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More than meets the eye...,
This review is from: The Isles: A History (Paperback)
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.