What is Universal about History?
By Natalie Zemon Davis
Transnationale Geschichte. Themen, Tendenzen und Theorien, edited by Gunilla Budde, Sebastian Conrad, and Oliver Janz(Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2006)
Introduction: Universal history has been written in many settings. For example, al-Mas’udi of Baghdad travelled far beyond Dar al-Islam in the tenth century and his books of history and geography covered varied features of the earth’s surface, its peoples, and their paths. “History is the record of human social organization, which is identical with world civilization”, wrote Ibn Khaldun in the late fourteenth century (from the Hijra the late eighth century). The volumes of this “Book of Examples” covered the pre-Islamic world and Muslim societies from east to west, with occasional forays into Christian Europe, even while concentrating on the Berbers and Arabs of North Africa.
Ibn Khaldun used two modes in his writing. On the one hand, he described relations between peoples through migration, the exchange of ideas and techniques, and conquest. On the other hand, he compared diverse social formations and institutions so as to develop a theory of the historical state and “a science of civilization.”
History, he said, was eagerly sought throughout the world, by common people and rulers fascinated to hear of changes in human affairs and the expansion, rise and fall of dynasties. But history was also sought by the learned for its “inner meaning”, “explanation of the causes and origins of existing things, and deep knowledge of how and why of events.”
Top Image: Detail of the globe from The Ambassadors by Holbein 1533