am 3. März 2000
Mr Davies' book is an excellent introduction to the history of the British Isles. The author is at pains to use terms like "British" and "English" only in their proper contexts, and is so careful to avoid anachronism that he refers to historical figures and places only by the names current at the time. King William I, for example, is "Guillaume" in the book. The separate and inter-dependent histories of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales are treated in depth. Unfortunately, the book is marred by several egregious errors of fact; notably the assertion on page 905 (hardback) that the Irish civil war was won by Eamon de Valera's anti-treaty forces. The edition I read also suffered from a lack of proofreading that showed up on almost every page. The concluding chapter on the "Post-Imperial Isles" consists of a series of essays documenting various strands of modern society. These essays are very strongly informed by events of the late 1990s and are somewhat out of keeping with the overall scope of the work. All in all however, for the tolerant reader this book is a most enjoyable route to a solid knowledge of British history.
am 30. Dezember 2005
The British Isles are a unique geographical location in the world, having been provided by nature with advantages and problems unique in the world, and peopled by various groups who have worked together and against one another for domination of the Isles. Only for the briefest periods in history did the Isles truly represent a unified group, and even these times were more of an appearance of unity rather than actual unification.
Norman Davies, author of the critically acclaimed `Europe: A History', has put together an interesting history of the British Isles, trying to portray them as a group that, while lacking unity, should be at least addressed as a unified group, always influencing and co-dependent upon each other.
Davies is rather modest in his self-description of the book:
`This book necessarily presents a very personal view of history. Indeed, by some academic standards, it may well be judged thoroughly unsound. As I wrote in relation to a previous work, it presents the past 'seen through one pair of eyes, filtered by one brain, and recorded by one pen'. It has been assembled by an author who, though being a British citizen and a professional historian, has no special expertise in the British historical field.'
Davies self-criticism is really far too strongly expressed here, for he does an admirably thorough job at documentation, reporting, and theorising. Taking a cue from other historians who worry about the increasing lack of historical knowledge of the general public coupled with the increasing specialisation which causes people to lose proper perspective, Davies has put together a comprehensive history of the British Isles which strives to escape at least some of the problems of previous histories.
For instance, it has only been within the last generation that 'English History' has come to be seen as an inaccurate term for discussion of the affairs of all the Isles, or even for the history of the largest island, Great Britain. To this day, anomalies exist that confuse the status of the islands (all cars in the United Kingdom, for instance, carry the plate coding GB, even those cars in Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom that is not part of Great Britain, etc.). Davies takes great care to distinguish English from Scot from Pict from Irish from British, which has a meaning close to the commonly-used term for only the most ancient and the most modern British events.
This does, I must confess, occasionally get in the way of the narrative history. While explaining his reasoning up front in the introduction or preface makes sense, the constant referring to this state of affairs interrupts the flow of the narrative a bit more than it perhaps should.
Davies takes a long-term approach, starting with prehistorical evidence for inhabitation of the areas which are now the British Isles (which used to be connected to the mainland), getting into real substance with the arrival of the Celts in the British Isles (the longest-tenured remaining people in the Isles, pushed to the periphery but still influential in many ways), which for a period of six to seven centuries may have the been the longest period of unity and stability the Isles have ever, or will ever, know. However, even these groups were not unified in a political sense, and tribal warfare was common on all the main islands among competing groups.
Davies proceeds to explore the history of the British Isles under the Romans, during the Germanic invasion/migrations, during the Norse/Viking invasions/raids, during the Norman conquest, and then to the period of English hegemony. The period of English hegemony consists of three primary period: the 'Three Kingdoms' period (England, Ireland, and Scotland); the Union period (which various includes Ireland in union with a unified England and Scotland), and the post-Imperial time, which has seen an increasing move toward devolution, beginning with Irish independence and continuing toward separate parliaments for the 'nations'.
`In all but name, therefore, the policy of devolution had been accepted by the Thatcher government in the cultural and educational sphere many years before it was adopted in the constitutional sphere by 'New Labour'. The cumulative effects were bound to be far-reaching. The Scots and the Welsh, and to some extent the Northern Irish, were given a strong injection not only of self-esteem but also of separation.'
Davies tackles difficult questions and problems that are not typical of standard histories, especially where speculation into the possible future of the British Isles is concerned. As the United Kingdom has never been a nation-state in the same sense as continental nations, what does this mean for the future of the Union? Will the British Isles once again become a collection of peoples, owing more allegiance to the broader, historically-newly forming European Union than toward each other politically, while still maintaining trade and social ties that are incredibly strong? Only time will tell.
A biased history, to be sure, but a very unique insight, and well worth reading for a broader perspective on the history of the peoples of the British Isles than most 'British history' or 'English history' books will give.
am 23. Juli 2000
Davies book is massive, which is necessary for a topic as large as History of British Isles from the beginning. Much of his early history adds light to a poorly understood topic & seems worthwhile. When we get to more modern times, in my view he seems to want to pile on history of various different institutions with only passing reference to people. For example there are discussions of British common law, the evolving importance and then waning of importance of the Royal Navy, the size of the British Armed forces including the Army, the history of Imperial measures such as pounds and the mile ( as opposed to the metric system). Yet he has only minimal mention of such figures in the evolution of the British Empire as Clive or Cecil Rhodes. When he does mention them, it is often grouped together with others as part of an abstract discussion of some general trend. There are brief discussions of some of the key explorers of this century, Scott of the Antarctic, Mallory , the team of Hillary and Norgay on Everest. Davies correctly summarizes the failure of Scott to learn how to use specialized equipment, such as dogsleds, as being the key to his failure while Amundsen succeeded. There is a great deal of discussion of the fact that the Royal Family are of German extraction, that the only thing about Diana that they did not criticize was her Englishness. I think many people would find a book more satisfying that spoke somewhat more about stories of individuals and less about the evolution of institutions as abstract concepts. Perhaps Davies is reacting to the fact that most history is told about individuals, so he wishes to correct this by describing abstractions and institutional developments. In one sense this may be correcting an imbalance. Yet it seems difficult to warm to this mode fo telling a story.
