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The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648-1815 (Penguin History of Europe) Hardcover – May 31, 2007

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Product Details

  • Series: Penguin History of Europe
  • Hardcover: 736 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; Fourth Printing edition (May 31, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670063207
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670063208
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.7 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #512,649 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. This new volume in the Penguin History of Europe series is a wonderful achievement, particularly so considering the mammoth amount of specialist material that required synthesizing into digestible portions for general consumption. Blanning, professor of modern history at the University of Cambridge, has performed the miracle of balancing and blending traditional political and diplomatic accounts with the newer fields of social, economic and intellectual history. A prime example of this is the author's treatment of the impact of the new "public sphere." As people discoursed through coffeehouses, Masonic organizations or periodicals, "a new source of authority emerged to challenge the opinion-makers of the old regime: public opinion." Countries where this public sphere was left free, as in Britain or the Dutch Republic, tended to be more politically stable than, say, France, where suppression ended in bloody revolution. Blanning narrates the story of Europe from the end of the Thirty Years' War to the end of the Napoleonic wars, when secularization and the primacy of state sovereignty were recognized as the key attributes of the coming era. What the Europeans would eventually get was the secular, martial religion of nationalism. But this is the subject for a subsequent volume—which will be hard-pressed to match this splendid one. (June 4)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


In 1648 the Peace of Westphalia brought the Thirty Years’ War to an end. Although the Europeans didn’t know it, of course, this devastating conflict would prove to be the last of the Wars of Religion that had been tearing the continent apart since the start of the Reformation in 1517. Europe was entering a new age.

Despite the Renaissance, it was still a largely medieval world in its outlook, infrastructure and government in 1648. Europe was less wealthy and, in many ways, less economically advanced than other parts of the world, like Mughal India and China. By 1815, the year of the Battle of Waterloo, Europe was recognizably modern. It was also far in advance of the rest of the world economically, scientifically, technologically, politically and militarily.

So the period between these two dates is the very hinge of European history. It is no small accomplishment to cover so vast a subject adequately in a single volume. But Tim Blanning, a professor of modern history at Cambridge and a fellow of the British Academy, not only does so, he also triumphs at it. “The Pursuit of Glory,” at 708 pages, is not a short read, but it is so well written that for those who love history, it is a page turner.

Mr. Blanning accomplishes his task not by taking a strictly chronological approach but by dealing with various aspects of a rapidly changing Europe one by one. Consider communications. In 1648 the main roads in Europe were mostly the ones that the Romans had built 1,500 years earlier and that had been neglected ever since.

The pace of travel, therefore, was seldom more than the speed a man could make on his own two feet, which, indeed, is how most people traveled. What coaches there were were wretched and slow. In 1708 an envoy from Louis XIV to Madrid reported from Bayonne, in southwestern France, that he had been nine days on the road and expected that he would need another two weeks to reach the Spanish capital.

But by the end of the period, roads had much improved in Western Europe and with it the speed of travel. In France travel times were cut in half and the comfort of riding in coaches much improved by the better roads. In Britain matters were even better. The trip from Bath to London took 50 hours in 1700. By 1800 it took 16. These greatly improved roads allowed other improvements, like much more efficient and much less costly postal service.

This sort of history can be deadly dull, an endless recitation of facts and statistics. In Mr. Blanning’s hands it is not, because he has a keen eye for the exactly apposite contemporary quotation. The people who lived through this transportation revolution regarded it with the same wonder that we regard, say, the global positioning systems that now keep us from getting lost. In 1754 a newspaper advertisement proclaimed, “However incredible it may appear, this coach will actually arrive in London four days after leaving Manchester.”

Mr. Blanning is also the master of the unexpected connection. The greatly improved roads, and thus greatly increased traffic, had an entirely unanticipated consequence: highwaymen. The reason that the 18th century saw these “gentlemen of the road” turn into figures of romance and legend is simply that the improved roads provided them with so many more people of whom they could demand that they “stand and deliver.”

Mr. Blanning uses this technique over and over, always with good effect. Why did France develop economically so much more slowly than Britain in the 18th century, with huge political consequences? One important reason was that Britain had an internal common market, but France was still riddled with internal tariffs and local taxes, causing no end of economic discontinuities.

An English traveler reported in 1786 that “a nobleman of Berry told me that on one side of a rivulet which flows by his chateau, salt is sold at 40 sols a bushel, and on the other ... at 40 times as much. In consequence of this, no less than two thousand troops of horse and foot were stationed on its banks to check smugglers.”

While everyone likely to read this book has heard of the scientific revolution, brought about by people like Isaac Newton, and the industrial revolution that began toward the end of the period (both well covered here), the agricultural revolution occurring at the same time was equally important. In 1648 European agriculture had not changed much since medieval times. But enclosure, manuring, crop rotation, new crops like turnips and clover, and improved breeding brought forth a large increase in food production.

One result was a golden age for the landed gentry, whose rent rolls increased sharply, and their conspicuous consumption along with them. (Robert Walpole employed 50 people just to weed his gardens.) Another result was the freeing of manpower to work in the factories that were beginning to spring up in the English countryside. The industrial revolution came about because of turnips as well as steam engines.

