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Fascinating subject, uneven quality
on 31 July 2003
The re-issue in paperback by a general publisher of an academic work originally from the CUP is a rare event. But even the original edition cast a sidelong eye at the general public, who might be willing to bear with academic minutiae for the sake of its astonishing revelations (to all but professional historians) on a subject they thought they knew about.
If you're going to write an academic work, footnotes and all, for the "educated layman", you'd better be a good writer, lively and stylish, as well as a good academic. From that point of view, the essays in this collection are very uneven, ranging from the occasionally tongue-in-cheek polish of Hugh Trevor-Roper (on the invention of the Highland Tradition in Scotland) to the convoluted and occasionally asyntactic sentences of Prys Morgan (on "the hunt for the Welsh past"). The one invites you on an enthralling voyage of discovery, the other requires you to wade through a viscous Sargasso Sea. Nonetheless, both journeys are well worth undertaking, as are the others in the collection.
But perhaps the most valuable aspect of the book is that it encourages us to reflect in general, quite aside from the specific examples studied, on the human need for a link to the past and evidence of superiority, if not now, then at least in a prior Golden Age. If human communities divide the world into "them" and "us", how do they define who "we" are? And what makes "us" special? On the lines of Voltaire's famous comment that "if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him." we are forced to the conclusion that if a national history and culture do not exist, it is necessary to invent them. (A process traced also by Y. Nevo and myself in our study of the early history of the Umayyad State). It appears that the need to define one's community as valid -- by reference to an historic past -- is most acute when that community is only just established or is in decline. The lessons of this book should be kept in mind when reading the history of any nation.