on March 3, 2000
Mr Davies' book is an excellent introduction to the history of the British Isles. The author is at pains to use terms like "British" and "English" only in their proper contexts, and is so careful to avoid anachronism that he refers to historical figures and places only by the names current at the time. King William I, for example, is "Guillaume" in the book. The separate and inter-dependent histories of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales are treated in depth. Unfortunately, the book is marred by several egregious errors of fact; notably the assertion on page 905 (hardback) that the Irish civil war was won by Eamon de Valera's anti-treaty forces. The edition I read also suffered from a lack of proofreading that showed up on almost every page. The concluding chapter on the "Post-Imperial Isles" consists of a series of essays documenting various strands of modern society. These essays are very strongly informed by events of the late 1990s and are somewhat out of keeping with the overall scope of the work. All in all however, for the tolerant reader this book is a most enjoyable route to a solid knowledge of British history.
on March 25, 2000
Davies writes a superb book which is a wonderful antedote to all the horrendous old anglocentric histories I remember reading years ago. In my opinion Davies correctly emphasises the importance of all the constituent parts of the Isles. The book begins by examining the prehistory of the isles and I note that one other reviewer states that he felt this chapter to be a waste of time, concentrating on the minutae of an obscure academic argument. The opening chapter and its discussion readily puts over the point that when talking about place names etc. we cannot remove ourselves from a preconception of history and inevitably produces bias. If that reviewer had persisted with the book I suspect he/she may have got the point by the end. However the book then enters a more traditional history beginning with the Celtic domination of the Isles and proceeding through Roman, Saxon, Norse, Norman and Plantagenet eras of (attempted) domination. With each period there is a three part chapter consisting of a "scene setting" episode, the meat of the history and then a review of conceptions, misconceptions and previous views on those eras. The first part of the chapters are always excellent, the second as good but the third parts tend to be inconsistent, some good some rather tedious. Overall though the layout is good and the appendices at the end are wonderful, having the lyrics and music to various "nationalistic" tunes is a wonderfully original idea. Criticisms of the book are minor in comparison to its overall impact, but here goes. There appeared to me numerous typos in the book ranging from mis-spelling to factual inaccuracies. Whilst this can be forgiven, they did seem to get more frequent towards the end as if the proofreader had gone to sleep. There were inaccuracies and omissions in some of the genealogies notably the suggestion that James II and VII was the son of Charles II, that the old pretender was Charles and many others. The other criticism is that I would have preferred to see more on the more modern history of the non-English parts of the Isles (a large part of the tradition of South Wales for example depends on its mild rebelliousness, eg. Chartist rebellion (Chartism got one sentence), Rebecca riots (never mentioned) and the rise of the unions. These aspects of modern history are far more resonant to the people of South Wales than the musings of early 20th century Welsh language poets important as the language issue is. The history of the struggle to free Ireland is also much too brief. Overall though I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in afair history of the Isles.
on May 20, 2003
This book isn't a primer: you need a nodding acquaintance with the facts before you read it or you may come away with a partial (in both senses) view. Unkind readers might say this is a 1200-page exercise in ax-grinding; I prefer to call it a very long polemic. Nothing wrong with that, provided you understand what's going on. The spectacle is impressive if a little alarming, like watching an expert woodsman enthusiastically chopping up an ancient oak tree for firewood.
It's true that Britishness is a working arrangement, not an organic growth (you can be naturalized British, but to be Scots, Welsh or English you have to be born that way). The author thinks the arrangement isn't working any more if it ever did; and he may be right. His book starts with the Stone Age and goes up to 1999. The main thrust is how Britishness has been invented and reinvented over the centuries to serve the interests of elites, who typically boil down to Anglos, and they wrote the histories. Revisionism on these lines has been attempted before but never so comprehensively or with such loving attention to detail. If you want to hear how Bad King Edward managed to beat William Wallace thanks to Welsh and Gascon mercenaries, but the English (minus the Welsh and Gascons) got their comeuppance at Bannockburn ("the flower of English chivalry perished"), Prof. Davies is your man. There's a lot more where that came from, most of it as interesting as it is one-sided. Coming to modern times, he thinks (in the 1st edition) that De Valera's Republicans won the Irish Civil War of 1922-23, which has annoyed Irish purists and Michael Collins fans who thought the Free-Staters won. Some readers have detected a cavalier attitude to social and economic issues, but they miss the point: that isn't part of the game plan. The really interesting question, though, is left hanging: why did the English, whose language and institutions went around the world, make such a botched job of cultural imperialism in their own backyard? Most of the Scots and Welsh (including Prof. Davies, in spades) are Anglophone, but they are not English. Why not?