Mr. Blanning thoroughly covers the politics and endless wars of the era. These power shifts were not unconnected with the two great political trends in Europe in this period: the development of representative government in Britain and the Dutch Republic and the growth of royal absolutism in much of the rest of Europe. Change thus came about in manageable increments in Britain, allowing it both to modernize efficiently and to accommodate a potent new political force — public opinion, made possible by coffee houses and newspapers — while change was bottled up until it exploded in France.

Even here, Mr. Blanning presents the historical nuggets that bring this book to such vibrant life. When Louis XVI learned that he was to die on the guillotine the next morning, he sent a servant to fetch a copy of David Hume’s “History of England” to learn how Charles I had faced his own execution.

The Pursuit of Glory is history writing at its glorious best.

—John Steele Gordon (author of An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power), The New York Times --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Customer Reviews

Extremely well written, prodigiously learned, always interesting and endlessly intriguing.
First: the material at the end of the book - the concluding chapter--would have been more helpful at the beginning of the book.
And at times, the book gets repetitive and somewhat rambling to the point of being boring.
J. Groen

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

183 of 184 people found the following review helpful By Antonio on July 4, 2007
Format: Hardcover
This is not the first volume to be published in the Penguin History of Europe. That honor belongs to William Jordan's "Europe in the High Middle Ages", a book not as praiseworthy as Mr. Blanning's, which reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic have regarded as one of the top history books of 2007.

"The Pursuit of Glory" is a very ambitious book. It covers, in a single volume, a period that took up 4 volumes in Will and Ariel Durant's Story of Civilization. It begins during the minority of Louis XIV, and ends with Napoleon en route to Saint Helena. In between these two, Blanning tells the stories of the trial and execution of Charles I and of James II's dereliction of duties, of pathetic Charles II and his poisoned inheritance, of Charles XII's madness and Peter the Great's folly, of Elizabeth Farnese's ambition, of Louis XV's lack of foresight, of Maria Theresa's efforts to survive and thrive next to fearsome neighbours, such as Frederick the Great, of Joseph II's pigheadedness and Katherine the Great's acquisitiveness, of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, of Brissot and the Girondins, of the Abbe de Sieyes and Napoleon, of Talleyrand, Pitt and Metternich. All the usual suspects turn up, but this is not dynastic history as usual.

Blanning tells us why road locations were not chosen in the same way in Britain, Spain or France, and what that meant for those countries' future development. He shows us that hunting was a very important activity, central indeed to the kingly role, and highlights the popularity of cock fighting in Britain all the way to Queen Victoria's reign. He compares Mozart's with Beethoven's funeral and uses it to give evidence of the artist's role from the classical to the romantic period.
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40 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Izaak VanGaalen on September 6, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In the halcyon days of the 1970's, as an undergraduate history major, I set myself the absurdly ambitious goal of mastering world history. I would do this by first reading Palmer and Colton's "History of the Modern World," and then I would tackle Will and Ariel Durant's "Story of Civilization." I made it through the "History of the Modern World" and became so overwhelmed with facts, figures, and dates, I abandoned the original goal. I later discovered that cultivating smaller patches is a more steady path to historical knowledge.

Like-minded undergraduates of today have much more and better information available, and the current volume, the second of Penguin's projected eight volume History of Europe is a good example. Much historical research has been done in the last 30 years, and Tim Blanning, professor of history at Cambridge, makes good use it. It's a big improvement on the Pelican Series of my undergraduate days.

Traditionally history was a record of important people such as popes and kings, and major events such as wars and revolutions. From there, historians would make a few passing comments about the lives of ordinary people. Blanning, on the other hand, after the current fashion, gives us a history of everyday life and then shows how it affects the larger events of the day.

Blanning covers a wide swath of European history: frome the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 to the Congress of Vienna in 1815. He begins the book with the physical realities of the lives of ordinary people. He tells us, for example, how roads in 1648 were not much different those in Roman times. It took about 3 weeks to travel from London to Edinburgh or from Paris to Madrid. By 1815, it took only a week.
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34 of 34 people found the following review helpful By R. Albin TOP 500 REVIEWER on August 19, 2007
Format: Hardcover
This is a very ambitious survey. Blanning covers not only the 18th century proper but also the second half of the 17th century and the period of the French Revolution/Napoleonic wars. Similar books often start later and end with the beginning of the French Revolution, so Blanning has really undertaken an enormous task. Surveys like this one force authors into attempts to balance chronological narrative with thematic exposition of major trends. In this fine book, Blanning emphasizes thematic exposition over narrative. The Pursuit of Glory is divided into 4 major sections; Life and Death, Power, Religion and Culture, and War and Peace. The first three, comprising the great majority of the book, are thematic. The War and Peace section is a more traditional narrative overview of European politics and diplomacy. This structure is a little unusual but effective.

The Life and Death section is devoted to demography, transportation, economic history, and agricultural history. Power covers the basic political structures of the differing European societies, the impact of attempted reforms, the complex social history of European elites, and provides a broad brush outline of major political and diplomatic trends. The Religion and Culture section is the most diverse, covering intellectual history such as the Enlightenment, religious history and some efforts to look at religious enthusiasms, aristocratic culture, and the beginnings of the Romantic movement.

All sections, including the War and Peace narrative section, are very well done. Blanning is a fluent, sometimes witty, writer. He has to grapple with some controversial historiographic issues, such as the nature of the Enlightenment and the nascent Industrial Revolution, and does so in a generally sensible way.
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