Histoire : The Importance of Global History


“What is the use of history?”, Serge Gruzinski answers the question with a plea for global history as an antidote to methodological nationalism and a self-complacent Eurocentrism. Global history offers another perspective on globalisation.

In the foreword to his book, French historian Serge Gruzinski explains how he found himself going back to his hometown, the cosmopolitan working-class city of Roubaix, where he was invited by a teacher of history and geography to meet students and answer their questions about one of the topics in the curriculum for history (year 11/tenth grade) – New Geographical and Cultural Horizons of Europeans in Modern Times – Gruzinski being one of the best specialists on the topic. The students had read his book, The Eagle and the Dragon (2012, 2014 for the English version), in an attempt to apprehend the various situations – encounters, exchanges and misunderstandings – that occurred during the conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards and a failed Portuguese expedition to China in the 16th century. This approach enabled the students to adopt a decentred perspective on history and keep off the beaten tracks of “a self-complacent Eurocentrism”(p. 14).

In the course of the discussion, a simple but essential question arose, which would be provocative were it not ingenuous: “What is the use of history?”. This question, which challenges both the practice and the discipline of history, echoes the question Marc Bloch recalls at the beginning of his famous book, The Historian’s Craft (Apologie pour l’histoire ou métier d’historien, 1949) – “Tell me, Daddy. What is the use of history?” – hoping the book would provide an answer.

In his attempt to answer the question, Serge Gruzinski chose to write in a way that would make his essay accessible to readers beyond a narrow circle of specialists. The book reads easily and follows a pedagogical approach: it is composed of eight short chapters and an epilogue. The first four chapters question the various representations of the past in our contemporary globalized society, while in the light of past practices the next four set out the raison d’être of history. The answer assumes the shape of a plea for global history, which is the only form of history that makes possible a comprehensive understanding of the world as it is and as such that has any relevance.

Political and artistic usages of the past