History, from Herodotus down through Gibbon and into Ambrose, Zinn and beyond, has always been about narrative. And with narrative, almost by its very nature, comes a certain sense of inevitability: what has happened is what would have happened. But that is history as it has been written. History as it is lived is a series of simultaneous and conflicting narratives all struggling to be the victor, the one that, in retrospect, was destined to be history. All the rest, scattered about like corpses on a battlefield, are but vanished kingdoms, lost to the mists of time.
Placed side by side, it’s easy to see how any one of the various permutations of the Lithuanian-Polish kingdoms could have easily supplanted Muscovy as the dominant force in the east, with or without the existence of what could have been a Finno-Estonian nation to its north. Perhaps, Bourbon France would have been a dead end trail on the road to the Burgundy nation that encompasses all of what we now call France, Switzerland, and Northern Italy. All these possible outcomes are hinted at in this new book by historian Norman Davies where he explores, in some depth, all these vanished kingdoms that could have, would have been but for a zig where there should have, could have been a zag.
Norman Davies, an esteemed scholar of Polish history (if you read one book on Polish history, his God’s Playground is the one to read), burst upon the popular history scene with his massive doorstop of a bestseller Europe: A History in 1996. Published between the presentation of the European Union and the unveiling of the Euro, it is the total summation of the inevitable strand of historical writing. Europe was meant to be. Vanished Kingdoms, on the other hand, is, perhaps its tonal opposite. Organized in chronological order, beginning with the old Breton kingdom of Alt Clud and closing with the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is intriguing that it is published just as we are sitting, biting our nails, as the EU is fighting to preserve the Euro and its own unity. Is the European Union a confederation that was meant to be or is it also fated to end up a chapter in the paperback edition of Vanished Kingdoms?
A delightful read full of interesting side notes and stray facts (In Belgium, fighting as is between its dual heritage of French and Dutch, it is interesting to note that Flemish is actually the only surviving remnant of the tongue that the old Franks spoke) it deserves a spot on the shelf of any discerning history fan.
– Joe Turner is our Second Floor Inventory Manager