" Historians are left forever chasing shadows,
painfully aware of their inability ever to reconstruct a dead
world in its completeness however thorough or revealing their
documentation. We are doomed to be forever hailing someone who
has just gone around the corner and out of earshot."
"Afterword," Dead Certainties (1991).
Simon Schama was born in London in February 1945 into a Jewish
family - both sets of grandparents had fled persecution, one from
the remnants of the Ottoman empire, the other from Lithuania.
Immigration, movement, cultural collision are part of his
experience and are central themes in his work.
His father was a textile merchant who did well enough after
the war for the family to move out to Essex, where they lived
near Leigh-on-Sea. The young Schama enjoyed the non-kosher
delights of Southend - he calls it "gloriously lurid" and
salivates over the "flaccid, vinegar-saturated chips" and
"cylinders of Day-Glo-pink rock candy" - and he eulogised the
visual pleasures of the Thames estuary in Landscape and Memory.
One of his father's periodic financial disasters necessitated a
move back to London, to a more modest house in Golders Green, but
Schama's intellectual progress was secure. He won a scholarship
to Haberdashers' Aske's school, was captivated by a series of
inspirational teachers, and shone at English and history, opting
to study the latter at Christ's College, Cambridge, but never
quite forgetting the former. His writing career and the way he
commutes between art history and history reflect his fertile
marriage of the two disciplines.
At Cambridge he fell under the spell of Plumb, whose 60's
students - Linda Colley, Roy Porter, John Brewer - now dominate
British historical thinking. Plumb instilled in his students the
importance of style and a commitment to narrative; he "taught us
that writing was not just an auxiliary to research, wanted people
outside the academy to read history, wanted it to be
entertaining," Schama has said.
Schama, with his starred first, immediately became a fellow at
Christ's, but without tenure. He stayed for 10 years, his
contract perpetually renewed, teaching, delivering a famously
vivid set of lectures on the French revolution - complete with
funny voices, waving arms and impersonations of Marat - and
working on the book that became Patriots and Liberators, a fairly
conventional treatment of the impact of the French revolution on
Holland for which he was awarded the Wolfson Prize for
The expected tenured job at Cambridge never came, so in 1976
he took a fellowship at Brasenose, Oxford. He stayed for only
four years before, tired of the teaching, the syllabus and the
lottery that was the exam system ("I felt like a gerbil on a
treadmill"), he headed for a professorship at Harvard, where a
year earlier he had delivered a set of lectures on the
Civilization of the Netherlands exploring themes that would later
resurface in The Embarrassment of Riches, the 1987 history of the
Dutch golden age that cemented his reputation and, some believe,
is his most perfect fusion of historical narrative and cultural
After The Embarrassment of Riches, Schama wrote Citizens: A
Chronicle of the French Revolution. Commissioned by Penguin and
written at breakneck speed, it was a triumph, admired everywhere
except France where, in the revolution's bicentenary year, they
found it hard to stomach his argument that from the beginning it
had been the harbinger of terror, a "sacrament of blood". He was
accused of Fukuyama-style revisionism, but denied the charge: he
was, he insisted, no conservative, no apologist for the ancien
regime; he told one interviewer he was on the right in the old
Labour party, on the left in the new.
In 1991, his confidence and the urge to experiment growing, he
produced Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations), a curious
hybrid of fact and fiction linking the death of General Wolfe in
1759 with the trial for murder of a Boston professor in 1849. It
was bold, imaginative, daring - and almost universally
From 1995-98, Schama was art critic and cultural essayist for
The New Yorker magazine. In 1996 he produced a television series
called Landscape and Memory - fact, certainly, but fact presented
in a uniquely imaginative, coruscating way. Reviewers entered
their caveats and readers struggled with its sheer munificence -
it posed as many questions as it answered - but the book sold
well and won plaudits and prizes. Schama had become a
He is a populariser of history, but never dumbs down. His
books are by no means easy reading. As his friend Antonia Fraser
says: "If he wanted to achieve great popular success, he has a
funny way of going about it." But his books do strike a chord and
appeal to a large general audience; his wonderful titles, the
breadth and humanity of his vision, the scale of his enterprise,
the willingness to fail set him apart from other historians. He
has become part of the cultural conversation in the US and the
UK, and the plugged-in classes want to read him, or will at least
buy his books with that intention.
