on 21 March 2007
Davies writes a superb book which is a wonderful antedote to all the horrendous old anglocentric histories I remember reading years ago. In my opinion Davies correctly emphasises the importance of all the constituent parts of the Isles. The book begins by examining the prehistory of the isles and I note that one other reviewer states that he felt this chapter to be a waste of time, concentrating on the minutae of an obscure academic argument. The opening chapter and its discussion readily puts over the point that when talking about place names etc., we cannot remove ourselves from a preconception of history and inevitably produces bias. If that reviewer had persisted with the book I suspect he/she may have got the point by the end.
The book then enters a more traditional history beginning with the Celtic domination of the Isles and proceeding through Roman, Saxon, Norse, Norman and Plantagenet eras of (attempted) domination. With each period there is a three part chapter consisting of a "scene setting" episode, the meat of the history and then a review of conceptions, misconceptions and previous views on those eras. The first part of the chapters are always excellent, the second as good but the third parts tend to be inconsistent, some good some rather tedious. Overall though the layout is good and the appendices at the end are wonderful, having the lyrics and music to various "nationalistic" tunes is a wonderfully original idea.
Criticisms of the book are minor in comparison to its overall impact, but here goes. There appeared to me numerous typos in the book ranging from mis-spelling to factual inaccuracies. Whilst this can be forgiven, they did seem to get more frequent towards the end as if the proofreader had gone to sleep. There were inaccuracies and omissions in some of the genealogies notably the suggestion that James II and VII was the son of Charles II, that the old pretender was Charles and many others. The other criticism is that I would have preferred to see more on the more modern history of the non-English parts of the Isles (a large part of the tradition of South Wales for example depends on its mild rebelliousness, eg. Chartist rebellion (Chartism got one sentence), Rebecca riots (never mentioned) and the rise of the unions. These aspects of modern history are far more resonant to the people of South Wales than the musings of early 20th century Welsh language poets important as the language issue is. The history of the struggle to free Ireland is also much too brief.
Overall though I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in afair history of the Isles.
on 30 May 2002
This book is a marvel. I enjoyed it thoroughly. Each chapter is memorable for the quality of the writing and the interesting facts and anecdotes which help to memorise what's going on. However, I found the maps were incomplete so I read it in conjunction with the Penguin Atlas of British and Irish History. I was also disappointed that the manner of the writing underwent a change after the 1700s and it seemed like the author assumed the reader knew the history from 1700s on (which in my case was not true) and wrote some chapters simply commenting on the history rather than explaining it. This said, I can't wait to start it a second time. Thanks Mr. Davies for a wonderful read.
on 8 March 2000
With this his latest book Norman Davies has set the seal on his claim to be the foremost popular British historian of our times. This makes it all the more unfortunate that he perpetuates the old idea history is nothing more than the history of the governing elite. That is the subject matter of this this book. The other 99% of the British and Irish peoples, and the great historical forces which moulded them, hardly get a look in.
For example, dynastic politics in the late medieval period are covered in detail, with all the crownings, marriages, enfoeffments, rebellions and inheritances carefully recorded. But the Black Death, which utterly transformed the lives and economic relationships of everyone alive at the time and for centuries to come, is only briefly described and not discussed at all. The Irish Famine of the 1840's is referred to a couple of times, but not even described let alone discussed. The Industrial Revolution, surely the most important event since the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago - and a uniquely British event at its beginning - is given approximately the same amount of space as a detailed account of the habits of the British aristocracy!
This approach to history may have been appropriate in an age when literacy was the preserve of a privilaged minority who were mainly interested in the doings of thier noble ancestors. But it 's woefully inadequate for the 21st century. It's an upstairs-downstairs version of history. It regards all the really important information about the past as 'social history', an inferior branch of the subject, to be treated with disdain by gentlemen historians. Their task is to make an intricate study of which individuals happened to be top dog at any particular time.
As an attempt to redress the anglocentrism of other historians the book must be counted a success, but only a partial one. For example, the author seems to lose interest in the Republic of Ireland as soon as it left the UK. The relative economic decline of the UK during the past half century is discussed in detail over several pages, while the Irish economic boom of the last decade is refered to a couple of times, but not described or discussed. The remarkable historical fact that the Irish per capita income is now higher than the British is apparently a matter of indifference to the author.