It isn't a silly question. Consider France, that grand cultural monolith. Who ever heard a murmur from the Bretons, historically as distinct from the French as the Welsh are from the English - where is the Breton Prof. Davies inveighing against 'Francocentric' history? (is there such a term or would it be tautologous?). Who but medievalists know or care about the Languedoc high culture destroyed by the North French invasion of the thirteenth century, and when will Hollywood be making an Albigensian "Braveheart"? La Grande Nation even acquired a German province in the seventeenth century, and when it was taken away in 1871 all France was outraged. Fortunately the injustice was put right later with a little help from the Anglo-Saxons.
Time to fess up. As a native of the Isles who is not Welsh, Scottish or Irish, descended from more of the same not-persons from way back, I have to confess that I am, well, English. What I would like to see is another work, twice as long, showing in more detail exactly where we went wrong, with many interesting curiosities and some catchy songs. Seriously: agree or disagree, his scope is amazing. "The Isles" isn't as brilliant as "Europe", but then what is? And the maps are the right way round this time. No one does it like Prof. Davies.
on June 11, 2001
This 1000 plus page opus by Norman Davies purports to be an examination of the history of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, both in relation to each other and to the rest of the world, from the beginning of human habitation to the present day. If that sounds like a tall order, I'm afraid it is. The Isles is largely fun to read and even educational, but the work as a whole suffers from diffuseness and poor organization. Perhaps this was inevitable. After all, as noted by the previous reviewers, Professor Davies' main point appears to be that the four areas that made up the United Kingdom at its greatest extent are historically and politically distinct entities, and that the development of the history of the Isles is not solely the history of England. Furthermore, Professor Davies is at pains to point out, the birth of the modern United Kingdom was in no way the clean, orderly, almost linear process that it is often made out to be. Therefore, in the development of these ideas, there is, almost by definition, a fragmentary quality to the narrative with a lot of jumping from one region to another, and, in the later (Imperial and post-Imperial) sections of the book, from one topic to another, usually without a clear transition. For the last third of the book, only a semblance of linearity is preserved, with the author hopping from subject to subject, seemingly without a clear direction. While much of the information presented is enormously interesting, I was left with a sense that Professor Davies had overreached, gotten lost within his organizational scheme (or lack thereof), and just couldn't find his way out.
So, The Isles is an interesting read, but it could've used a firmer editorial hand. I would definitely turn elsewhere for a survey of the history of the nations of the Isles. In addition to the organizational deficits described above, a number of signal events are only mentioned in passing (as also noted by the previous reviewers), as though familiarity with the basic historical facts were assumed as a prerequisite for understanding the further development of the central themes. For those raised on the history of the region, this assumption may be correct. Most American readers, however, are likely to get a sense of being a stranger at a party where everyone else knows each other.
It is a rare and exhilerating experience to have one's long-held "truths" overturned and ingrained images altered so thoroughly by a single book as mine have been by "The Isles" . The author's stated purpose was to produce a single-volume general history, surveying the peoples and states that have occupied the archipelago known today as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland from 7000 BC to the present day. If Norman Davies has an ideological bias it may be "continentalism". His previous work has been in European History. At the start, he points out that Canyon Man, whose remains were found near present-day Cheddar, lived 9000 years ago--when the archipelago was still attached to the european continent. He was not Celt, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Dane nor Norman. He predated them all. Yet his DNA is a very close match to that of a teacher living in Cheddar today! Throughout the balance the book Davies stresses that the continuity and insularity of Great Britain's history is a myth; psychological rather than genetic; legendary rather than real. The last section of book is an argument for the UK's pursuing a continental polcy in the future. Davies maintains that anachronistic nomenclature of geography is part of the myth-making. "History of England" and "History of Great Britain" are used interchangeably (even by the Oxford Univerity Library Index), even though England never covered more than the southern half of Great Britain and neither term subsumes Ireland and both make Scotland and Wales invisible. This is more than a semantic quibble. Davies mantains that anachronistic use of place names has helped skew historical perspective. It fostered, at least from the 16th century onward, a monolithic, xenephobic sense of "Englishness" running back to Roman times. In fact, 16 diffent states have occupied the archipelago since 43 BC and the one known as the Kingdom of England existed only from the tenth century to 1536(and that did not include Scotland, Ireland or Wales. Most English historians,from the Tudor era onward, have found it politically convenient to minimize the contributions of the Medeival Irish, the Danes, and even the Normans to the culture and government of Great Britain. They have created a picture of english cultural unity beginning with Alfred and running unbroken and little-changed down to Elizabeth II. A sort of Anglo-Saxon manifest destiny. They tend to gloss over the fact that Alfred paid religous homage to the pope or that Richard the Lion Hearted spent only 6 months of his 10-year reign in his island kingdom and was a french-speaker to boot. Davies' book is dense with information aimed at giving the reader a "holistic" view of the history of the archipelago. It teems with people and events not found in the standard works on "English" history. One's view of historical figures are transformed. For example, in the section about the United Kingdom of the present day, he drops in the perception-bending fact that Princess Diana was the first woman of English descent to marry a King of Britain (meaning 1707-2000) or an heir apparent. Whaoo! Say what! check it out.