The first batch of the 'A History of Britain' series of
documentaries that were produced for the BBC to mark the
Millenium were broadcast in autumn 2000. A second batch, screened
spring 2001, took the story up to the end of the eighteenth
century, and the series subsequently concluded with a look back
at the last 200 years. The series was, in part, the odyssey of
Schama as a returning exile, and in part a portrait of a society
built on layers of immigration, exploring the tensions between
sometimes competing cultural groups and the way identity is
forged on the anvil of difference.
Everyone says that Schama is "brilliant", but the word is
nuanced depending on who is saying it. His friends, of course,
mean it. Take the historian Peter Hennessy, who has known him
since they were at Cambridge together in the 60s. "He gets arcane
matters to walk, in fact to dance, off the page," says Hennessy.
"He was always like that, and to sustain that degree of verve
over three decades is amazing. He was very precocious - I always
knew he would be a star; he had brilliance and bubble, and nobody
does narrative better than him."
A leading British historian who prefers not to be named also
calls Schama "brilliant" and "engaging", but the meaning he gives
those words is rather less flattering. "Academics tend to be
quite sniffy about his work," he says. "He isn't engaged in quite
the same project as the academic historian. He is concerned to
present the past in a vivid fashion - which is not what academics
are supposed to do. Their approach tends to be more analytical.
He is in the tradition of Macaulay and principally concerned to
evoke atmospheres. But the danger of that is that the imagination
takes over; we just don't know enough about the past to be able
to do it." Sometimes, perhaps, one can be a little too
Popular European History pages
The preparation of these pages was influenced to some degree by a particular "Philosophy
of History" as suggested by this quote from the famous Essay "History" by Ralph Waldo Emerson:-
There is one mind common to all individual men...
Of the works of this mind history is the record. Its genius is
illustrated by the entire series of days. Man is explicable by
nothing less than all his history. Without hurry, without rest,
the human spirit goes forth from the beginning to embody every
faculty, every thought, every emotion, which belongs to it in
appropriate events. But the thought is always prior to the fact;
all the facts of history preexist in the mind as laws. Each law
in turn is made by circumstances predominant, and the limits of
nature give power to but one at a time. A man is the whole
encyclopaedia of facts. The creation of a thousand forests is in
one acorn, and Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, Britain, America, lie
folded already in the first man. Epoch after epoch, camp,
kingdom, empire, republic, democracy, are merely the application
of his manifold spirit to the manifold world.
- 1 The European Revolution of 1848 begins
- A broad outline of the background to the onset of the turmoils and a consideration of some of the early events.
- 2 The French Revolution of 1848
- A particular focus on France - as the influential Austrian minister Prince Metternich, who sought to encourage the re-establishment of "Order" in the wake of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic turmoils of 1789-1815, said:-"When France sneezes Europe catches a cold".
- 3 The Revolution of 1848 in the German Lands and central Europe
- "Germany" had a movement for a single parliament in 1848 and many central European would-be "nations" attempted
to assert a distinct existence separate from the dynastic sovereignties they had been living under.
- 4 The "Italian" Revolution of 1848
- A "liberal" Papacy after 1846 helps allow the embers of an "Italian" national aspiration to rekindle across the Italian Peninsula.
- 5 The Monarchs recover power 1848-1849
- Some instances of social and political extremism allow previously pro-reform conservative elements to support
the return of traditional authority. Louis Napoleon, (who later became the Emperor Napoleon III), attains to power
in France offering social stability at home but ultimately follows policies productive of dramatic change in the wider European
structure of states and their sovereignty.