Having said all that, it is a remarkably well written book, and definitely a good read. It's no mean feat to sum up such an enormous subject in one volume without the writing either bcoming vague or beginning to look like a series of lists, and Norman Davies avoids both these pitfalls. He can write a good story, and here he has written one which flows on over an enormous timescale without ever losing its immediacy or interest. Though I found myself constantly irritated by his choice of subject matter, I enjoyed reading the book very much, and feel I have had a new and distinctive view of the history of these islands which I could not have got elsewhere.
on 7 April 2004
this is an excellent history of britain and ireland that delves into our shared history. it stands out from the crowd for three reasons:
i) davies questions every preconceived notion of national or historical identity (britishness, celtic-ness, etc.)
ii) context: every event or group of events that has taken place on these isles is put into its greater context. for instance, the author brilliantly evokes the world of the vikings and what it was that drove them to expand their world. the supporting maps are invaluable in this respect, and the reach of the book is illustrated by the fact that davies doesn't draw the line at, for instance, a map of the vikings' activity in these isles, but also a map of their scandinavian world.
iii) structure: the book is organised in chronologically ordered sections. in each section davies hypothesises what it might have been like to live in those times through well-crafted vignettes, then analyses the known history of the period, before going on to examine the many differing interpretations of that history. this approach not only makes us think about the period under examination, but is also a consideration on the nature of 'history as interpretation' itself.
it is undoubtedly a very ambitious book, and its length may seem daunting. but it is also a very readable book, and i'd go as far as to say an essential read for those interested in our shared histories.
The British Isles are a unique geographical location in the world, having been provided by nature with advantages and problems unique in the world, and peopled by various groups who have worked together and against one another for domination of the Isles. Only for the briefest periods in history did the Isles truly represent a unified group, and even these times were more of an appearance of unity rather than actual unification.
Norman Davies, author of the critically acclaimed `Europe: A History', has put together an interesting history of the British Isles, trying to portray them as a group that, while lacking unity, should be at least addressed as a unified group, always influencing and co-dependent upon each other.
Davies is rather modest in his self-description of the book:
`This book necessarily presents a very personal view of history. Indeed, by some academic standards, it may well be judged thoroughly unsound. As I wrote in relation to a previous work, it presents the past 'seen through one pair of eyes, filtered by one brain, and recorded by one pen'. It has been assembled by an author who, though being a British citizen and a professional historian, has no special expertise in the British historical field.'
Davies self-criticism is really far too strongly expressed here, for he does an admirably thorough job at documentation, reporting, and theorising. Taking a cue from other historians who worry about the increasing lack of historical knowledge of the general public coupled with the increasing specialisation which causes people to lose proper perspective, Davies has put together a comprehensive history of the British Isles which strives to escape at least some of the problems of previous histories.
For instance, it has only been within the last generation that 'English History' has come to be seen as an inaccurate term for discussion of the affairs of all the Isles, or even for the history of the largest island, Great Britain. To this day, anomalies exist that confuse the status of the islands (all cars in the United Kingdom, for instance, carry the plate coding GB, even those cars in Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom that is not part of Great Britain, etc.). Davies takes great care to distinguish English from Scot from Pict from Irish from British, which has a meaning close to the commonly-used term for only the most ancient and the most modern British events.
This does, I must confess, occasionally get in the way of the narrative history. While explaining his reasoning up front in the introduction or preface makes sense, the constant referring to this state of affairs interrupts the flow of the narrative a bit more than it perhaps should.
Davies takes a long-term approach, starting with prehistorical evidence for inhabitation of the areas which are now the British Isles (which used to be connected to the mainland), getting into real substance with the arrival of the Celts in the British Isles (the longest-tenured remaining people in the Isles, pushed to the periphery but still influential in many ways), which for a period of six to seven centuries may have the been the longest period of unity and stability the Isles have ever, or will ever, know. However, even these groups were not unified in a political sense, and tribal warfare was common on all the main islands among competing groups.
