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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

“A History of Britain, Volume I: At the Edge of the World? 3500 B.C. – 1603 A.D.”, by Simon Schama


416 pages, Hyperion, ISBN-13: 978-0563384977

Simon Schama’s A History of Britain trilogy was first published in 2000 to accompany his television miniseries of the same name and confirmed his status as one of the world’s leading popular historians, not only thanks to his expansive knowledge of history, but also to his ability to succinctly, unerringly and unpretentiously pinpoint the psychological motivations of his characters…did I just say his “characters”? Why, yes I did, for there is something almost novelistic about Schama’s approach to history: his writing has a certain stylistic flair that also demonstrates a willingness to understand individuals, so that all of those Anglo-Saxon figures whose names sound remarkably similar and all of those kings with numerous sons all named after themselves take on distinct identities. He mixes academic scrutiny with the common touch: I ask you, who else would sum up Thomas à Becket’s contrariness thus: “Becket was a cockney, a street-fighter and as tough as old boots under the cowl”? This first volume takes us through to the end of the Tudor dynasty and discusses all the Kings, Queens, and other famous historical figures that you would expect, and its simple writing style makes it a very accessible book and is a must-read for anyone with even a passing interest in British history.

Schama’s thesis is that history is made by change, not by continuity: it is those moments of radical alteration that really show us who we are. Naturally, a thesis such as this is inevitably dependent on strong, determined individuals: Thomas à Becket’s intransigence in the face of Henry II altering the relationship between Church and State forever, or Henry VIII’s obsession over producing a male heir breaking England with Rome. But there are also events, not individuals that change the course of things, as Schama explains: the Black Death wiped out so many people that the existent feudal system was destroyed, effecting (or helping to effect) a great rural transformation. The book is unavoidably chronological in the way it presents the stories, but Schama does attempt to group events together in themes. This comes across as a bit of a gimmick, because each chapter/theme is conveniently about the same number of pages and the theme is only really mentioned at the beginning and end of each chapter.

For the casual history reader most of the key points are covered, but there are some fairly glaring omissions: the Crusades get little attention – I know, I know, they didn’t take place in Britain, but they did have a significant impact on life in England at the time (actually, a number of foreign wars get minimal treatment); if you didn’t know anything about the Wars of the Roses before reading this book then you won’t after, either, for the term is only used once and the events are barely discussed; Richard III, one of England’s most notorious Kings, is given one – ONE! – sentence, and as I believe that Shakespeare’s image of Richard III is inaccurate, I was really hoping for some discussion of this, but none was forthcoming; and while I appreciate that “Britain” didn’t exist in the period under discussion, I still feel that Scotland, Wales, and Ireland are given short shrift here, as Wales and Scotland are discussed only when they were involved in fighting with England.

I try to be sympathetic to anyone attempting to write a complete history of anything because it is not possible to cover it all; however, Schama does set himself up for this criticism a bit, by only using 400 pages to discuss everything up to 1603. Still, this is an exciting, intensely seductive presentation of history, and Schama is clever enough not to dismiss an appeal to the head as well as the heart, for all his focus on personality: a winning combination.


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