on 28 October 2011
This is really 15 detailed European history books in one. I doubt if there's anyone on the planet qualified to critique such a diverse collection of histories, some of them rather obscure. Certainly not me. So I'll just do my part by describing what's in the book (at the moment there's no "look inside" feature above).
The chapters describe the history of: the Visigoths in France and Spain; southwestern Scotland in the 5th-12th centuries, but really addressing British history in general at that time; Burgundy in France; Aragon in northern Spain; the area that is now Belarus and Lithuania; Byzantium; Prussia; northern Italy; Galicia (the one that was in what is now southern Poland and Ukraine); Italy around Florence in the 19th century; Saxe-Coburg in Germany; Montenegro, which used to be part of Yugoslavia; the short-lived (one day!) Rusyn republic in what is now Ukraine, 1939; Ireland since 1916; and the Soviet Union.
Each chapter has three parts: a description of the area today; the history which Prof. Davies wants to cover; and an assessment of how well the "vanished kingdom" is remembered.
To include Ireland in a book on "vanished kingdoms" is a bit of a stretch, and part 3 of that chapter ranges far beyond what is remembered about Ireland. Part 3 is actually an essay on the future of the United Kingdom which I hope the author will extract and get published in one of the quality newspapers for wider appreciation.
Lots of end notes, many of them website URLs for instant gratification. The notes at the back of the book are listed by the page number of the text, rather than just the chapter number, which makes the notes much easier to find.
This book will probably never be listed anywhere under the rubric of "genealogy," but if your ancestry is from any of those places, I think your will definitely learn things you didn't know. I'm sending a copy to my brother-in-law, whose ancestry is Prussian.
on 4 June 2012
A good collection of writing by Norman Davies. I say collection as it does not have quite the flow and cohesion of 'Europe' and 'The Isles'. The title is also somewhat a misnomer - I don't recall the Soviet Union being a kingdom!
It is fascinating - particularly the accounts of Tolosa, Burgundy, Aragon and Poland-Lithuania. A slight disappointment with a (very)short chapter on Byzantium ...... maybe something on the current impasse in Belgium? Surely the state in Europe closest to splitting at present as the Flemish and Walloon parts seem so reluctant to cooperate?
It still sparkles with Davies' customary erudition and was a pleasure (for the most part) to read.
on 18 November 2011
Although he was the first critic of `Whig history', the late Herbert Butterfield thought it was more or less inevitable that modern historians should write some version of it. By this he meant history which was written from a modern point of view and showed the growth of some institution or idea which we approve of now (for example, Parliamentary sovereignty, or modern science, or religious toleration). Norman Davies shows that it is possible to write about countries which no longer exist in a way that is entirely lacking in Whiggery.
Davies made his name with a history of Poland, where he is currently professor. He is used to seeing things from a European, and specifically an Eastern European, point of view. He was always going to be less sanguine about the idea of progress than most traditional historians of England and the British Isles. We have been much more fortunate. The tragedies which have afflicted the countries which we now think of as Russia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine and Germany make it difficult to be Whiggish, or even optimistic about Mankind as a whole.
Davies has no grand theory as to why states vanish. He is not Marx or Toynbee, nor a determinist of any kind, though he believes that all states have the seeds of decay within them. History is infinitely unpredictable. He does, however, have some prejudices. For example, he thinks that it is almost inevitable that Scotland will vote for independence and that the United Kingdom will vanish as a state; and he is a great fan of the European Union.
Davies has pointed out that there have been as many as 250 `vanished kingdoms'. This book deals with fifteen, drawing examples from various periods and different parts of Europe. In fact, he works his way from West to East, weaving travelogues into the history as he goes. This worked for me, although others may find it too personal. Overall, the book is a fascinating introduction to the history of many strange lands and peoples, some of them not far so removed from us in space and time, others very remote indeed. The late J.H. Hexter wrote that the purpose and pleasure of history was not that it explained the present, but that it taught us about ourselves. Norman Davies has succeeded brilliantly in doing that.
One warning though. The maps do not reproduce very well in the Kindle edition (2011); and Davies's maps are an essential part of the story.
on 26 April 2012
On the whole, this is fascinating. But the introductory sections of each chapter (on the modern areas which were formerly part of the "vanished kingdoms") often read like the sort of thing anyone could cobble together given a couple of tourist guides and access to Wikipedia: "The journey [Paris to Perpignan] takes 4 hours 45 minutes. Passengers arriving in the daytime are usually greeted by the strong southern sun, which bathes the city on average for 300 days each year." He goes on to list a random selection of European cities with direct flights to the regional airport (in another chapter, he even lists a defunct airline in case the reader wants to travel to Bornholm before 2010). There are pages and pages of that sort of stuff, and some of the historical writing is rather like reading those lists of people who begat each other in the Bible - lists of which dukes reigned over which areas, for how long, with no further information given about what they did or why the reader should care what their names were. As someone else wrote in a review, the book could have done with a heavy-handed editor. It's a shame, because the central theme - that current nations and borders are contingent, and that rich cultures have risen and fallen and may well rise again in Europe outside and within the nation-states we know today - is tremendously interesting, and when Davies sticks to that the book is tremendously interesting too. Should have been about half the current length, though.
on 25 November 2012
History is written by the victors. So most likely the history about those who lost has been written from point of view of the victors.
