book-reviews

Vanished Kingdoms

by Norman Davies

Rating: ★★★★

The aim of this history collection is to raise awareness of the long history of vanished nations, drawing attention to the fact that political states do disappear, with regularity, and more broadly raising awareness of the complexities that underlie national histories. While Davies does this, and does it in a grippingly interesting and educationally rewarding manner, I feel he somewhat strays from his subject.

For instance, the section on Eire. While he might legitimately have covered the demise of the previous Kingdom of Ireland ruled from Teamhair, he instead focuses, bewilderingly, on the birth of the modern nation of Eire from under the United Kingdom. In no sense is that nation 'vanished', and it shows clear line of descent from the previous UK territory, so it can hardly be said that that nation 'vanished' as it was born. One suspects that Davies simply wished to talk about Ireland because it supports an angle on the breakup of the UK, which is partially what he writes to warn of.

Similar confusion can be appelled to the state of Montenegro, which currently exists on the map. To be sure, Montenegro disappeared from the map for some time, absorbed into Yugoslavia, but elsewhere Davies shows himself willing to consider non-sovereign entities as continuing the national line. Again, it seems Davies just wanted to include an interesting tidbit. A similar criticism can be levelled at his choice of Prince Albert's homeland -- a blatant excuse to delve into the British monarchy's past.

Other details annoy. The section on the USSR, for example, bewilderingly focuses on Estonia. While the USSR wasn't just Russia, to ignore the vast majority of its population seems bizarre. The section on Byzantium rails against the Eastern Empire's depiction in the West (a depiction I was not aware of, despite knowing broadly about the Empire), but then limply fails to deliver any substantial account of its history. Most broadly damning, the choice of names for each chapter seems deliberately obtuse - often temporary names from a strange context are used for much better-known entities, meaning the list of covered nations appears much more outlandish than it is.

The criticisms of category and choice, however, should not override the basic point that the book is incredibly informative and interesting. The history of the Kingdom of the Rock (whose namesake I have seen, on a bus journey), is a fascinating insight to the much-divided history of Britain, the history of Polish-Lithuania opens a rich history of Eastern Europe, the history of Aragorn pries apart modern Spain for better examination. Even (perhaps espeically) the items which seem to deviate from his topic are grippingly interesting. I come away from this book much better informed about European history than I was going in, and I suspect almost anyone would.

For sheer informative power, and delightful writing, this book nearly gained another star - only the topical deviations and minor annoyances held me back. A most definite recommendation.