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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

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

803 pages, Viking Adult, 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 (in fact the historiography seems to grow by the week of these great nations and empires). In contrast, nations that had an (admittedly) mediocre history – or were perhaps consumed by these other great nations – have largely disappeared from the historical picture. This is the issue that Norman Davies sees in the current state of European history, one that he seeks to remedy with 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 over 700 pages in length, is hardly a ponderous read.

Vanished Kingdoms is organized into 15 essays covering such little known nations and kingdoms as Alt Clud, Tolosa and Etruria. Each chapter is further organized into three sections covering: 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 state in question. One realization that stays in the readers mind as the book is studied is the fact that every one of these now defunct states was at one time a thriving system. When a map of Europe is studied today, the overall assumption is that the countries that take up that space have always been there and will continue to exist right on into the future. But after reading Vanished Kingdoms the realization takes root that nothing is permanent. The book concludes with a delineation of ways in which states fail (using the individual cases he has covered as examples) and this part should be of special value to historians and even of some value to politicians and statesmen and stateswomen. As usual, Davies tends in this latest work of his to be an empiricist with no obvious theoretical axes to grind and, again as usual, his writing style is an admirable combination of the straightforward and colloquial with the scholarly (but never arcane or solipsistic). The book also has the virtue of being able to be read in any chapter-order the reader chooses, reflecting the ability of Davies to go back and forth in time and across national boundaries with extreme ease and fluidity.

Vanished Kingdoms is a compelling account of European countries that no longer exist and it should appeal to amateur and professional historians alike. How refreshing to read something so carefully and wonderfully done, something you can trust to be true, something that has no hint of haphazard writing, something so informative that it stays with you for a lifetime.

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