am 30. Juni 2000
This is a peculiarly sketchy and idiosyncratic treatment of British history. Although Davies' perspectives are often interesting and novel, they are also frustratingly incomplete and cursory. Early British history (from the beginning, up to and including the Norman invasion) is very well written. From that point on, however, Davies selectively concentrates on whatever he finds of personal interest. For example, Queen Elizabeth I only receives perhaps a couple of pages of discussion at most, while obscure topics are analyzed in great depth and detail.One gets the impression that Davies ran out of energy during the writing of this book, and decided to change gears in order to maintain his interest.
I was disappointed that Davies did not spend any effort discussing sociological aspects of Britain throughout its history, giving the reader some ideas of what life was like from the common peoples' perspective. From his introduction, I thought this was one of his goals, but this certainly was not the case. Hence in many ways this book is just another conventional history book, with the requisite citations of dates, battles, treaties, and biographical names -- albeit less complete and balanced than others.
On the positive side, I admire Davies' goal of writing a socio-politically accurate history of the Isles, in which he convinces the reader that British history is quite different from English history, contrary to conventional treatments. His first chapter rightly points out the nationalistic overtones that determine how the Isles have been labelled (England, Britain, Great Britain, United Kingdom,...). Unfortunately, he becomes overly pedantic about this theme throughout the book, which can become very annoying, especially given his cursory, selective discussion of broader issues.
am 25. März 2000
Davies writes a superb book which is a wonderful antedote to all the horrendous old anglocentric histories I remember reading years ago. In my opinion Davies correctly emphasises the importance of all the constituent parts of the Isles. The book begins by examining the prehistory of the isles and I note that one other reviewer states that he felt this chapter to be a waste of time, concentrating on the minutae of an obscure academic argument. The opening chapter and its discussion readily puts over the point that when talking about place names etc. we cannot remove ourselves from a preconception of history and inevitably produces bias. If that reviewer had persisted with the book I suspect he/she may have got the point by the end. However the book then enters a more traditional history beginning with the Celtic domination of the Isles and proceeding through Roman, Saxon, Norse, Norman and Plantagenet eras of (attempted) domination. With each period there is a three part chapter consisting of a "scene setting" episode, the meat of the history and then a review of conceptions, misconceptions and previous views on those eras. The first part of the chapters are always excellent, the second as good but the third parts tend to be inconsistent, some good some rather tedious. Overall though the layout is good and the appendices at the end are wonderful, having the lyrics and music to various "nationalistic" tunes is a wonderfully original idea. Criticisms of the book are minor in comparison to its overall impact, but here goes. There appeared to me numerous typos in the book ranging from mis-spelling to factual inaccuracies. Whilst this can be forgiven, they did seem to get more frequent towards the end as if the proofreader had gone to sleep. There were inaccuracies and omissions in some of the genealogies notably the suggestion that James II and VII was the son of Charles II, that the old pretender was Charles and many others. The other criticism is that I would have preferred to see more on the more modern history of the non-English parts of the Isles (a large part of the tradition of South Wales for example depends on its mild rebelliousness, eg. Chartist rebellion (Chartism got one sentence), Rebecca riots (never mentioned) and the rise of the unions. These aspects of modern history are far more resonant to the people of South Wales than the musings of early 20th century Welsh language poets important as the language issue is. The history of the struggle to free Ireland is also much too brief. Overall though I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in afair history of the Isles.
am 14. Mai 2000
Norman Davies' last book, on the history of Europe, was perhaps the best book of its kind. It is that admiration and enjoyment from reading that last book which led me to pick up this one, on the history associated with the British Isles. However, I would characterize this book as being a much better assertion of a very persuasively argued point of view about history of the British Isles than a telling of history. This was not the flaw of his last opus magnum. There are many typos in the first edition which i picked up and read with great excitement; but viewed in light of how I have characterized the book, even the typos are amusingly ideosyncratic. Ultimately, this is an ideosyncratic book, one that should be read after considerable prior exposure to the history of Britain and the British sensibility. Then, one can enjoy Norman Davies' book for what it is: a construction of how history ought to be approached as a living argument, lively argued.
am 14. Juni 2000
DAVIES STARTED TO WRITE A VERY GOOD NARRATIVE OF THE ISLES, WITH VERY DETAILED SOCIO-POLITICAL EXPLANATIONS FOR IMPORTANT EVENTS - UNTILL 1707. THEN THE AUTHOR WRITES A DIFFERENT BOOK. THE SECOND HALF COVERING THE PERIOD AFTER 1707 IS MORE OF A CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY TEXTBOOK, COVERING VERY FEW POLITICAL EVENTS, AND CHRONOLOGY THAT IS MORE OF A STREAM OF CONCIOUSNESS
BOTH IN THEIR OWN RIGHT ARE INTERESTING, HOWEVER, I HAD TO GIVE THE BOOK 3 STARS BECAUSE IT IS SUFFERING FRON AN IDENTITY CRISIS, AND LEAVE THE READER WITH CONFLICTING IDEAS OF THE HISTORICAL RELATIONSHIPS PRESENTED BY THE AUTHOR.