Davies proceeds to explore the history of the British Isles under the Romans, during the Germanic invasion/migrations, during the Norse/Viking invasions/raids, during the Norman conquest, and then to the period of English hegemony. The period of English hegemony consists of three primary period: the 'Three Kingdoms' period (England, Ireland, and Scotland); the Union period (which various includes Ireland in union with a unified England and Scotland), and the post-Imperial time, which has seen an increasing move toward devolution, beginning with Irish independence and continuing toward separate parliaments for the 'nations'.
`In all but name, therefore, the policy of devolution had been accepted by the Thatcher government in the cultural and educational sphere many years before it was adopted in the constitutional sphere by 'New Labour'. The cumulative effects were bound to be far-reaching. The Scots and the Welsh, and to some extent the Northern Irish, were given a strong injection not only of self-esteem but also of separation.'
Davies tackles difficult questions and problems that are not typical of standard histories, especially where speculation into the possible future of the British Isles is concerned. As the United Kingdom has never been a nation-state in the same sense as continental nations, what does this mean for the future of the Union? Will the British Isles once again become a collection of peoples, owing more allegiance to the broader, historically-newly forming European Union than toward each other politically, while still maintaining trade and social ties that are incredibly strong? Only time will tell.
A biased history, to be sure, but a very unique insight, and well worth reading for a broader perspective on the history of the peoples of the British Isles than most 'British history' or 'English history' books will give.
on 29 September 2013
I have yet to finish the book but am nearly there. It is not the detailed history of these Isles I hoped to see but I admit that would be stretching the abilities of a little over ONE thousand pages. However, there is so much argument to support a theme that the historical content suffers and with my non-historian depth of knowledge it seems to overlookthings I have a vague recollection of reading about that would 'get in the way' of some of his arguments. Nevertheless, this is a very interesting and thought provoking book that makes me want to go out and research further - but is this because it stimulates me or that I can't really accept his arguments. Whichever, it doesn't matter because it has made me think and I like that in my reading.
on 24 June 2016
This fat tome is a long, scholarly work with remarkable scope and breadth which attempts to detail in a rambling style the history of the British Isles from the pre-dawn of history to the early twenty-first century. There are some fascinating extracts from early texts and detailed explorations of mythic and poetic strands.
Somewhat strangely, the author cannot restrain himself from frequently denigrating and deconstructing the English identity. Why this should be so is not very clear to us, but in his strangely biased view, Celtic, Welsh, Scottish, French, European, indeed almost any other identity is worthy of respect, but according to him the English identity is a miserable hodgepodge of mis-matched, overblown, ill-conceived, vainglory. He takes great pains to undermine ideas close to the English heart, such as Robin Hood, Magna Carta, Common Law, Parliament, the Empire, etc.
Somewhat in mitigation, we would say that this work should appeal to those of a strong socialist persuasion, as such readers are usually keen to conjure a more international, multicultural future in which an outdated English identity would be more or less swallowed up.
In its essence, Englishness is a spiritual quality and a language. Norman Davies has a house in Oxford, is a professor at University College London and writes this book in our magnificent English tongue, so he should be aware that by attacking Englishness, he is destabilising the very foundation that supports and gives meaning to his work. Not so many centuries ago, he might well have found himself charged with treason for writing stuff like this and confined to the Tower, or worse!
He has for a long time been madly in love with Poland and waxes sentimental and eulogistic about its equally checkered history. For his special pains he has been showered with gifts and honours by a grateful Polish people. How about doing the same for old England for a change, Norman?
Ultimately, we found the book a very depressing read. Quite frankly, we felt that it would be unkind to pass it on to anyone else. We therefore placed it carefully on the flames in our wood-burning stove; it is such a big, heavy book that it warmed the house for several hours, thus The Isles showed us its positive side.
on 2 April 2014
This is a magnificent book; a history of the British and Irish Isles from the dawn of time to the present day (when it was written in the late 90s) in a single volume, offering a perspective not just on 'traditional' English (British) history, but also including Ireland, Scotland, Wales and to a lesser extent the other nations of the islands. Norman Davies is a tremendous author and writes with clear authority even on subjects he is plainly not an expert in.
