138 of 146 people found the following review helpful
on January 17, 2012
This is an imposing tome, with 750 pages of tightly written history of 15 of Europe's (mostly) smaller states, many of which have now entirely vanished, both from maps and from popular memory.
One of Prof Davies' main themes is the uncertainty of nations. It is easy to think of today's European states as the natural sub-units of the continent. But many other forgotten states might have seemed just as natural, if they had only been a little luckier. Another pattern that struck me is the multi-ethnic nature of many of Davies' states. They were often welded together from a mix of peoples, overlapping in the same physical terrain, but willing to live together in some varying degree of harmony.
The states covered are Visigothic Tolosa, ancient British Strathclyde, the many Kingdoms of Burgundy, Aragon, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Byzantium (very briefly), Prussia, the lands of the House of Savoy, Galicia, the Napoleonic Kingdom of Etruria, Saxe-Coburg (birthplace of Prince Albert), Montenegro (lost and reborn), Carpatho-Ukraine (a Republic for but a day), Eire (a newborn state), and last but not least the USSR (freshly and mysteriously vanished). By winding up on the USSR, Davies takes the opportunity to reflect on the inevitability of change. "Nothing lasts forever" and Davies argues that while today's major states may seem permanent, they too will eventually fade, or change into very different forms.
The book has both strengths and weaknesses. Among the strengths are thorough histories of various forgotten states, including many fascinating nuggets of history, greed, intrigue and folly. Davies is especially interesting when he is reminiscing informally about the modern landscape of an ancient state or when he is discussing its slowly fading impact after it had officially ceased to exist. The main weakness is that the detailed histories can often become over-detailed, lapsing from a high-level thematic description into a detailed king-by-king listing of minor monarchs and events. I'm afraid there were some sections it took me a real effort to labor through.
I am a little torn on how to recommend this overall. There is much that is good and interesting, and the overall theme of the transitory nature of states is well addressed. But at 750 pages, it is also a very daunting work, and I'm not sure how many people will enjoy all the finer points of the histories. My suggestion would be that overall this is well worth reading, but perhaps with judicious skipping and skimming where the details become too much.
79 of 90 people found the following review helpful
on January 12, 2012
For a reader of what can be called tertiary historical works (so those written by someone who studies the source documents and most usually in a specific field and who also understands the process by which secondary works come about) I am always aware of what is possibly being left out because it doesn't quite fit onto the overall message of the book. Since I am unlikely to ever have the time or inclination to, for example, learn to read Polish or Lithuanian documents to ensure that there are no glaring lacunae, Dr Davis's book gives me great comfort and the assurance that inconvenient facts are included, and the result is a provocative, readable and sad work. Sad, because so many countries that seemed to be not bad places to live (compared to others of their time) vanish into history, forgotten by all but a few.
He is passionate about Poland-Lithuania, and the sections that involve this are superb. I would have greatly enjoyed an expanded section on Byzantium, but as he points out, that could take many volumes, and to a certain extent, has been covered, if in a fashion that while amusing is somewhat out of fashion today.
This is a great book.
37 of 42 people found the following review helpful
on January 18, 2012
The historical memory of nations has a great deal to do with their position amongst contemporaries at the time of their existence. Thus the stories of Rome, Greece and Great Britain are well chronicled. In fact the historiography seems to grow by the week of these great nations and empires. In contrast however, nations that had an admittedly mediocre history, or were perhaps consumed by these other great nations have largely disappeared from the historical picture. A current analogy might be the manner with which we tend to forget mediocre performing professional athletes and the astronauts after Neil Armstrong to walk on the moon. This is the type of issue that Norman Davies sees in the current state of history of Europe,however and he has set about to remedy, at least in small part, this glaring gap in the historical record of Europe with the writing of `Vanished Kingdoms'. In so doing he has striven to "both highlight the contrast between times present and past and to explore the workings of historical memory"(9). What's more is that, although left unstated, this work sets out to collect a series of histories that might never be able to be read by the layperson due to the highly specialized nature of the research, as it currently exists. What has resulted is a fantastic work of history and although it is some 739 pp in length, is hardly a ponderous read.
The book is organized into 15 essays covering such little known nations and kingdoms as Alt Clud, Tolosa and Etruria. Each chapter is further organized into three sections covering, in order: a sketch of some geographical area as it exists now within the onetime borders of a particular kingdom, a narrative of the particular nation and lastly, the current state of historiography of the kingdom/nation. Lastly these essays are organized by their general relative age. The aforementioned organization makes `Vanished Kingdoms' a pleasure to read. In my own experience, the chapter covering the history of the many manifestations of Burgundia, was particularly enjoyable, with the story set up by the description of the island of Bornholm, which once was part of the massive territory of Burgundy. In general, the narrative flows quite well as I have come to expect from Prof Davies works. Detail is rich in this book without becoming burdensome.
