My adolescence was littered with references no-one ever took the trouble to explain. One of Henry VIII’s wives was Catherine of Aragon. Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost was set in Navarre. And a historical atlas we were supplied with showed the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. What were Aragon, Navarre and the last-mentioned impossibility? I suspect none of our teachers knew. But Norman Davies, a historian with posts at Oxford, Cambridge and, unexpectedly, Krakow, and a hugely knowledgeable and witty writer, knows, and has devoted a book to relating their histories, and much more.
Vanished Kingdoms is utterly satisfying, a feast of 15 mouth-watering and intellectually nutritious courses. Single chapters cover swathes of history with great erudition, so that you feel it all adds up to a history of Europe itself (something Davies has already tackled, in fact). But instead you’re introduced to Savoy, Piedmont, Prussia, Burgundy, a state that only lasted a day, and another, Byzantium, that lasted over 1000 years.
There’s an exceptionally scholarly chapter on the ancient kingdom centered on Dumbarton in Scotland that’s virtually a history of the whole of northern Britain from the 5th to the 12th centuries. And Davies’s history of Savoy begins in 1033 and continues down to the squabbles of Italy’s dethroned royalty when one claimant punched another in the face, twice, at a wedding in Madrid in 2004.
But there’s also a semi-secret subtext to this incomparable book. That no state lasts forever is its oft-proclaimed theme, but what is less overtly stated is that Italy, Spain and the UK, among others, are already in the early stages of dissolution. Italy has never been very successful as a unified country, Davies asserts, and Spain’s Catalans and Basques have made their dissatisfaction with Madrid’s rule clear. As for the UK, it lost most of Ireland in 1922, and Scotland will be voting on separation in 2014. In our own lifetimes the Soviet Union has disappeared, Czechoslovakia has split in two, and Yugoslavia broken apart. What makes us think the process will stop there?
Davies, as a result, is essentially a historian of diverse localities. The great European states, which to us seem cast in bronze, are to him uneasy conglomerations of innumerable tiny zones, each with their own traditions and — more significantly — their own possible futures. Davies is the opposite of a believer in creeping internationalism, let alone the wider ambitions of the EU.
Meanwhile, he has stumbled on an astonishing subject for a long and meaty book. Some of the old European states — he couldn’t possibly cover them all — shifted their borders every few generations. Burgundy, today mostly in south-eastern France, had 15 manifestations in nearly 1,400 years, and Davies quietly awards reference books scores out of 15 for how many they manage to include (none scores the full total).
And he has enormous fun with all these princelings and petty potentates. Napoleon’s advance into what’s now (for the time being) Italy more than once proves fertile territory. Ancient mini-states were toppled by the revolutionary French, then resurrected in different form by the victors after the Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon III later offered assistance to the movement for Italian unity on condition that Nice and Savoy were ceded to France, and pseudo-plebiscites were arranged to confirm this already secretly-agreed arrangement. (The king of Savoy had assented because he saw that the kingship of a united Italy was within his grasp — a prize he was eventually to attain).