Former Laureates

William Mcneill

William Mcneill


The 1996 Erasmus Prize was awarded in the area where history and sociology overlap. As a framework for our understanding of history, the social sciences are growing in importance, displacing purely political history.

The choice of the American scholar William McNeill (1917) as recipient for the Erasmus Prize was based on the pioneering work he has done in the field of world history. His work has broadened our historical perspective in both space and time, thus giving new impetus to both history and the social sciences. His approach has enabled him to address extremely wide-ranging problems without sacrificing scholarship and accuracy in the least. He has shown that the perspective of world history reveals relationships on a larger scale and can bring new light on episodes in the history of individual countries and continents. This in turn gives us a better understanding of such troublesome phenomena as epidemics, ethnic conflicts and environmental pollution. His most important work is The Rise of the West, A History of the Human Community, in which he explains how the contact between the various civilisations has been a driving force behind historical developments. The concepts ‘group’ and ‘interaction’ play a fundamental role. McNeill applies this principle to the role of war and weapons (The Pursuit of Power), of epidemics (Plagues and People), and of ethnicity and pluralism (Polyethnicity and National Unity in World History). Other important works include Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History; The Human Web, A Bird’s Eye View of the World History; and the biography Arnold Toynbee, A Life.

Professor McNeill gave half of his prize money to Andrew Sherratt of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford in order to help fund his book Global Change: an Archaeological Perspective on World History. The other half was shared by Professor Johan Goudsblom and Dr Fred Spier (University of Amsterdam) for their research in world history.