Although, other reviewers have taken exception to the historiographical analysis found in the third section of each chapter I have found these sections to be particularly interesting. Prof Davies is a consummate historian with decades of work spent on various topics in European history and although his opinions of the state of history in each section may not concur with the reader's own conception, they are as interesting as the general narrative itself and frequently quite enlightening. Besides, isn't the entire point of analysis to do the research and then state one's conclusions based on said research? If his opinion makes frequent appearances in this analysis, I'd argue that it makes those conclusions far more interesting to read than many I've seen in other sources. Curmudgeonly is hardly an accurate description of his outlook here.
In conclusion, `Vanishing Kingdoms' is an absolute treasure for those of us who are fascinated with times past and are wanting more than merely the standard works on the standard topics in national histories ie., Rome, Greece and anywhere in modern Europe. The narrative flows and many times throughout the book, the reader will find him or herself wishing to investigate the history of old Europe in greater detail. Indeed, I now have a list of topics to further research. I must extend a heartfelt thanks to Prof Davies for wetting my appetite and instilling the desire to broaden my horizons in European history as only a great writer can do.
123 of 160 people found the following review helpful
on January 13, 2012
Davies' thesis is that because modern historians write from the perspective of successful states, we often forget about all the states that didn't make it to the twenty-first century. Great thesis and it caused me to preorder this book. He then goes on to discuss 15 states that no longer appear on the map. In addition, each chapter is divided into roughly three sections - a travelogue of the present area, some history of the area, and a description of the scholarship on the area. It is the third part that often presents the problems for me.
I think that if it were better written, the third part could be great. But half the time Davies comes across as curmudgeonly, acting as if he knows better than all the other historians. For example, at the end of the chapter on Burgundy, he goes on. And on. And on about how his description of the history of Burgundy is the only complete one while everyone else is not. And then we are subjected to descriptions of encyclopedias and entries in search engines.
The other main problem is that the descriptions of history read like a medieval history. There is precious little analysis - basically it reads like an encyclopedia entry itself. And that's a problem for me because the idea behind the book is really interesting. Perhaps Davies would have better availed himself of the material if he had written about half the places but with double the information. Then a chapter like the one on Byzantion (The Byzantine Empire) would not be the biggest joke of the book due to its extreme shortness. He should have just left it out.
I would say to those considering reading this book to treat it as Lonely Planet: Lost Kingdoms rather than a serious scholarly history.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on January 17, 2014
As with many people, I like to hear my own views expressed by others and object strongly when diametrically opposed views are given. A book can be excellent in all important respects and I would not enjoy it because I disagreed with the thesis. I would not give it a bad review for that reason.
This book is excellently written, it is intelligent and it is well researched. By all of these criteria it would deserve 5 stars. Furthermore, I fell in love with the opening pages because they happened to speak to me from my own conceits and biases. In describing his early life Professor Davies could have been describing me. In describing his disillusion with nationalism as he slowly realized how transient and artificial nation states really are, he was describing exactly how I felt and still feel. Truly this man is a soul brother? Well not exactly or at least not consistently.
The early part of the book describing long lost states in the West did not disappoint me. How silly were the Visigoths to believe their precious Tolosa was a fundamental entity that defined the people who lived in that part of what is now France. How silly of them to believe their place of birth somehow made them different from people born a few miles down the road. How preposterous! Burgundia, Aragon, and heaven help us Byzantium.. why on earth should their peoples have thought that because they were born in a particular region they were somehow different from the rest of humanity. How transient was their vanity! This might upset a few nationalists but for me each word was pure joy.
Storm clouds appeared quite early with the discussion of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Although again it was transient, it was also clearly good and (here lies the problem) superior to those nasty Russian folk who were clearly "foreign" usurpers. Those same foreigners seem also to have been beastly to the Galicians, who once more fought bravely to maintain their sovereignty. Apparently, in the space of a few chapters nationalism has become a good or even a great thing. I have many Polish friends and they will no doubt be delighted at how important and vital their nationalism is. I agree we owe their long dead countrymen a great debt in their opposition to the wicked Soviets and slightly less wicked Prussians... but doesn't this go a little against the original anti-nationalist sentiment.
By the time we get to the last Chapter the Professor Davies seems to have become comfortable with his books dual perspective and is now able to happily point out the arrant nonsense of a "British" identity while at the same time pointing out the obvious existence of the completely natural and inviolable nature of Scottishness and Welshness (the former named for a people who came from what is now Ireland and the latter being a name given to a group of people purely because they were thought of as foreign).
This is why in the end I hated this book, not that the arguments are poor but because they are contradictory. Professor Davies can believe that nation states are inherently artificial (as do I) or he can believe that nationality is somehow ingrained in our DNA (I have a doctorate in genetics - trust me it is not), he cannot choose which to believe purely on the basis of which countries he likes and which he does not.