on May 17, 2003
Norman Davies is a knowledgeable historian, but I found this book to be unsatisfactory. As an overview of UK history, the narrative wanders aimlessly, pre-occupied with certain issues while brushing over critical themes with little more than oblique references. Professor Davies' ideological agenda explains some of this, since he seems determined to debunk traditional Anglo-centric versions the history which have failed to emphasize the French and Germanic roots of the British ruling class, and which have ignored or distorted history of the Celtic regions. While probably fair enough at some level, the author's attitude results in a book that reads at times more like a rambling and opinionated history of British history than a disciplined account of how England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales came to be what they are today. Adding to the difficulty are stylistic problems which mar the book. I found much of the first 600 pages almost unreadable, given to endless displays of factual virtuosity without much effort to place anything into perspective. Since I find it hard to explain exactly what I mean here, to give an idea let me quote more or less randomly (this from page 285): "After that the marriage of Alexander (r.1107-24) to an illegitimate daughter of Henri I, and Henri I's marriage to Edith-Matilda, daughter of Malcolm III and Margaret, and sister to four Scottish kings, tied the dynastic, political and cultural strands of the knot for several generations. David I (r. 1124-53), youngest son of Malcolm and Margaret, was brought up at the English court as David fitzMalcom, Earl of Huntington and Northhamton." There are places where Davies goes on like this for pages on end, and I defy anyone not already well-versed in the history to make much sense out of it. Anyone who is well-versed, of course, doesn't need this sort of book in the first place, raising the question of what audience Professor Davies is trying to reach. He changes gear abruptly in the latter half of the book, and from there on the narrative becomes more readable, although the problem of idiosyncratic focus if anything gets worse, the text devolving more or less into a series of essays on loosely-related historical topics. He starts to number his sections at this point, devoting one each to the British civil service, the aristocracy, the economy, sports, currency, demographics, the monarchy, language, parliament, the navy, and so forth. Through all this, major historical figures - Victoria, Churchill, Disraeli, others, along with a bewildering array of minor ones - appear seemingly out of nowhere in the context of one topic or another, then they disappear again without any sense of who they were or what impact they had on the evolution of their nation. The major wars in which Britain fought are mentioned, but again out of context. The author devotes more space to describing the rules of cricket at one point than he does to recounting the political or military history of the Napoleonic wars or the American Revolution. Even the great world wars of the twentieth century get less space than do expansive quotations from novels, poems and old histories which the author reproduces with abandon throughout the book. In the last few pages, Davies begins to pontificate openly, "taking off the mask", as he describes it. He announces his belief that the disintegration of the United Kingdom is imminent. This is clearly the conclusion to which he's been driving for over 1000 pages, and he may well prove right about this if the political leaders of the UK suffer from his same inability to focus on critical issues. I also read this author's single-volume history of Europe, to which I had many of the same objections. In his introductions, he proclaims himself a champion of popular, big-picture history, and declares his distaste for the trend among his peers for writing "more and more about less and less". I keep reading his work because I happen to share this point of view, hoping vainly to find a "big picture" in all this jumbled detail. I probably don't feel quite as negative about this book as all this sounds - I did learn from it. However, I would suggest to prospective readers that there must be easier ways than this to get an overview of British history
on May 6, 2001
This is in some ways a rather strange history. Generally one would expect a book of this type to be a narrative history of Great Britain. The book is some 880 pages and in reality that is a rather small book to cover the historical detail of the period which is from the stone age to the present. Instead the book is an attempt to look at British history in a new way.
