There's a sense in which the 16th century was a `lost' period in French history. Given its size, position and relative state of development, it was perfectly placed to exploit the multifarious opportunities for development that the Renaissance flowering of humanist culture offered. And yet, as this thorough history - which starts with the 1483 ascent to the throne of Charles VIII and ends in 1610 with the assassination of Henry IV - shows, it failed to flourish. This was largely due, author Robert Knecht argues, to a combination of related factors: misguided foreign wars and territorial disputes, dynastic quarrels, and - primarily - the ruinous civil wars of religion, including the savage St. Bartholomew's Day massacre.
Such considerations understandably structure Knecht's compendious history of the country during this period. And within the bounds of those structures, it's a satisfying read. But while there are some fascinatingly detailed excursions into the literary and intellectual culture of the period, including the burgeoning of high Renaissance culture in France consequent on Charles VIII's military forays into Italy, these are all too brief (and those into popular culture briefer still). It's the court, or rather courts (of the Bourbons/House of Navarre and the Guise), court politics and court intrigues that take centre stage. We learn comparatively little of the social history of ordinary folk, the `menu peuple' - and still less of the peasantry of the time. It's a very `male' history, too - there's scant indication of the true significance of remarkable female intellects and power-brokers like Jeanne d'Albret (later Jeanne de Navarre), for example. But for all these limitations, it remains a reasonable introduction to a fascinating, if turbulent and largely regressive, period in French history.