The more wonderful it is that Norman Davies wrote `Vanished Kingdoms'. A book written from point of view of those countries that have lost and vanished. Long forgotten countries, areas we had not heard of, rings-a-bell stories, lots of maps, anecdotes, it is all there. Though you knew Burgundia? Think twice, and read the chapter about Burgundia. Taken from that chapter: "The discrepancies in these definitions are easily spotted. But it is distressing to see that their common characteristic lies in their immobility: they are all trying to tie the concept of Burgundy to a single locality. None grasps the key feature, namely that Burgundy was a movable feast."
The chapter or Aragon: the discover-the-world-area was in the hands of the Portuguese and Spain, right? But when the reader speaks about `Spain', the reader pictures the country as the country now is on the map of Europe. How different it was then. "Philip II was the first in history to use the title of `King of Spain.'" He was king from 1556 to 1598. Clear words. Oh, by the way, when were North and South America discovered?
One day republic Rusyn? Also from that chapter there are lessons to learn. "These attitudes about Eastern Europe have surfaced many times in the thinking of Western intellectuals. They are part of a widespread, but often unspoken assumption about Western superiority." I love it when I read lines like that. Some readers could complain about chapters about Eastern Europe. Especially people from the west should not forget that Eastern Europe is a part of Europe. History education in the west had the tendency to focus on the classical Greek & Roman History and on Western Europe.
It is not always an easy read. Forgotten names, places and old languages make it sometimes harder to read. One or two chapters are not too interesting. But in the end it is definitely worth it.
A big Praise for this book, to write about vanished kingdoms.
on 17 July 2014
Well, I honestly find it hard to figure out how to start a review of this splendid book, so many and varied are its qualities. For starters, I think the concept of delving into the history of 15 vanished kingdoms (not all of them literally kingdoms) a very original one. Vanished they may be, but as Norman Davies convincingly demonstrates, each of these long-forgotten kingdoms (perhaps not by all of us but definitely by me) is in fact still an influence on today's politics. Unless you're an expert in European history, I guess you probably never heard of Borussia, Sabaudia, Rosenau and Rusyn before (I know I hadn't) which means there's discoveries to be made and things to learn here on every single page.
Davies must have done an unprecedented amount of research (and travel) to amass such a huge amount of information, which means there's all the more praise to be given because he subsequently managed to distill all of it into a (granted: fairly hefty) volume which never becomes heavy-going or can be savoured only be academics. There's plenty of helpful maps and family trees, but above all: a wealth of information and insights. A very exciting book!
on 17 April 2012
Vanished Kingdoms by Norman Davies
Norman Davies demonstrates incredible skill and knowledge as he opens up for us whole swathes of history covering vast periods of time. Many historians today have become so specialised that they are rarely able to join the dots between nations and eras; not so with Norman Davies. He has displayed the rare ability to uncover minor, little known details and weave them into the greater narrative. Davies writing style is clear and fluid, and while there are moments when he stalls in lists and sub-lists and some conflicting dates, laying before us the complex nature of historical research. I admire his confidence in demonstrating the limits of his research and the moments where he seems to have stalled somewhat. No matter, for Davies manages to ensure his work is at all times engaging.
This book is not for the faint-hearted, but if you are looking for an access to understanding the great march of the history of Europe, filled with characters who shaped our continent and events that moved our countries into the modern world, then this is very much for you. This book will enrich any student of history and is worth the investment of our time in reading of past times.
on 16 November 2015
In terms of subject matter, this is an extremely interesting book. It describes the rise and fall of a number of states that once were envied and feared, and then succumbed in one way or another.
Some - Prussia, Savoy/Piedmont and Aragon - were absorbed in bigger composite states and lost their identity. Others were ripped apart by their predatory neighbors - Burgundy and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Yet others were very short-lived (the Napoleonic 'Kingdom of Etruria' for example).
What I really liked about 'Vanished Kingdoms' is that it provided a lot of food for thought. Davies is right that we, contemporaries, often incorrectly assume that our world is here to stay - unthinkable that France or the UK would one day disappear! But to those living in the 1300s and 1400s, Aragon respectively Burgundy also looked like they would never disappear - the same is true for Poland-Lithuania in the 1500s and even the 1600s. All of them looked very robust when compared to their neighbors - at the time. And yet, they completely disappeared.
