I’ve been busy. Norman Davies’ Vanished Kingdoms tells of fifteen very different European states, from late Roman times to the late twentieth century. Most were ruled by kings and queens and most would fall across borders in today’s Europe. These are countries that, if not forgotten, occupy an awkward place in my historical imagination. Savoy, for example, now part of France, gave unified Italy its ruling house. Again, there is an unconscious inclination to believe that if Aragon was neither fully Spanish, nor French, nor Italian, it can’t have been anything more than an aberration, a temporary arrangement. It is Davies’ intention to dispel notions like this and to broaden our view of European history.
Vanished Kingdoms flirts with high theory: Davies divides each essay into three parts, sandwiching a historical account with personal and then broader reflections on a state’s legacy. In a last chapter he attempts a classification of “How States Die”. Fortunately, he mostly avoids theory and sticks to the stories. It’s the real achievement of this book that so much material hangs together so well and lets big questions arise naturally, as they should.
Subjects range from the late Roman period until the end of the U.S.S.R. after I was born. I’ve sometimes thought I suffered from a strange mental gap in that, whereas the Greek and Roman classics possess great vividness and a certain familiarity, European history, as an intelligible and sympathetic tale, only seems to pick up around the time of Shakespeare’s history plays. I know the term is falling out of favor, but there is a reason we talk about the Dark Ages. I’m fascinated with the problem of why I think about history this way and what I might do about it. Davies goes some way towards covering the gap, helping me ask more specific questions.
For example, historians who take a broad view sometimes speak of an Age of Migrations. When do the migrations stop and the invasions and wars begin? Are there solid reasons for saying that the Visigothic kingdom of Tolosa was the result of a migration, but the Aragonese capture of Valencia from Moors counts as invasion? Or do issues like the availability of written sources and even how we imagine the mental lives of the participants have an undue influence on how we describe events “on the ground”?
Another question is best summed up, “Why aren’t there as many kings as before?” Davies remarks that the ruling families of Europe with their merger-marriages and subsidiary houses resembled international corporations or brands more than the rallying points of nationhood we might imagine them to be. In modern times the institution appears outdated and at odds with important events, as illustrated by the fate of Elizabeth II’s cousin the Duke of Saxe Coburg Gotha. He inherited a part of the German Empire and came to be loathed in his native England. Davies includes a really bizarre photo of the helmeted and trench-coated Duke at the tail end of George V’s funeral train in 1936. This awkward result, though, was in part due to the extreme flexibility of a multilingual, multinational family. I wonder if this flexibility can explain the persistence of monarchy and if monarchy provides a model to help understand the importance of international corporate power.
Davies also does a remarkable job of bringing the same players back and showing them from different angles. Davies’ specialty is Poland, and he devotes many pages to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which was constitutionally joined to the Kingdom of Poland. Here we get to see neglected perspectives on the Russians, Swedes, Teutonic Knights, Mongols, and Austrians. Later, though, we see the Teutonic Knights playing a central role in the evolution of Prussia. Throughout, Davies is particularly concerned with the fate of multi-ethnic and religiously pluralist states. It’s in the discussion of the Grand Duchy that he finds the most to blame in the behavior of victorious, still existent states, mainly Russia and France. I can’t make up my mind whether tragedy and nemesis are only natural parts of a history of lost states, or whether this is some kind of lapse. My last big question, then, is whether it is a defect of the long historical imagination that it has trouble accommodating issues of right and wrong.