Many Worlds: A History of Humanity Before ca. 1800



Fall 2013

HIST 2001

Many Worlds: A History of Humanity Before ca. 1800

Joseph C. Miller

HIST 2001 explores “world history” as a composite of many different worlds of experience all around the globe before approximately the middle third of the nineteenth century.  Arguably, these diverse networks of awareness and action have since become embedded in a much larger, even global, world to degrees that make these earlier eras of multiplicity places qualitatively different from our familiar modern era.  The course is therefore an exercise in thinking outside the “box” of modernity, of seeing others’ worlds in their terms, often radically different from the one in which we now live.

HIST 2001 thus endeavors to translate the apparent exoticism of Native America, ancient Egypt, Hinduism, Africa, medieval Europe, and other seemingly remote times and places into terms readily recognizable to undergraduates at the University of Virginia.  The method of making these connections across time, space, and cultures is a historical one, in which the course works from universals of the human experience – ephemerality, or time itself, limited awareness of the contexts in which we all, always act, our needs for the security of belonging, of being respected, and the relative accessibility of resources with which to act efficaciously.  These principles of historical thought allow us to understand how people have accomplished the changes basic to history’s narrative style as consequences (often unintended) of intelligibly motivated initiatives.  This is not a course in ethics – what people should have done, and decidedly not a valorization of what modern western Europeans turned out to have done in the two short centuries after the course ends – but rather a study of what people everywhere, for all their human limitations, ended up doing, for better (at least for some) and – all too often, for others – for worse.

The resolutely historical framework of HIST 2001 critiques most of most of the literature in world history, fundamentally focused on sociological abstractions (e.g. “empires”, “nations”), most of them creations of the recent, modern era, rather than on how people around the world acted in the quite different circumstances in which they found themselves.  We will therefore read a recent, excellent example of the conventional approach to “world history”, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s The World: A History, but develop interpretive emphases significantly different from those in the text;  the contrast between the text and lectures reveals the premises of historical thinking – or should think historically, since surprisingly few of them actually do.

Students will write short analytical “take-home points” at the conclusion of every class.  Weekly short map quizzes on current readings, taken in discussion sections, will encourage awareness of the geographical contexts of all human history.  Written requirements include periodic short “position papers” reflecting on the course content as it develops.  These exercises make examinations unnecessary;  there will be none.  All student writing will be considered intensely and analytically.  The final exercise will be a take-home essay responding to a single question: “Having spent a semester looking through historical lenses at the many worlds in which people lived before the modern era, how do you now explain the many similarities and the differences among them, as well as between any, or all, of them and us?”

There are no pre-requisites.  HIST 2001 fulfills the “non-western” and “historical perspectives” area requirements of the College, and meets the secondary-school certification requirement in world history in the Commonwealth of Virginia.  The course offers an introduction to historical thinking and frames the array of regional courses in the curriculum of the Department of History, including North America and Europe.  The modern era is covered in a succeeding course, HIST 2002, offered in the spring semester.



Corcoran Department of History
University of Virginia
Nau Hall - South Lawn
Charlottesville, VA 22904



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