In the past most British history suffered from being Anglo centric that is focusing on England as the main player and teleological, that is seeing history as part of an evolutionary process to a given end. This book is a sustained and logical attack on both approaches.
Firstly the book attempts to be a history not only of England which is about a third of the British Isles but also Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Secondly it demolishes myth after myth that used to be the staples of English history. These myths one of the most important which is a notion of a continuing quality of "Englishnes" in the place that we now know as England. The author clearly shows how prior to the Norman invasion in 1066 Britain was part of the Viking world. With the Norman invasion it became part of the French world. The Plantagenents spoke French regarded themselves as French and were by and large buried in France. England started to develop the use of its vernacular after the defeat in the Hundred Years war and the driving of the English Kings from the continent.
The book is readable and interesting but if falls short of being a history of England and is rather a lengthy discussion about what should be the history of England. As such it may disappoint some.
I found it to be challenging interesting and towards the end quite amusing. Other readers seem to have found the earlier parts more interesting and this is the part in which the historical narrative is most clear. Generally it is a long but entertaining and interesting book.
on December 4, 2002
Having read "Europe", I enthusiatically anticipated Davies' treatment of his homeland's history. I was a bit disappointed, as this book was neither as readable nor as approachable as its predecessor.
While Davies' style, research and conclusions make reading this book a worthwhile endeavor, one should scrutinize the author's strategy. He overreaches in his attempt to survey the whole of English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh and, to a lesser extent, French history, in a single volume.
His approach would be more favorably regarded if he'd chosen to publish this survey in multiple volumes. Perhaps one covering the history up until the arrival of Christianity, another covering the so-called "Dark Ages" and pre-Renaissance period and possibly a third starting with the 100 Year's War and concluding with the present.
Generally, Davies provides a unique perspective on the subject by de-emphasizing the traditional focus on England and the English. In a broader sense, he achieves what very few historians even bother to attempt, namely breaking down historical confluences into their constituent elements rather than treating a particular subject as a monolith.
on July 10, 2006
It would be wrong to suppose that The Isles is "completely worthless as history simply because it is factually inaccurate."
That is what Davies has to say about Shakespeare's history plays on page 509 of the hard cover edition. The editing of this edition is appalling. James II is made out to be Charles II's son in appendix 30, page 1133, but he gets it right in the text.
Elizabeth Beaufort is Henry VII's mother in the text, on the other hand, this time he gets it right in appendix 26, page 1126-1127. She is the ONLY Beaufort mentioned in the whole 1058 pages of text and in appendix 19, page 1115 he has it terribly wrong, making Catherine Swynford Henry IV's mother. She would have had no time to make Beauforts.
Norman Davies is eminently readable. He is even a joy to read. He paints a very broad stroke. His point of view is reasonable. He is cogent. He marshalls his facts to make powerful arguments. His inconsistencies detract only a little after you get over the initial shock of finding them.
He makes a point of using names that he avers were current at the time of the action. Names tell something about the frame of mind of the users as well as about the named. It is curious, then that he consistently uses "Ireland" and "Irish" for the place and the people that we know by those names today, for that same place and the people who lived there in the centuries before the Vikings got there, when those terms came into general use (a fact he is careful to point out).
Like the bard, Davies "may be careless about event-based narrative but he is very interested in myths, legends and popular misconceptions."
on February 10, 2009
As a person (with a post-secondary degree) who greatly enjoys reading history, I was excited to get into this book. At first, I was not disappointed. His discussion of the ancients - when the Isles were still a giant Iberian-like penninsula - was fantastic. The next several chapters, as first the Celts, then the Romans, the Angles & Saxons invade - is all very entertaining and well written as well.
But then the Vikings arrive - and this story gets so incredibly muddy and hard to follow. Discussions jump back and forth, up and down, references towards Norseman, Vikings, and Danes - I really have had a hard time determining the difference. And then references towards Mercians, Welsh, Albans, Angles, Saxons, Brittains - which are which? The story rambles and the focus has completely disolved. I get the the distinct feeling that the author was on a timetable by the publisher, and wasn't able to get enough editing done before it was finally released.
I've only quit about 3 books in my life, and this is sadly one of them. Enough is enough - I read for enjoyment, not disjointed torture through a non-linear mish-mash of historical facts.