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Entertaining but superficial
on 24 July 2017
John Julius Norwich has been writing popular history for more than half a century, and almost his first venture into this genre, “The Normans in the South” published in 1967 was an excellent example of narrative history, combining erudition rather than original research and obvious passion for the subject with skilful writing, concentrating on personalities and anecdote. Others of his later works were of a similar high standard.
This book, although well written and entertaining, shows rather more of flaws common in popular history: a lack of analysis or a coherent framework. Norwich says at the start and end of the book that the first half of the 16th century was transformative, vital in forging modern Europe, and worth celebrating, all of which is a reasonable judgement. He also claims that the four princes completely overshadowed their predecessors and successors and were central to fostering the change in that period, which is more contentious. There is little in the intervening 250-odd pages to say how these four permanently changed the Europe of their time, or created modern Europe, if they did. Having argued for the centrality of these four individuals in a sweeping generalisation, Norwich leaves it unclear as to whether the age they lived in made these four rather than they made that age. He never asks whether the result would have been much different if (for example) either of Francis’s two predecessors had been survived by legitimate sons or Charles V had died young.
The book is a mixture of individual biographies of the four men, with plenty of personal detail, and summaries of how they interacted and exemplified their age. Norwich shows that each of these four rulers were part of a single story, particularly Suleiman, who he sees as a European ruler comparable to the other three, as he ruled over more European territory and more Christians than any of them. He rejects the ideal that the sultan was an outsider, as Suleiman interacted with Francis and Charles, if not Henry. In covering four subjects and their interactions, Norwich’s account can be rather fragmented. Although it progresses in broadly chronological sequence, it jumps between the four princes so part of one of their stories may be put aside to be taken up many pages later, so (for example) Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon is in five or six separate sections.
As an entertaining collection of generally well-written historical anecdotes of the lives of the four, their rivalries and friendships, it is worth reading. However, its lack of interpretation, the author’s failure to demonstrate his claims about how the four princes changed Europe and his reliance on a limited bibliography of often old secondary works means it offers no new or significant insights into the period.