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The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648-1815 (Penguin History of Europe) Hardcover – May 31, 2007
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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)
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In 1648 the Peace of Westphalia brought the Thirty Years War to an end. Although the Europeans didnt 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 coachesthere 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. Blannings 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, alwayswith 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 withthe 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 Humes 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"
aHistory writing at its glorious best.a
a"The New York Times"
a Magnificent. Exhilarating. [Blanning has] the acuity of vision to focus on the particular without ever needing to sacrifice the broader perspective.a
a"The Sunday Times" (London)
a A triumphant success. [Blanning] brings knowledge, experience, sound judgment, and a colorful narrative style.a
History writing at its glorious best.
"The New York Times"
Magnificent. Exhilarating. [Blanning has] the acuity of vision to focus on the particular without ever needing to sacrifice the broader perspective.
"The Sunday Times" (London)
A triumphant success. [Blanning] brings knowledge, experience, sound judgment, and a colorful narrative style.
?History writing at its glorious best.?
?"The New York Times"
? Magnificent. Exhilarating. [Blanning has] the acuity of vision to focus on the particular without ever needing to sacrifice the broader perspective.?
?"The Sunday Times" (London)
? A triumphant success. [Blanning] brings knowledge, experience, sound judgment, and a colorful narrative style.?
--This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
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. He describes how an internal system of tariffs in France stunted its economic growth, and how the absence of those tariffs allowed England to excel economically during that period. He describes how the improvements in agriculture led to better diets, which in turn led to healthier people and longer lives. He traces the advancements in medicine that at the beginning of the period was basically quackery, but by the early nineteenth century was scientifically advanced.
Fascinating as all the details are, historian must keep the narrative moving and Banning does this remarkably well. He takes the details of everday life and shows how they relate to the big picture. He does this for most of the book. In the final section, he goes into relations between states, the history with which most of us are familier.
Blannings account of Louis XIV's wars in pursuit of glory are probably his best, hence the title of the book. This period marks the beginning of European nation-states and phenomenon known as nationalism. The Peace of Westphalia is an important event for international relations theory, for politics in Europe from that point on becomes an equilibrium of power among the Great Powers. The equilibrium changed constantly and the map of Europe with it. Leaders of Britain, France, Prussia, Russia, and the Habsburg were always positioning for more power and territory.
Towards the end of the book, Blanning expounds on another of his favorite subjects: the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon. He excoriates the French for what began as the liberation of a people but ended up as a series of wars and conquests for the Bonaparte family. (Another good book on this subject isThe First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It by David A. Bell.) Blanning sees the seeds of 20th century totalitarianism and genocide in these events as did David Bell in his book.
I highly recommend this book and look forward to the next volumes in this series.
Understand this book is special, for more than one reason. 1) This book is a survey first and foremost of the European people. I would say that well over half of this book is devoted to learning what the ordinary man, woman, and child went through on a daily basis to keep from going hungry and thirsty. 2) This book is a survey of European history from 1648 at the end of the 30 Years War(s) to the end of the Treaty of the Congress of Vienna at the end of the second and final exile of Emperor Napoleon I. The chosen time frame is crucial to understand why this planet has shaped up the way it has in the past 98 years (since WWI).
If you want to know how life was in 1648 you will find that until 1800 the average human never travelled more than three miles from their point of coming into this world. Traveling a mear 20 miles would have cost two or three years in wages and would have taken two or three days with the likely hood of peril enroute. You will learn how waterways were flat out quicker, but they really didn't bridge the gap, pardon the pun. You will learn how women had their place, religion was strict for the first 100 years of this time, and you'll learn how trade and manufacturing evolved with capitalistic ideals.
The French hegemony will become apparent and you'll understand that the French Revolution wasn't contained within the borders of France; it erupted into a European War that last 23 years. That during that time 5,000,000 people would die because of war, which was as much as had died in the four years of WWI.
You will understand, as best as you will ever understand without a serious regimen of study, how Germany became what was by 1914.
Once you get to the three-quarters side of the book, you will understand why the author chose the name of the book as The Pursuit of Glory, because mainly Louis XIV had the idea that conquest was his Glory and he deserved Europe. After him, his heirs knew no different and the "French Revolution," which was started as a outcry from the common folk, simply did what just happened in Egypt and placed an even more conservative and more harsh regime in it's place which killed more, with the guillotine, than any regime before or after it.
My detraction with this book is simple. The only reason I won't give this author and this book five stars and only four is because this book is difficult to read and sometimes you put it down after reading a paragraph, because you have to absorb it. What is the solution? I don't know that there is a solution. The subject matter isn't JFK's Camelot and prose really doesn't lend itself to the subjects at hand. I've seen him change subject mid-paragraph and I think I have seen it mid-sentence.
I recommend this book to anyone wanting to understand Europe and why we are where we are today. I literally listen to the news and read the news paper differently today because of this book!