11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
"Oh where, oh where has my little dog gone?" In the case of Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and fall of States and Nations by Norman Davies the question in this case could be "Oh where, oh where has my little "kingdom" gone?" Davies provides us with an answer, at least a partial one in the case of 15 once thriving kingdoms and states. Spanning nearly two thousand years kingdoms as diverse as Tolosa (AD 418-507), Burgundia (411-1795), Aragon (1137-1714), Byzandion (330-1453) and others are included. The last is CCCP which of course evaporated in 1991.
Each chapter is a case study of what can happen when bad decision making by those holding the reins of power respond incorrectly to a threat or simply fail to respond at all. Some of these nation states were made up of a mixed ethnic population and for whatever reason the factions decided to go their own ways. Others, like Byzantium were conquered from the outside. It is my opinion that Davies does his best work in the Byzantine chapter.
One realization that stays in the readers mind as the book is studied is the fact that every one of these now defunct states was at one time a thriving system. When a map of Europe is studied today, the overall assumption is that the countries that take up that space have always been there and will continue to exist right on into the future. But after reading Vanished Kingdoms the realization takes root that nothing is permanent.
The final chapter, How States Die (not numbered) beginning on page 729 is a curious and interesting read. One would assume that the process by which kingdoms and nation states come and go would be pretty well understood by those who study the field. Such is not the case as is evident by the number of terms used to describe the process. "Dissolution", "destruction", "withering", "extinction", "expiration", "death", "failure", "disintegration" are all mentioned. It's obvious that there is a difference between "destruction" and "withering" though the same outcome results. Very interesting.
The book includes and excellent Index, and has a large Notes section, perhaps the second most important part of a book of this nature.
I have to give this 5 stars.
Peace to all.
31 of 43 people found the following review helpful
on January 22, 2012
Vanished Kingdoms is fascinating, but extremely tedious. I love history but this book was too much. It is painstakingly researched but lacks organization and focus.
It would have been helpful to have a precis at the beginning of each section telling you what the chapter is about- the time period and geographical location in a nutshell. Instead there is a rambling travelogue in the present day, and you are not quite sure what the chapter is going to be about until you have read ten or twenty pages.
A standard of expository writing is: Tell 'em what you are going to say, them say it, then tell 'em what you just said. In this book you often don't know where you are going, or where you have been.
It is a very large, heavy book, and just holding it up is a chore. No curling up on a winter's day with a book- you need a book stand in order to read it. Now I have read Samauel Elliot Morrison's Naval history of WWII in 13 volumes, Gibbons' Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire, Thucydides' Pelloponnesian War, so I am used to long-winded authors, but this book is so frustrating because you know the good stuff is in there, but you can't get to it because you are bogged down in myriad details!
Good pictures and maps don't make up for the tedium. I will finish this book eventually, but I reserve the right to skim over some parts. Overall a disappointment.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on August 2, 2012
I thoroughly enjoyed Professor Davies book, but buyers should think carefully about the choice of format. I read the Kindle version which was fine for the text and photos. However the book has numerous maps and tables (which if you're a visual thinker like me, really help) and the maps are hard to read on my Kindle and even worse when using the Kindle app on my phone. I found that I frequently had to change to the Kindle app on my laptop to understand the detailed variations in shades of gray between political boundaries created by one treaty and abrogated in the next. The tables showing family trees of many kings were equally difficult to decipher. I haven't looked at the printed book so I don't know that the illustrations are any better there, but they almost certainly would be. Overall a great, informative book, but maybe not the best choice for reading on a Kindle.
9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Norman Davies presents a hefty package with his new book, "Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations". Coming in at 828 pages - including footnotes and index - Davies gives a history-jock reader a real chance to pick-and-choose what he wants to read and learn.
Davies begins each chapter with a picture of what yesterday's kingdoms look like today. It's an excellent way to tie the past with the present. He goes in historic order, beginning with the Visigoth empire in the Fifth and Sixth centuries. Relatively short-lived when compared to some of the longer-in-time but still vanished, the Visigoths in Tolosa, in southwest France, left little behind. Davies continues with his history lessons, ending with the demise of the Soviet Union in the 20th century. Also included in the text are marvelous maps and photographs of the areas written about. The book is almost encyclopedic in the breadth of coverage of those fascinating nations which were often so influential in the times in which they existed, but are mainly forgotten today.
I read about 3/4 of Davies book. I picked and chose those times and countries I wanted to read about. I wonder if any reader will sit down and read the book cover-to-cover. It's the kind of book that I will keep in my library to refer back to when I read about "Rosenau" or "Sabaudia" in another context. Norman Davies really wrote a great book.