Gripping accounts of what Norman Davies learned from writing a legendary history book.
335 pages, ★★★★
Europe East & West isn’t the legendary history tome that the cover alleges it to be. Instead, (the advanced introduction aside) it’s a series of relaxed, organised accounts of the author’s journey in writing a history book. (The book itself is called Europe: A History.)
This book raises many interesting points. It deconstructs “the west”, and told us how “western” is an obsolete term; not just because eastern countries are now catching up economically, but because for much of ancient history, eastern europe has been remarkably successful. The author’s specific interests in Poland and Wales highlight how both the Celts and the Poles were in many ways more advanced than their closest neighbours, the Germans and the English. I like myth-busting.
Some of the facts are surprising. It tells us that “England is not an island”—that’s the author’s Welsh interest becoming apparent. He then argues (more seriously) how Britain never fully adopted the notion nationhood in the way that France did, and missed its last opportunity when the British Empire was downsized. It tells us the Roman roots of the 1054 schism in Christianity which still lasts to this day. It also tells us how George Ludwig made a perfect king because couldn’t speak any English, which allowed for the emergence of a ruling cabinet under a figurehead monarch (which we also still have today). He also argues that the Muslims have long been more accommodating of the Jewish people than the Europeans ever have, and gives plenty of comparisons and examples to prove his point.
I have deep admiration for the author’s understanding of history. His 12-year-old son can name six of the seven European empires which ruled over Muslim subjects:
“I remember asking my twelve-year-old son how many European empires had Muslim subjects. I started off with the British empire, which ruled over Muslims from northern Nigeria to Brunei, and the French empire. Then we thought of the Russian empire. Then he came up with the Dutch empire, which I’d forgotten, in the East Indies. And we ended with the Spanish empire in North Africa and the Italians in Libya. We forgot the Portuguese in Timor, but six out of seven is not bad.” — pages 203-204
I also admire the author’s impartiality. He doesn’t give in to recent cultural and political biases—in fact, he ignores them completely. (I thin much of this comes from his love of both Poland and Wales, both of which are under-represented in most of Europe’s historical narratives.)
If you want to learn about European history, but are basically starting from scratch, then read this Europe East & West as an ice-breaker before cracking the epic tome (Europe: A History) itself. ★★★★
- What the Future of Africa Looked Like in 1959 (theatlantic.com)
- European Unions Throughout History (history.com)
- Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe by Norman Davies – review (guardian.co.uk)
- Why Europe is opening up its cultural history online (gigaom.com)
- Is Wales the castle capital of the world? (visitwales.co.uk)