way that we as historians do-to examine a group of original sources to answer questions about the past." (II, xiv) The assumption, of course, is that the historian's methods remain the same whether the focus is the study of Western history or world history-a rather provocative suggestion that should generate lively discussion even in an undergraduate seminar.

     In this two-volume work the authors have clustered primary sources around sets of historical questions that students are asked to •solve". Students are invited to "analyze" a variety of primary sources, to make inferences, and to draw conclusions just as historians do. (II, xiv) Evidence included consists of reproductions of paintings, statues, literary illustrations, historical photographs, maps, cartoons, advertisements, and political posters. Written sources include speeches, wills, court records, oral testimonies, statistical data, letters, newspaper articles, and memoirs, among others. In addition to the evidence and questions, students are provided with suggestions about how one might analyze the evidence as they make their way to their own conclusions.

     The range of topics broached in these works is particularly noteworthy. In Volume I, for example, chapters are devoted to water resources in ancient societies; writing, power and world views in the ancient world; the representation of the human form in the ancient and medieval worlds; imperial authority in Han China and ancient Rome; religious communities between 300 BCE and 800 CE; the exploration of new worlds by Vikings and Polynesians; the faces of "Holy War" among Christians and Muslims; romance and behaviour in medieval Japan and Italy; the Mongol impact; Constantinople and Tenochtitlˆn as regional metropolises; pilgrimages in Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam; students and scholars in China, Paris, and Timbuktu; facing the Black Death; and the creation of cultural stereotypes in the age of first encounters.

     Volume II, which begins with the last chapter of Volume I (the creation of cultural stereotypes in the age of first encounters), has chapters on villages in an era of centralizing states (1450-1650); labour and property in rural societies (1500-1800); sugar and the origins of the modern world (1600-1800); the Confucian family (1600-1800); the liberation-hero and Western revolutions (1770s-1810s); constitutional responses to European expansion in Africa and the Pacific (1850-1890); the industrialization of Germany and Japan (1860-1900); the promises and threats of modernity (1790-1930); nationalism, motherhood, and women's rights in Brazil, Egypt, and Japan (1890s-1930s); department stores, advertising, and the new consumerism (1920s-1930s); the industrial crisis and the centralization of government (1924-1939); the cost of total war (1914-1945); the Suez Crisis (1956); and religious fundamentalism in the modern world (1970s-present).

     Each chapter consists of several sections: problem, background, method, evidence, questions to consider, and epilogue. In the "problem" sections, the authors contextualize the chapter's topic, and raise broad questions. For example, "Why should the presence of cities be the distinguishing mark of cultural development?" (I, p. 1) "Background" sections are typically more narrowly focused, and raise more technical issues. "Method" sections describe the variety of sources available to historians with respect to the problem at hand (e.g. visual sources, artefacts such as machines for raising water, and, of course, written sources). Throughout, the student is invited to read the sources and explore the ways each source contributes to an understanding the problem discussed in the chapter. What technical problems are being addressed by the sources? What political and economic factors are being considered? "Evidence" sections usually contain approximately a dozen pieces of evidence such as photographs, sketches, diagrams, excerpts from legal documents, descriptions by contemporary observers, and excerpts from chronicles or historical accounts. Sections titled "Questions to Consider" call upon the reader, after he/she has looked at the visual and written evidence, to "compile and organize the information gained from each type of source to achieve a more complete picture." (I, 17) Once this has been done, the student is referred back to the original question raised at the beginning of the chapter, and is asked to offer a more complex response that takes into account the various types of evidence presented. The "Epilogue" at the end of each chapter offers an integrated response to the chapter's central question, and invites the student to make links between what he/she has discovered in the chapter at hand to a similar problem in the student's own time and place.

     Each section in these volumes build on one other and provide a good deal of integration. The authors have gone to great lengths to offer a balanced range of issues in political, social, diplomatic, intellectual, and cultural history. Eschewing any claim to being comprehensive, the authors stress that this approach is intended to offer a "historical sampler" to help students learn the methods and skills of the historian. As a whole, the volumes do address global history, even if this is done by way of comparisons and juxtapositions (eg. comparisons between Rome and Han China; or peasant family life in modern central Europe and Southeast Asia), as opposed to explicit and extensive synthesis and discussion of "global" interactions and dynamics.

     Discovering the Global Past could be used with profit in a variety of world history courses (small lecture/seminar groups or large lecture/discussion classes). Chapters could be used for individual assignments, group projects, class discussions, papers, and exams. One obvious use of the books would be to assign individual chapters as material for group or individual presentations. This would allow students to "demonstrate" their investigation of a historical problem in a structured manner while in possession of a substantive amount of material. At the same time, this type of assignment would help some students cope with some of the repetitiveness inherent (and perhaps necessary) in the structure of all the chapters. On the other hand, since each chapter is self-contained, chapters could be assigned in any order so as to more easily integrate them in a variety of courses. It should be emphasized that the books reviewed here are not "conventional" textbooks, and will be used most effectively in conjunction with a standard course text that would provide the necessary narrative.

     Overall, the strengths of these volumes are rooted in the background of the authors, the organization and methodology adopted throughout, and the range of problems and sources that make up the various chapters. The result is an impressive set of problem solving assignments that encompass developments in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Western hemisphere—a valuable resource indeed with which to introduce undergraduates to historical methods and the study of the "global past".


Elmiro Argento
Douglas College


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