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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

“Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations”, by Norman Davies

803 pages, Viking, ISBN-13: 978-0670022731

The historical memory of nations has a great deal to do with their position amongst contemporaries at the time of their existence; thus, the stories of Rome, Greece and Great Britain are well chronicled, at least in the West (indeed, the historiography seems to grow by the week of these great nations and empires). In contrast, however, nations that had an admittedly mediocre history (or were perhaps consumed by other great nations) have largely disappeared from the historical picture. A current analogy might be the manner with which we tend to forget mediocre performing professional athletes and the astronauts after Neil Armstrong. This is the type of issue that Norman Davies sees in the current state of history of Europe, and he has set about to remedy, at least in small part, this glaring gap in the historical record of Europe with the writing of Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations. In so doing he has striven to “both highlight the contrast between times present and past and to explore the workings of historical memory”. What’s more is that, although left unstated, this work sets out to collect a series of histories that might never be able to be read by the layperson due to the highly specialized nature of the research, as it currently exists. What has resulted is a fantastic work of history and although it is some 800 pages in length, is hardly a ponderous read.

The book is organized into 15 essays covering such little known nations as Alt Clud, Tolosa and Etruria. Each chapter is further organized into three sections covering, in order: a sketch of some geographical area as it exists now within the onetime borders of a particular kingdom; a narrative of the particular nation; the current state of historiography of the kingdom/nation. This organization makes Vanished Kingdoms a pleasure to read as the narrative flows quite well with detail that never becomes burdensome. Prof. Davies is a consummate historian with decades of work spent on various topics in European history, and although his opinions of the state of history in each section may not concur with the reader’s own, they are as interesting as the general narrative itself and frequently quite enlightening (besides, isn’t the entire point of analysis to do the research and then state one’s conclusions based on said research? If his opinion makes frequent appearances in this analysis, I’d argue that it makes those conclusions far more interesting to read than many I’ve seen in other sources.)

Vanished Kingdoms is an absolute treasure for those of us who are fascinated with times past and are wanting more than merely the standard works on the standard topics in national histories i.e., Rome, Greece, or anywhere in modern Europe. The narrative flows and many times throughout the book the reader will find himself wishing to investigate the history of old Europe in greater detail (I myself now have a list of topics that warrant further research). I must extend a heartfelt thanks to Prof. Davies for wetting my appetite and instilling the desire to broaden my horizons in European history, as only a great writer can do.

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