Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe, Norman Davies, Allen Lane, 848pp, £30 (hardback)

As a roll call of the corpses of often long-interred states – including ‘Tolosa’, ‘Burgundia’, ‘Sabaudia’, ‘Etruria’, and ‘Litva’, whose history we have never read, and whose dynasts we have little knowledge of, Norman Davies’s Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe, demonstrates not just how few of the events of European history we actually know, but also how much the mental maps of the past differ from those of today. It is not just that the European history we think we do know, of nation states such as England, France, and of pre-modern states such as the Merovingian kingdoms, or the Holy Roman Empire, somehow omits so much of what once existed, it is also that those structures and states which we regard as so inevitable a part of our world have often been preceded by some very alien-seeming entities.

I had never heard of the ninth-century Rurikid dynasties based at Novgorod, Kiev, and Polatsk, the complicated tale of their tribal identities, attempts to convert them to Christianity, and relations with their neighbours. One does not need Davies’s breadth of reading in the literature on Kievan Rus, however, to know that the greedy attempts of the Rurikid Prince Ingvar of Kiev to ‘exact tribute twice in the same month’ from the same one of his subject tribes was unlikely to end well. As a Byzantine chronicler describes it, ‘the tribesmen captured him, bent two birch trees and tied his legs to the tips of the trees, and then they let them spring back to their full height’. It was envoys of his grandson Vladimir who, on a fact-finding mission to work out which of the religions of the day he might be most politic to adopt, were responsible for the famous remark after a mass in St. Sophia’s in Constantinople, that ‘we knew not whether we were in heavenor in earth’. I had come across the remark but until now had understood nothing of the state from which those making it originated.

With so many of Davies’s research interests long focused on Eastern Europe, the book delights us with anecdotes from the complex stories of states whose histories are outside the outlines of European history familiar to us. There is also a larger theme – a warning about the evanescence of every state, modern states included, with the future of the United Kingdom and the European Union clearly in Davies’s mind. This is a history built of the forgotten materials of forgotten states. We begin, therefore, with distant European history, and the history of states such as Alt Clud, situated in modern Scotland on the Clyde, which belongs to the period after the withdrawal of the Roman legions from Britannia in around AD 410. We are not spared the difficulties of writing the history of a state like Alt Clud which, to its inhabitants, would have seemed as familiar as the Coalition Government of David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Rather, we are confronted with the jumble of linguistic, archaeological, and genealogical relics, the unlabelled, mislabelled and fragmentary materials necessary for writing the histories of forgotten states.

With the case of Alt Clud, even the name of the state is hard to recover, let alone understanding its culture, language or reconstructing any sort of narrative history. Whereas, Forgotten Kingdoms brings us, chapter by chapter, ever closer to the present day, towards the histories of states of which we have a passing familiarity. Davies ends the book with the demise of the Soviet Union, a choice at first I thought curious. This is so familiar a tale – particularly given the recent anniversaries of the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the August 1991 military coup in the Soviet Union – that it may seem strangely at odds with the larger theme of discordant unfamiliarity elsewhere in the book. Many of the other chapters reveal worlds unknown except to the specialist; the existence of a Visigothic kingdom of Tolosa (thus modern-day Toulouse in France) had either slipped me by, or had never been made sufficiently real for me really to pay it any attention. Yet, by ending the work with something almost familiar, something of the structure becomes clear: the process of sedimentation whereby the past sinks away, or is gradually covered over by desert sands. We already feel this process taking place with the USSR. Can it really be that a state we now know to have been so inherently ridiculous can possibly have had us so terrified?

So, throughout, Davies is writing a natural history of the state. In part it is a history of those states which were either stillborn – so the state of Rusyn, which lasted only a single day (15 March 1939) – or which were devoured by larger, greedier siblings. At the same time, however, Davies reflects on the familiar themes of how history tends to be written, not just by the victors, but also by states powerful enough to want to memorialise their own achievements. In doing so, either deliberately or through omission, they ignore the stories of those other states and kingdoms that might once have laid claim to parts of their territories.

The description of Alt Clud is a reminder to us that the history of our own isles is not an inevitable one, and that, in the age of SNP leader Alex Salmond, the British state is a recent creation in its current form. But honest history – not the mendacious versions politicians peddle of the past – does not so easily lend itself to the nationalist’s cause, for of course the very claims to a single Scottish past can also be seen as contestable and constructed. Davies may also be making another point. This is an entirely Eurocentric work: every history here is of a state that in the last few thousand years has occupied, however fleetingly, part of the European landmass or the islands off its coasts. It is hard not to reflect that the one political construction to which so many of these observations (let’s not call them lessons because what precisely is the lesson other than an injunction to be aware and thinking?) also apply is the European Union. As a crisis of finance and of governance pushes the EU towards ever closer integration, what can we learn from Forgotten Kingdoms about those other forces, of history from below, the crowd, and the strength of national and ethnic identities which do not fit so easily into a pan-European narrative and which push in an opposite direction?

This book is so rich in stories that such points are never made didactically. There is an enormous pleasure in watching the familiar and simplified national stories of Europe dissolve in front of one’s eyes; to realise, for example, that the story of modern Italy, known to schoolchildren as the triumphant progress of Garibaldi in uniting a patchwork of medieval states, also became entwined with the dynastic ambitions of the House of Savoy. The latter’s real history appears to have begun with Humbert the Whitehand, born in around AD 980, but claimed a Roman genealogy from a fourth-century senator, Ferreolus. What we tend now to see as one of the precursor states to modern Italy – whose most notable contribution was, therefore, to provide the royal House which survived until the Italian referendum of 1946 abolishing the monarchy – is shown by Davies in its own terms as an independent entity.

Davies may be right in his judgement that the British state will eventually dissolve, since this is an inevitable ‘law’ of history. It is also true, though, that the British Isles have, despite all the constitutional innovations of the last thousand years, seen greater stability in the shapes of government, the identity of dynasties and kingdoms, than much of the rest of Europe. Forgotten Kingdoms tells a head-spinning dynastic, religious and territorial story of the kingdoms, duchies and princely territories (to translate these terms into English) which have successively laid claim to border lands, whether between France, Italy and Switzerland, or Poland, Russia and the Baltic states. We might conclude that those of us brought up on British history have had it too easy, and that shifting tides and incongruence of language, religion and political allegiance are rather more the norm.

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