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A good read, but a limited idea of what history is.
on 8 March 2000
With this his latest book Norman Davies has set the seal on his claim to be the foremost popular British historian of our times. This makes it all the more unfortunate that he perpetuates the old idea history is nothing more than the history of the governing elite. That is the subject matter of this this book. The other 99% of the British and Irish peoples, and the great historical forces which moulded them, hardly get a look in.
For example, dynastic politics in the late medieval period are covered in detail, with all the crownings, marriages, enfoeffments, rebellions and inheritances carefully recorded. But the Black Death, which utterly transformed the lives and economic relationships of everyone alive at the time and for centuries to come, is only briefly described and not discussed at all. The Irish Famine of the 1840's is referred to a couple of times, but not even described let alone discussed. The Industrial Revolution, surely the most important event since the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago - and a uniquely British event at its beginning - is given approximately the same amount of space as a detailed account of the habits of the British aristocracy!
This approach to history may have been appropriate in an age when literacy was the preserve of a privilaged minority who were mainly interested in the doings of thier noble ancestors. But it 's woefully inadequate for the 21st century. It's an upstairs-downstairs version of history. It regards all the really important information about the past as 'social history', an inferior branch of the subject, to be treated with disdain by gentlemen historians. Their task is to make an intricate study of which individuals happened to be top dog at any particular time.
As an attempt to redress the anglocentrism of other historians the book must be counted a success, but only a partial one. For example, the author seems to lose interest in the Republic of Ireland as soon as it left the UK. The relative economic decline of the UK during the past half century is discussed in detail over several pages, while the Irish economic boom of the last decade is refered to a couple of times, but not described or discussed. The remarkable historical fact that the Irish per capita income is now higher than the British is apparently a matter of indifference to the author.
Having said all that, it is a remarkably well written book, and definitely a good read. It's no mean feat to sum up such an enormous subject in one volume without the writing either bcoming vague or beginning to look like a series of lists, and Norman Davies avoids both these pitfalls. He can write a good story, and here he has written one which flows on over an enormous timescale without ever losing its immediacy or interest. Though I found myself constantly irritated by his choice of subject matter, I enjoyed reading the book very much, and feel I have had a new and distinctive view of the history of these islands which I could not have got elsewhere.