Vanished Kingdoms by Norman Davies

This book is subtitled “The History of Half-Forgotten Europe” and it describes and analyses some of the states and empires that have existed in Europe and do so no longer. It is very nicely written, with humour and enormous learning.

The basic idea is to examine history, in Europe, from a different perspective and the book certainly does that. A lot of history is history ‘of’ things and countries but this book takes a process, or phenomenon, namely the decline and extinction of states, and uses it as a vewfinder on history as a whole.

The early chapters are, in my opinion, a little less interesting than the later ones. This is probably because the book has a loose chronological framework, with the earlier chapters looking at vanished states like Livonia and Tolosa, which existed before the Renaissance and the later chapters looking at more recent extinctions like the Soviet Union and Etruria. I just find the history of the Dark Ages hard going – ‘Sigismund IV defeated the forces of Gustav VI somewhere near modern Frankfurt…“ sort of thing.

But the great pleasure of the book lies in the way these vanished states, when examined and described, connect to so many other events. It is like fitting in several missing pieces of a mosaic. And fascinating facts abound, dropped before us in the narrative, in passing; such as, the Spartans used to expose their children to a drunken slave, to illustrate to them the evils of too much drink. I don’t need a slave to carry out that function for my children as I manage pretty well myself. But it is a shaft of insight that is just picked up along the way, due to the vast scholarship of Mr Davies.

It is quite a big read, at 750 pages of small type. But well worth the effort.

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