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Book Review


Aaron Shatzman, The Old World, the New World and the Creation of the Modern World, 1400-1650: An Interpretative History. London, New York, and Delhi: Anthem Press, 2013. Pp. xxii + 222. Figures and Index. $116.95 (paper).


     I have been looking for a suitable course text book to teach an introductory class to first-year university history students on world history, specifically the early modern period 1450–1750. From the title, Aaron Shatzman's The Old World, the New World and the Creation of the Modern World, 14001650: An Interpretative History sounded ideal, so I quickly obtained a copy. Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, I will not be adopting this text, although it has some good points.

     This book seems to be written at the end of a career, much of which was spent in university administration. The guide to the literature generally recommends worthy, but rather dated texts, and is far too cursory for university study. The introductory material is too self-referential and prolix, and dwells excessively on the author and nostalgia for his academic past, rather than the kinds of intellectual problems the topic presents and which this book should be addressing.

     Then, it is a book written for an American audience of a previous generation that still embraces all the old tropes of American apologetica; for example, the concept of change is considered not merely as a possibility, but a positive good, and this, of course, is "America's great gift to the world" (60). Reeling out Turner's frontier thesis in chapter six amounts to a verbal fanfare of the Star-Spangled Banner. While I would not like to go as far as dismissing these features per se, they are of little interest to students who seek more objective treatment of matters of conquest, trade, settlement, and the rise and fall of civilizations. This is not a book about world history, but rather how America was 'discovered,' the problems in conceiving it, and the tribulations and different histories of settlement in English, French and Spanish examples. While a letter of Afonso de Albuquerque divulging plans to seize Malacca in 1511 in the eastern hemisphere is included, and there are Champlains's descriptions of Iroquois Indian life, there is no attempt to grapple with other great world civilizations of that time, primarily China, but also Mughal India and Tokugawa Japan. For these purposes, Charles Parker's recent Global Interactions in the Early Modern Age may be more suitable. Nor does this book stand back from the historical detail sufficiently to enable chapters on hot topics like the 'Ecological Revolution,' or contemplate 'Global Convergence' (to supplement John Darwin's 'Early Modern Equilibrium'). For this, too, readers will have to turn elsewhere.

     The omphalic tendencies in this book are reinforced by spelling mistakes when foreign languages are approached: the Italian Carlo Cipolla becomes 'Cippola', Brazilian engenhos are written 'engenhios', and most glaringly, the captains donatory, or capitães, become 'captians'. The caravel does not need to be italicised as it has entered sufficiently the English idiom. There are some confusions in the use of apostrophes, and in the accusative form of 'who'. A section on Portugal begins – at a rhetorical level one might expect from a 16-year old schoolchild essay –'King John I sat on the throne in 1415'. Actually, the King had just acquired the throne in climactic circumstances, amidst massive social upheaval, and inaugurated an ambitious new dynasty. All of this needs to have been pointed out, however briefly.

     It is nice to see source materials reproduced in full, and which, as the author himself suggests, constitute as much as one-third of the whole text, and the publisher has gone to some lengths to present illustrative material in an appealing fashion. However, some of the works like the St. Vincent Altarpiece (Figure 1.3) need to be decoded for the reader in order to fully understand what they are saying. The author might like to know that there is plenty of available historiography to turn to here such as David Abulafia, "The Jew on the Altar: the Image of the Jew in the Veneration of St. Vincent Attributed to Nuno Gonçalves', Mediterranean Studies (vol. 10, 2002). Sections like 'the emergence of Spanish American culture' need more than two pages if they are going to be able to say anything meaningful; indeed one gets the feeling of indirectly learning much more from source extracts like Philip II's Royal Ordinances Concerning the Laying Out of New Towns, 1573 (pp. 66–69) than from the author's interventions. That said, chapters four (on the French challenge in America) and five (the English settlements) were greatly enjoyable, with their combination of letters, reports and journal entries, succinct analysis, and portraits of the protagonists. Thus, in a crowded historiographical arena full of other contending texts, while short of recommending this book, one can still find sections worthy of recollection, or of value for use in the classroom.

Stefan Halikowski Smith teaches world history of the 1500–1800 period at Swansea University in Wales. He has published Creolization and Diaspora in the Portuguese Indies:The Social World of Ayutthaya (Brill, 2011) and is completing a second monograph entitled Between Illusions and Reality: Two Late Seventeenth-Century Unpublished Missionary Tales from Southeast Asia later this year. He can be reached at


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