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Europe Takes Shape

From Integration's First Steps to Current Questions

Whether through discovery or conflict, Europe's outline has always been a shifting affair. A quick look backwards at its many changes.

Where does the word 'Europe' come from?
Nicole Charbonnel: It was originally a Semitic term, from 'Erev', meaning evening, 'the land where the sun sets', the 'Occident'. This idea can also be found in the myth of the abduction of Europe, which in turn is tied to the Cretan legend of the Minotaur.

How did ancient geographers see Europe?
N.C. The Greeks divided the known world into Asia, Africa and Europe. Europe's southern limits were the Mediterranean, to the east it went as far as the river Tanaïs (the Don), to the southeast to the Phase (now known as the Rioni River, in the Caucasus), but the North was unknown. The Romans ignored this tripartite world in favor of one empire, with the Mediterranean at its center.

Was there any change during the Middle Ages?
We find the tripartite scheme back in use, but much more for symbolic purposes, with Jerusalem at the center, than as a geographic representation. At the same time, we find the Venerable Bede, in the wake of the Battle of Tours (Poitiers) in 732, referring to the Francs as “Europenses”, that is, Christians as opposed to Arabs. Europe denoted therefore the Christian world, but even with this usage much depended on the geopolitical position of the observer. Western and Eastern Europeans continued for a long time to ignore each other at best. For an Occidental, Europe was the land of Roman Christianity as represented for a long time by the empire of Charlemagne. It took the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 to awaken a sense of the unity of the Christian world.

What effect did the discovery of America have on the geographical notion of Europe?
N.C. In the 16th Century, the idea of Europe as a continent appeared for the first time, with the age of exploration. Europe then grew eastwards as Russia was gradually liberated from the Tartars. But the boundary of Europe with Asia would remain vague, with the Volga serving for longtime, then the Urals marking the separation towards the end of the 19th Century. Stalin modified it once again. And as far as the boundary in the Caucasus, it is still unclear.

At what point did a cartographic vision of Europe begin to take hold?
At the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th Century, with the advent of geometric recording of space. Before that time, physical boundaries were largely ignored or subsumed by other ways of organising society such as inclusion and belonging1. The notion of boundaries only made sense with the rise of a sense of nationality.




Nicole Charbonnel
Researcher at the CNRS
Institut d'histoire du droit
CNRS-Université Paris II- Ministère de la Culture

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