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 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 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 7 January 2012
This 'history of half-forgotten Europe' seems to be cobbled together from various scholarly articles that Professor Davies has assembled over the years; in the Introduction he immodestly lists other examples he would have included had he more space. This gives the book a slightly rag-bag feel with chapters of significantly different lengths. It also means that there are moments when the professor is unable to restrain academia. The word 'Amalfings' which apparently refers to the Visigoths post-Alaric is not explained (and does not appear in my dictionary); does it refer to people from Amalfi on the Italian coast? He often quotes in Latin (although he almost always provides a translation). He insists on calling the British Isles the 'Isles' explaining in a footnote that "The 'Isles' became British by monarchical criteria in 1603 and constitutionally in 1801. They ceased to be British in 1949.' His conceit is often to call the vanished kingdom by a name that almost no-one else ever uses: Sabaudia for Savoy, Rosenau for Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Byzantion for Byzantium or Constantinople etc. And to say "Studying the Burgundian succession of the 1360s, one can easily develop 'Palis-Rondon' - as the Japanese call a squint" serves no purpose other than to tell the reader that the author can show off in Japanese as well. He also indulges in historian bashing: reproving Gibbon for rushing through the history of Constantinople was ironic since Davies spends more space doing this than on the four dynasties who receive a single sentence. Furthermore, he rattles through history at such a speed that the procession of names, places and titles leave one dizzy.
There is a slightly contrived structure. Each chapter has a first part which is a sort of tourist guide to the place where the vanished kingdom originated followed by part two, a lengthy history of the kingdom and part three, which explores the kingdom's heritage.
Nevertheless this is a fascinating book.
This is a massive rambling book, full of delightful anecdotes but equally full of rambling dynastic discourses and historiographical rants. It is bizarrely uneven in its treatment: some episodes being scrutinised in detail whilst centuries can pass unnoticed. Even in its state selection it seems eclectic. Eastern Europe has a number of chapters; Scandinavia has none. And I was a little confused as to why Eire was included (has it vanished and I failed to notice?) and Montenegro which has returned from the dead.
Overall I think that it needed firm editing.
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 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 22 October 2013
Entering a critical review here makes me feel a bit like the boy who says "the emperor has no clothes" while fifty-odd other reviewers are cheering this book along. But I think there is justification for a less-than-elated review. First of all, I would certainly not call this book "unputdownable", not only because of its sheer volume, but also because the style of writing, while solid, lacks the lighter touches and telling anecdotes that make other historians like Hibbert an Norwich much more enjoyable to read.
Then there is the subject matter. A considerable number of the vanished kingdoms described have sometimes by the author's own admission failed to make any significant impact on the history of Europe or have been short-lived (with the same result) often having been created for the benefit op people like Napoleon and emperor Franz Joseph II. This insignificance leads in many cases to the author resorting to travelogue texts, describing at lenght how you should turn left and right in some provincial town in the Ukranine, Belarus or the Balkan to finally encounter a grassy hill on top of which used to be a castle of which by now every trace has disappeared.
Then there is the selection of the kingdoms. Of course with a book already 800 pages long you can't describe them all. But I fail to understand a number of choices. The Byzantine Empire is very rightly included, having had a substantial impact on European history for 1,000 years and truly being a 'vanished' nation. But it gets the shortest treatment of almost all the countries included, and the description itself is largely limited to telling us that Gibbon took too negative a view on Byzantium. What the true perspective should be and why we will have to read elsewhere, because Mr. Davies for one is not telling us. Prussia is dealt with in great detail, although by the author's own frank admission, The Iron Kingdom (also available through Amazon) tells the story much better. His justification for inclusion? The fact that the pre-1600 period is not dealt with there. But of course before 1600 Prussia did not exist - there was only Brandenburg - nor was it a kingdom. And while the author deals extensively with this technically 'vanished' but hardly forgotten kingdom, we get not a word on also vanished, but much more unknown kingdoms like Bavaria and Saxony.
Same story in Italy. A long description of Etruria, a kingdom that more or less languished for 6 years as a creation of Napoleon, but not a word on the vanished kingdom of Naples and Sicily, which had a long and varied history for many centuries.
So, personally I found this book a struggle to get through and the near-total insignificance of many of the kingdoms described did not help. The style in which it is written is in itself not bad, but calling it as some professional reviewers have done "a great work of art" or "unlikely ever to be equalled" is way over the top.
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 2 November 2012
I have just finished "Vanished Kingdoms" : the book consists of well written, readable histories of forgotten pieces of our past by the pen of a scholar. It is admittedly a little heavy-going as a bedside book at the end of a long, hard day, but then that is all the time I have. Even so, the book is so intriguing, so well-wrought in throwing light on matters one never had the chance to study in depth, or had mostly forgotten anyway, or had otherwise no suspicion of the myriad side-tracks and lost pathways that surround so many circumstances in our common history that fatigue was as if it had never been. To say nothing of the interest aroused by the political and/or behavioural contortions of many a significant historical figure.
Furthermore, considering how, in general, education and culture are being pre-packaged into bland-tasting, plastic-wrapped consumer items so that many young people -our future, in fact- only vaguely realise that they do actually have a past to learn from and build upon, I would say that this great book most certainly deserves a place in suggested reading lists for both older pupils and university students.
Excellent reading for all those interested in who we were, what we did, and where we think we're going.
on 24 December 2012
"History is written by the winners" (attributed to Churchill, quoted by the author).
Norman Davies' purpose, though, is to try to switch our view of European history from this over-worked angle. He points out that "Things are never quite as they seem". Historians, he claims, tend to write history from the perspective of countries still in existence who, by definition, tend to be the winners.
He attributes this in part to his Welsh ancestry and I have to declare my interest here (as if my pen name above is not enough!) as I too get excited by the stories of the forgotten nations, including my own. (We Welsh were never a nation I know but we still have our own history). In fact, the second chapter is about the ancient Welsh/Celtic/British kingdom of Alt Clud which once straddled south-west Scotland and north-west England and, thus, from this close to the beginning, I was hooked.
The author is immmensely knowledgeable and the forty five pages of references at the end are testament to the depth of his research. Don't argue with this guy unless you, too, are a professor in this field! The main criticism from one who does most of his reading at bedtime is that concentration levels have to be maintained at a high level in order to absorb this fascinating but complex group of "lost" histories. There are fifteen chapters which cover European history from the fall of the Roman empire to the fall of the Soviet one. All areas are covered with the lost nations of central and eastern Europe being particularly well represented as the book moves on, allowing the author to comment liberally on the rise and fall of the Muscovite/Russian/Soviet empires.
So much of Europe has been divided almost arbitrarily by the powerful that it is fascinating to see maps and to read about the old nations which were based more perhaps on original ethnic movements and which, beneath the veneer, still exist; how Catalonia-Aragon (Ch.4) with its bullfights for instance, still straddles the eastern borders of France and Spain.
There is a further point to all of this for, as these nations have now disappeared so too, argues the author, will existing nations, even our own. After all, where are the "Big Nations" of Yugoslavia or the USSR now?
Where, in fact, will the United Kingdom be in hundreds of years' time? If you are English you may be perplexed and even unsettled by this prospect. You may even be a little angry; the sun may have set on most of those farflung red areas on the map but surely it will blaze forever over the coast of Pembroke or over the Western Isles? Better read this book through to the very end then. Norman Davies' epilogue, "How states Die", may well be the most intriguing section of the whole work. Read it and re-think the future as well as the past.