The book begins with an imaginative account of the Cheddar Man, known only from a Neolithic skeleton found in the famous caves in Somerset, and ends with an extended essay on where the future of the United Kingdom may be heading (and seems remarkably prescient in this year of the Scottish referendum). In between, the book is divided into chapters covering broad eras of history, some of which are familiar divisions and some of which are not (most books wouldn't cover Henry II to Elizabeth I in a single chapter, for example). The chapters themselves take the form of a 'snapshot' which attempts to give a vivid picture of a single incident that occurred during the period in question, then a narrative section which fleshes out the history of the period (in later chapters this part is divided again into specific subject headings), followed by an attempt at explaining how contemporary writers, bards and historians saw the period at the time. It's a clever concept, and provides welcome variety in what could otherwise have been a very long slog through many centuries.
Starting in pre-history, Davies dedicates a specific chapter to the pre-Celtic Isles (which he fancifully names The Midnight Isles), Celtic Britain and Ireland (the Painted Isles,), Roman and non-Roman Isles (the Frontier Isles), the post-Roman Isles (The Germano-Celtic Isles), the Viking and Saxon Isles (the Islands in the West), the Norman and early Plantagenet Isles (the Isles of Outremer), the later-Plantagenet era through to the end of the Tudor dynasty with the attendant civil wars, and the Welsh, Scottish and Irish wars of conquest and subjugation (the Englished Isles), the re-establishment of independent countries in the Isles under one monarch and the civil wars of the 17th Century (Two Isles, Three Kingdoms), the Union of the Kingdoms and the establishment of overseas Empire up to the 20th Century (the British Imperial Isles) and finishes with the more familiar story of Post-Imperial Britain.
Davies seems happier both in early British history and then British Constitutional history after the Act of Union after fairly skipping through the medieval period, and he offers interesting views on certain traditional subjects (the Roman era being a temporary occupation soon forgotten, and the Act of Union being routinely ignored by British historians were two of the more contentious, I thought). Throughout the book he is very keen to challenge traditional opinions held by British historians (who he sees almost exclusively as British Imperialists), and in the early part especially he is keen to impress his opinion that British history didn't exist, it was the history of separate entities that shared the islands. Later on, he is very insistent that British and English should not be confused, to the point that I wonder if so much time in his career spent abroad has perhaps clouded his judgement just a little, as I've rarely encountered people confusing 'England' and 'Britain' in my experience.
Overall, this is isn't a complete history of the Isles, it's very selective in what it covers in detail and what it skips over quickly, but it's a fascinating read with very persuasive ideas that really give context to the development of the United Kingdom as we know it today. Whether Davies is right and the UK's main reason for being was to facilitate the Empire and without the Empire the UK has outlived it's purpose, time will tell. Writing in the late 90's, Davies is clearly an advocate of European integration and sees a break up of the UK as necessary to facilitate greater integration; it's very interesting to read this section from a 21st century perspective knowing now what Davies couldn't have predicted then (the war on the Terrorism, global recession, the Euro crisis etc.).
The book deserves five stars for it's scope and because it's such an enjoyable and thought-provoking read, but I probably wouldn't recommend it as a straightforward primer in British history.
on 31 March 2000
This book should be applauded for devoting so much space and research to pre-Roman/Celtic Britain and Ireland, and the so-called "Dark Ages". These areas are extremely well written and thoroughly riveting, even to someone like me whose interests lie in subsequent periods of history. Unfortunately, as the author progresses into so-called "medieval" times and beyond, the writing and editing becomes increasingly sloppy, with a number of small but telling factual errors (EG: p.377 did Edward I die in Northumbria?....no, it was Burgh-on -Sands, Cumbria; p.709 were Napoleon's Imperial Guards at Waterloo "in large part Poles"?....no, apart from one regiment of lancers making up less than 5% of the Guard!) Additionally, I have to say that I found the "re-labelling" of Anglo-Norman monarchs (EG: John as "Jean") irritatingly pretentious and purely a device to sell the book.
on 14 September 2006
Finally, a balanced history of our islands, one that isn't written from a skewed, hopelessly anglo-centric viewpoint. Should be compulsory reading in schools throughout the United Kingdom!