Sleuthing the Origins of “Global History”

History does not repeat itself. The historians repeat one another.

—Max Beerbohm, 1896.

Historians are often charged — sometimes correctly — with precipitously proclaiming a “new” field of study: a field that, upon further investigation, is shown to be remarkably similar to earlier turns in the historiographical timeline. The post-colonial and subaltern “turns” of the 1980s are cases in point, as they, however unwittingly, tended to ignore the prodigious and overlapping work within Area Studies that had appeared in preceding decades. I duly began to wonder if the term “global history” might prove to be yet another illustrative example.

Indeed, in recent months, historiographical debates have arisen at the New Global History Forum, the Imperial & Global Forum, and the New Republic, among others, over the promises and perils of the growing field of global history. Despite our disagreements, there was common consensus that “global history” was a relatively new historiographical phenomenon that arose in the 1990s — and one that rose in popularity in the early 2000s.[1]

But is “global history” really so new?

To be clear, I am referring in this particular essay specifically to the use of the term “global history.” This is not to suggest that global historians over the past two decades have ignored earlier iterations of global-trotting approaches to history. A. G. Hopkins, for instance, has found a “long tradition of grand historical enquiry” stretching back to the 14th-century north African scholar Ibn Khaldun; Karen O’Brien has pointed to the cosmopolitan Enlightenment “universalism” of Voltaire, Gibbon, and Kant; and Martin Pitts and Miguel Versluys are even now pushing the history of globalization back to the Roman world.[2] So too can we find variations of what we might now call global approaches within Braudel’s longue duree (1920s-1960s), or Frank’s dependency theory, (1960s-1970s), or Wallerstein’s world-systems theories (1970s-1990s).

So if we can grant that global historical approaches are not entirely “new” to the past couple decades, what about the term “global history” itself?

I ran to my bookshelf (okay, I walked), and grabbed some of the classics of global history that have appeared in the last twenty or so years. I then turned to their bibliographies, perusing them to see how early the dates went for “global history” texts — narrowly defined in this detective exercise as books that contained some version or variation of “global history” somewhere in the title.

If I were to trust this my brief bibliography test, the evidence would suggest that the term “global history” was indeed a rather new phenomenon.

Not to be put off, however, I digitally dug a bit deeper via Google Books and Worldcat, and, lo and behold! I came across a slew of books of “global history” that had appeared as early as the 1960s and 1970s.

I also was surprised to note that the use of the term “global history” itself appears to have been somewhat en vogue from the mid 1970s to early 1980s — more than a few years before the more well known global turn of the 1990s and early 2000s.

graph showing the increase in use of "global history" between 1975 and 1980 and again after 1985.
Figure 1: Google Ngram tracking the term “global history” since the 1970s. Notice the early spike from the mid ‘70s to early ‘80s.

Here is but a quick sampling from the first “age” of global historiography:

  • Hans Kohn, The Age of Nationalism: the First Age of Global History (1962)
  • John C. Plott, Global History of Philosophy (1963)
  • Lester H. Brune, Origins of Tomorrow: Readings in Global History (2 vols, 1969)
  • Leften Starvros Stavrianos, A Global History of Man (1974)
  • Gerald Walsh, A Global History: 1870 to the Present (1975)

To be fair, some of these books appear to be geared more as elementary textbooks — and it is duly recognized that perhaps some are outdated. Nevertheless, it is striking that none of these texts appear within the more recent work that has so successfully helped direct the global turn: not even as a historiographical aside.

Finding these Cold-War-era forerunners of the post-Cold-War “global history” harkened me back to the 1896 quote of English writer Max Beerbohm with which I started this piece. Rather fittingly, it seems he was not the first to make this observation about historians repeating one another. When researching the origins of Beerbohm’s quote, I came across an even earlier enunciation, this one apparently from an 1868 edition of the Louisville Courier: “History will, of course, go on repeating itself, and the historians repeating each other.”

Whatever else I might take away from my brief exercise in “global history” sleuthing, it was a good self-reminder to take care before claiming something is entirely “new”; chances are good that another historian has already beaten you to it.


[1] Maxine Berg similarly starts off her 2012 edited volume Writing the History of the Global: Challenges for the Twenty-First Century by observing that “’Global history’ encompasses a new approach to historical writing which has emerged during the past fifteen years.” Maxine Berg, ed., Writing the History of the Global: Challenges for the Twenty-First Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 1.

[2] A. G. Hopkins, “The History of Globalization—and the Globalization of History?” in Globalization in World History, edited by A. G. Hopkins (New York: W. W. Norton, 2002), 14; Karen O’Brien, Narratives of Enlightenment: Cosmopolitan History from Voltaire to Gibbon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997); Martin Pitts and Miguel John Versluys, eds., Globalisation in the Roman World: Archaeological and Theoretical Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming, 2014). For universalism, see also Manfred Kossock, “From Universal History to Global History,” in Bruce Mazlish and Ralph Buultjens, eds., Conceptualising Global History (Boulder, 1993).

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