world history is the forest

I am firmly convinced of the value of context. The study of history, and increasingly at graduate level, is necessarily vertical, constrained by national, regional, periodical, linguistic, ideational, individual boundaries. You always study the history of something (and you have to). Sometimes, though, study becomes so vertical that you lose sight of the forest. I know ridiculously little about ancient, medieval and Middle Eastern history. My grasp of Roman history is sketchy at best, and of African history, downright embarrassing.

World history is the forest; it lets you know the true dimensions of things, even if on a daily basis you’ll mainly water two or three trees. The following are two unbearably cool world history tools which I will be frequenting.
gives you the forest in one wonderfully designed & user-friendly online package; it even has a subsidiary site that lets you query your own timelines. It’s a work in progress so quite sparse, but still incredibly useful for finding out what else is happening in the world in the period you’re studying, for example. I mean, how else would I have found out that Lenin asked ‘What is to be done’ at around the same time that instant coffee was invented and Beatrice Potter wrote the Tale of Peter Rabbit? Check out their WhatWhenWhere section. And notice that every time you refresh the main page, the banner features new (clickable) historical treasures!

This is like the MEGA VERSION of the above. Less user-friendly & much less pretty, but much richer in scope and detail and consequently, about 400x more nubile. They even sell a WALLMAP OF WORLD HISTORY, a 14″ x 48″ TOTAL TIMELINE. excuse me while I stagger under the hotness.

One tool I really want to see: an automatic timeline-maker that lets me input important dates I pick out as I go through my research, caption and tag it, and puts it in chronological order for me. Is there anything like this out there?

lastly, this isn’t strictly a world history resource, but awesome nonetheless:

Matteo Ricci’s World Map (forest + trees)
I know most of you won’t be able to read this, but it is a HUGE and BEAUTIFUL MAP & an astonishing exercise in total naming. Also brilliantly digitized by Tohoku University. If you drill down to the highest magnification (you can click down twice) you can get a sense of how ridiculously big it is, and how much annotation and detail Ricci put into it. Notice too that the Americas are on the right, rather than the left, which puts China in the middle of the world (where they liked to think of themselves — China, or Zhongguo, after all, means Center or Middle Kingdom) — thereby demonstrating the extent to which Matteo Ricci felt compelled to ass-kiss the Emperor.


2 responses to “world history is the forest

  • oli

    My favourite bits on the Ricci map are the comments he puts next to places of interest- usually summarising the politics, resources or exports of the region.

    But next to the British Isles all he says is:
    “England has no poisonous snakes or insects. Even if you bring some in from elsewhere they loose their poison on arriving in the country.”

    I guess England in 1602 was so irrelevant to China (and not part of the Catholic West that Ricci said he represented) that you may as well just stick in some trivia.

  • Jason

    Wow, thanks for that oli.

    Regarding your question about timeline tools, Rachel, what I do is use a blog, with years as categories. So for example I would make a post about the Battle of Hastings and it would be in the category 1066.

    I can’t think of a less clunky way to do it and AFAIK there are no specific tools out there to do this in.

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