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WH McNeil

18 July 2016
Inside science

William H McNeil died this week (July 15th) age 98 years – a very good innings. He was the author of 'Plagues and Peoples' (which I have somewhere, probably in the attic) and 'The Rise of the West' (for which he was both applauded and criticised). He was the son of a theologian and historian of medieval history. McNeil Perceived his scholarship as a secular version of his father's Christian views – and in no way critical. His wife's father was a close friend of Arnold Toynbee, the Marxist historian. McNeil came to London to assist in a project about WWII – but left disillusioned with Toynbee, a couple of years later. Whereas Toynebee was obsessed with the decline of the West McNeil on the other hand focussed on the 'rise' of the West – especially after 1500AD (when the Muslim and Chinese cultures exhibited stagnation).

It seems Toynbee was overrated and McNeil seems to have considered him a sloppy scholar. One can imagine this as Toynbee was more famous for his platform than the substance of his work. You rarely see historians quote Toynbee nowadays and his historical work is more or less dead and buried. I suppose it might be resurrected by a future generation but in general adopting a political point of view, however fashionable at the time, tends to date your scholarship. McNeil's work, on the other hand, has stood the test of time. He has collaborated with his son, JR McNeil (keeping the family tradition alive) in 'The Human Web: A Bird's Eye View of History' (2003). See http://phys.org/print387595441.html

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