April 2024
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Review: Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe, Norman Davies

vanished kingdomsHistory is written by the victors. It’s a common phrase that nearly everyone has said or heard. Our history books and our world views are shaped by the people who won wars. Europe’s states, particularly those of western Europe, seem fixed in place. Italy, Germany, Spain; these are definite countries, aren’t they?

Well, as it turns out, and as those who study European history might know, not really. The borders, names, and actual existences of states in Europe have shifted dramatically over the course of the last 2,000 years, with many states completely and totally forgotten except by those who once lived in them. There were seven kingdoms and duchies called “Burgundy”, none of which exist now. Spain was historically fragmented into different countries in the middle ages and exists in an uneasy state now with Catalans seeking independence (and simultaneously forgetting states of their own). The united states of Italy and Germany are fairly new and the destruction of Prussia happened in the twentieth century. And Poland? Poland was completely absorbed into other countries for a time, while the Kingdom of Montenegro not only failed to exist after World War I, no one actually seemed to care. The country only gained independence again in 2006.

Unsurprisingly, I absolutely loved this book. It took me a month to read (during which time I read plenty of fiction) but I found it absolutely fascinating. The book is arranged in roughly chronological order from around the dissolution of the Roman Empire to the fall of the Soviet Union, with 15 states that have either vanished or had huge parts of their history forgotten by the popular consciousness. There’s no real connection between the choices except that they’re all in Europe. Each chapter is broken into three parts. The first part looks at what is happening in the region today, to give us context for the history which follows in the second part. The third part then looks at how well the history has been remembered (or misremembered). This structure worked really well for me; I always like having some sort of context to understand history, and I know enough about the bits and pieces around most of the “vanished” kingdoms to understand the history pretty well too. He goes into more detail with some countries than others, which according to some other reviews makes the book a bit dry, but I didn’t find that to be the case at all.

Naturally this is only a surface glance at each of the 15 “kingdoms” – which can also be empires, duchies, republics, etc. – but it’s a starting point to go out and explore more. Unfortunately a few of the places have been forgotten so thoroughly that the remaining documentation is slight or non-existent, or in another language, but Davies has copious notes at the back of the book, although I’d have loved a suggested reading list of sorts for each.

I really enjoyed the way Davies looked at how history is remembered, too. Each country is different, of course, but it’s fascinating to see how countries treat their own pasts. One of the most extensive was, unsurprisingly, at the end of the chapter on Ireland. Ireland is hardly a forgotten country, but its relationship with England and eventually the United Kingdom is very complicated. Davies ruminates at length on the future of the UK, which he doesn’t think is going to last very long.

All in all, Vanished Kingdoms was completely and totally fascinating. I only wished there were more kingdoms to read about! Very highly recommended.

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