Top positive review
Four colossi of 16th century European history
26 February 2017
This new history, compact and delightfully lively, takes the unusual format of a group biography. It focuses on the dazzling first half of the 16th century, when four men between them bestrode Europe like colossi. It's an extremely accessible introduction to the period and the men in question.
Like many people, I suspect, I’m pretty familiar with the life of Henry VIII. I’ve also had numerous encounters with Charles V and Francis I, through their roles as artistic patrons and also their presence as England’s enduring antagonists, both militarily and spiritually. What Norwich does, however, is to stress the connections between them. Most of us will be moderately familiar with the power-struggles of early 16th-century Europe and so much of what he has to say won’t necessarily be new, even if the way he says it puts it back into the context of a close-knit rivalry among three great egos. But the appeal of this book for me, and perhaps for others, was to see how Suleiman fitted into the story. Unfortunately, I felt that he was rather sidelined for much of the book. Norwich’s story takes place almost entirely within the borders of Europe and so we only see Suleiman as and when his story touches on Europe – which is entirely justifiable, given the book’s subtitle. Yet Norwich told me just enough to have me thirsting for more. Suleiman was the only Muslim among the kings, of course, but he was also the most intelligent (in his youth, anyway), the most tolerant (granting freedom of worship and protection to Jews and Christians within his realm), and the most honourable. One feels for him as he makes treaties with European powers who cheerfully break them mere months afterwards. Indeed, the way Norwich described Suleiman made me imagine him as a bemused grown-up watching three pugnacious children fighting in a playground.
This is lighter than some of Norwich's earlier books, which means that one sometimes misses the weight of erudition, but on the other hand makes it much easier to devour. He takes a gleefully Gibbonian approach to footnotes, using them for laconic asides or humorous anecdotes and one senses, in short, that he's having a great deal of fun with this book. I noticed a certain tendency to slip in stories about the Popes, perhaps not surprising in view of his recent book on the Papacy, who consequently become major players in the story. Overall, though, this is an engaging and excellent way to begin learning about the complex machinations of the period. In all things one has the sense of reading an experienced historian at the height of his powers (most admirable, as he's now 87), with a dizzying fund of knowledge behind him. Norwich is very present as the narrator, happily giving his characters colour and personality in a way which might betray more than a little subjectivity, but which is always appealing.
For a full review, please see my blog (link in my profile). Please note that I received a complimentary ARC from Netgalley.