Arnold Toynbee’s multi-volume A Study of History is one of the major works of historical scholarship published in the twentieth century. The first volume was published in London in 1934, and subsequent volumes appeared periodically until the twelfth and final volume was published in London in 1961. A two-volume abridgement of volumes 1–10 was prepared by D. C. Somervell with Toynbee’s cooperation and published in 1947 (volume one) and 1957 (volume two) in London.
A Study of History in its original form is a huge work. The first ten volumes contain over six thousand pages and more than three million words. Somervell’s abridgement, containing only about one-sixth of the original, runs to over nine hundred pages. The size of the work is in proportion to the grandeur of Toynbee’s purpose, which is to analyze the genesis, growth, and fall of every human civilization ever known. In Toynbee’s analysis, this amounts to five living civilizations and sixteen extinct ones, as well as several that Toynbee defines as arrested civilizations.
Toynbee detects in the rise and fall of civilizations a recurring pattern, and it is the laws of history behind this pattern that he analyzes in A Study of History.
From the outset, A Study of History was a controversial work. It won wide readership amongst the general public, especially in the United States, and after World War II Toynbee was hailed as a prophet of his times. On the other hand, his work was viewed with skepticism by academic historians, many of whom argued that his methods were unscientific and his conclusions unreliable or simply untrue. Despite these criticisms, however, A Study of History endures as a provocative vision of where humanity has been, and why, and where it may be headed.