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Reviewed by:
  • Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History
  • Herbert F. Ziegler
Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History. Edited by William H. McNeill et al.Great Barrington, Mass.: Berkshire Publishing, 2005. 2,500 pp. $575 (cloth).

The Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History is neither the first nor the only encyclopedic reference work on world history. Indeed, the authoritative guide to all of human history has for decades been the best-selling Encyclopedia of World History,1 and its roots date back to the late nineteenth century. Originally compiled and edited by William L. Langer, but now under the general editorship of the distinguished world historian Peter N. Stearns, this one-volume ready reference packs more than twenty thousand entries into a big book (1,243 pages). Ideas and factual details pertaining to human history are organized chronologically and grouped by geographic region. The work is particularly strong on biographical entries. Thus, for example, a quick check on Charles the Fat, also known as Charles III, Holy Roman Emperor (881–887), reveals that he "failed to aid the gallant Odo [the Marquis of Neustria and King of the West Franks] against the Northmen" and was subsequently deposed as emperor in 887 (p. 177). No such similar entries appear in the pages of the Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History, which adopts a completely different approach to chronicling the history of the world.

Trying to cover as broad a subject as world history in five volumes seems well-nigh impossible, but the editors and their contributors have accomplished this with grace and poise. William H. McNeill, the senior editor of the Berkshire Encyclopedia and doyen of world history in North America, candidly admits that no single approach to the writing [End Page 235] of world history exists and likely never will. Thus, readers may look in vain for a pronunciamento on world history or for any abstract discussions of the field. Instead, readers are simply made aware that the authors are united in their commitment to discuss their subjects from "a world history perspective," meaning that at the very least they have always endeavored to show connections and interactions between their subject and others, and to document changes over time and spaces.

What really tells the story is how the editors, all of whom are practitioners of world history, organized the content of the five-volume Berkshire Encyclopedia. From the outset the editors eschewed two common organizational schemes: chronological and regional approaches. They wisely avoided a chronological approach, because most world historians likely emphasize developments and connections that transcend rigid chronological frameworks. Moreover, there is really no consensus among world historians on what constitutes a discrete historical era in global terms. Likewise, they rejected a regional approach because many subjects dear to world historians—migrations, long-distance trade, or the spread of diseases, for instance—resist categorization into rigidly constructed geographical boundaries. In the final analysis, the editors settled on a combination of an alphabetical and topical approach.

One of the editors, David Christian, sets the tone in volume 1 with a 56-page essay, "This Fleeting World," which provides an overview of human history, from the foraging and agrarian eras through the modern era. For reasons not entirely obvious, the same essay is repeated at the end of volume 5. The actual content of this 2,500-page-long work and its 538 entries can be accessed in three different ways. First, there is the traditional mode of looking up entries that have been arranged alphabetically. A generous number of cross references and blind entries make this approach easy and inviting. Another way to approach the content of the work is to turn to the "Reader's Guide" that is found at the opening of each volume. Here, all alphabetical entries are presented thematically within the framework of thirty-four categories, and these categories reflect the Berkshire Encyclopedia's mission to engage the reader with world history. This schema permits the reader to focus on entries related to topics such as "Cultural Contacts and Relations," "Commerce," or "Migration." Oddly, the subject of revolution is not among these thirty-four categories, though there are nine alphabetical entries on the subject, ranging from revolution in Haiti to...


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