Another thing to like is the sheer amount of knowledge one picks up from this book. This does bring me to a slightly less admirable aspect, which is that the writing is a bit too dry at times. Especially when describing the roots of these vanished 'kingdoms' in dark, early medieval times, the text is occasionally repetitive and uninspiring - then again, other sections are full of historical gems. Finally: Davies' selection of Vanished Kingdoms is obviously subject to personal taste. I think his choice is about right; the only kingdom I sorely missed was that of the Two Sicilies, and I would have rather had him substitute the Crusader Kingdom of Achaea for Byzantium (which does not really fit in this book). At least Davies (a notorious Polonophile) does not fall in the typical W-European trap of forgetting about the Eastern half (Galicia, Poland-Lithuania, Prussia, the USSR and Montenegro provide enough counterweight to Aragon, Eire, Burgundy and Savoy). Further, the structure of the book allows readers to just pick and choose their own favorite Lost Kingdom while skipping the ones they don't like.
All in all, this is certainly a book I would warmly recommend.
on 25 March 2015
[This is a revised, more positive review - the first one was written before I had finished the book.]
Vanished Kingdoms has strong positive and negative points.
Among the first:
- Has as its subjects places and times not well known, which makes the reader discover interesting historical moments.
- Includes jewels such as the Kingdom of Montenegro, the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (with a good text on Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert), and the one-day Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine.
- Doesn't limit itself to the times when the `vanished kingdoms' existed, but adopts a structure for each chapter which includes a small geographical or historical introduction, followed by the narrative about each kingdom, and ending with an afterword about events after the kingdom's extinction. In the chapter about Ireland, for instance, the author ends with interesting considerations about the UK's possible future.
As negative points:
- Has a `mixed bag' feeling, by including entities so different as the USSR, Ireland and Byzantium.
- This `mixed bag' feeling is accentuated by, for instance, starting the chapter on the Napoleonic Kingdom of Etruria with quotes from an online tourist guide from an American company, telling you what you should see in a two-day tour of Florence: on Day 1 see this, on Day 2 that.
- There are several quotes from Wikipedia and the internet (A. Rowell, reviewer here, has the following remark about the author's references to web pages: "Let me stress: not those established and sound academic ones").
- The criteria for the selection of the `kingdoms' seems rather obscure.
- Some chapters are too long, while others are too short.
- The book's title is a misnomer (the USSR and a few other places included were not kingdoms).
- The organization is often awkward - the chapter on the USSR, for instance, is in good part about Estonia.
- Has too many long quotes from poetry and songs' lyrics.
All in all I felt the book very interesting, and well worth reading. I wouldn't say it is "a luminous account" though - as quoted in a review on the book's back cover - because of the issues I pointed out above.
on 14 April 2013
At first glance on a bookshop shelf (especially in an airport lounge!) this is a pretty intimidating tome - over 800 pages all in. However it is far from that once you start to read it. Davies has selected 15 European kingdoms/states that have vanished in recent and not so recent times and looks at how they came about and then disappeared. Some lasted only a day (Rusyn, March 15th 1939) others spanned many centuries. The most recent (and obvious) state included is the USSR (1924-1991), which Davies admits provided the idea for the book in the first place, but the range includes post Roman Tolosa (Toulouse....) (418-507) in what is now southern France, Alt Clud (5th-12th centuries) of Scotland's Dumbarton Rock close to where the café first went to school and Borussia (1230-1945) the origin of Prussia. The final section "How States Die" tries to draw some of the strands together from the 15 surveys.
Each Kingdom is described carefully and in several instances their origins are just as interesting (if not more so) than the events of their demise. Éire is a case in point. Davies adopts an interdisciplinary approach to show how national identity and desire for statehood closely followed the emergence (and hot-housing) of a cultural identity, almost where one did not previously exist. This theme is repeated in several other of the stories. An intriguing use is also made of linguistics (especially with the kingdoms originating more deeply in the past) to survey patterns of settlement, expansion and identity.
With fifteen states to cover there is a little inconsistency evident in treatment. Some surveys become overlong and involved. Aragon (1137-1714), whilst one of the more interesting histories outlined could have been better edited. Dynastic history is key to its growth and decline but too many pages are devoted to the detail of genealogy, encouraging skim reading. Conversely I would have preferred to see more space being devoted to Byzantion (330-1453) which with 16 sides has received only two more than the one day Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine (March 1939). Most kingdoms are otherwise treated to 50-80 pages of study. There are also some clear omissions, perhaps most notably, Venice (perhaps as it was a Republic? But other non-kingdoms are included...).
It appears the researching for these outline histories is exemplary - the footnotes are clearly set out and easy to use which is essential when brief histories like these produce sweeping historical assessments whose origins need to be clear. As a result the footnote section at the end reads like a "Who's Who" of specialist historians on the country concerned. Pleasingly, maps are plentiful (74 in total plus a further 14 lists of figures/family trees) - always a good sign of thorough study - and essential here, where names and frontiers are often new to the reader. Over eighty colour plates helped to develop the individual histories. On a practical note, I was reading the hardback edition which holds all of this well together. I am less sure how paperback binding would survive the to and fro of map/image/footnote referencing that a reader might subject the book to.
There is no need to read chapter by chapter or even in Davies' sequence. Chapter size is manageable to allow for dipping into whenever a spare hour is available This is an eminently readable and valuable addition to the post Roman history of Europe and does a service in reminding the reader of a completely, or as in the title, half-forgotten Europe. Let's hope there is a follow-up sequel!!