Navigating Memory: Norman Davies’ Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe

Europe 07022014 - Version 7Davies, Norman. Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe. [Allen Lane 2011] London: Penguin, 2012.

“All the nations that ever lived have left their footsteps in the sand. The traces fade with every tide, the echoes grow faint, the images are fractured, the human material is atomized and recycled. But if we know where to look, there is always a remnant, a remainder, and irreducible residue” (393).

 Europe 07022014 - Version 5We don’t necessarily expect such elegiac lyricism from historians, but the above is the penultimate paragraph of Davies’ section on Borussia, and it comes a few pages after the middle of his book outlining the histories of “Half-Forgotten Europe” We may not be aware of Borussia (1230-1945), of Sabaudia (1033-1946), of Alt Clud (Fifth-Twelfth centuries), of Litva (1253-1795), or of the republic that lasted one day, Rusyn (15 March 1939) just to name a few of the states that once existed in Europe. Depending on how much European history we have absorbed, we may be aware of the recurrence at times of references to Burgundy or to the Hanseatic League. What answers would we give if asked, “Which German speaking state was headed by an old Etonian?” or “How old is France”? Or Italy? Or Spain? Davies gives us the definitive answer to the first question. With regard to the others, he gives us enough information to see that at times it is actually rather challenging to answer these questions precisely.

Europe 07022014 - Version 4This is an impressive book. The research appears exhaustive. Davies, himself an expert in Slavic studies, tells us, “No historian can have a thorough knowledge of all parts and periods of European history, and all good generalists feast heartily on the dishes served up by their specialist confrères” (10). He acknowledges his sources in copious numbered end-notes. And this is the one criticism I have of the book: why couldn’t he have used parenthetical citation and a Bibliography? Such a system would have been easier to use. His maps and family trees are extremely helpful and the glossy illustrations apt and illuminating.

Europe 07022014 - Version 6In his introduction, Davies reminds us that “the task of the historian, therefore, goes beyond the duty of tending the generalized memory” (8). He goes on to say that he has “two priorities: to highlight the contrast between time present and times past, and to explore the workings of historical memory” (9). He examines fifteen “vanished kingdoms” beginning with the Visigothic Kingdom of Tolosa that existed for most of the fifth and the beginning of the sixth centuries of the common era and ending with the “CCCP: The Ultimate Vanishing Act.” He concludes with a short essay discussing “How States Die.”  His discussion of each vanished state is divided like Caesar’s Gaul into three parts: a discussion of a geographic location today, the story of the “vanished kingdom” that once existed in that location, and the echoes, however faint, of that “vanished kingdom” still audible.

Europe 07022014 - Version 5Davies writes evocatively and sensitively. He never loses sight of the fact that socio-political change has immense personal implications for ordinary human beings. I found the book totally absorbing and fascinating. I found his discussion of the kingdoms (yes, I did say kingdoms) of Burgundy particularly interesting. His clarification of the early history of what we think of today as Scotland resonated with me also. As did his examination of Aragon because I am booked to visit Spain in the early summer. However, it was his examination of the fates of Borussia, Litva, and Galicia that I found most disturbingly poignant. The echoes of those vanished states continue to have grave implications for twenty-first century politics and twenty-first century individuals who must bear the burden of the past. And then through it all is the on-going connection with the history of the Jewish diaspora, so much a part of those lost states, and where in some places there were attempts to erase the memory of the shtetls from both the historical record and the emotional landscape.

Europe 07022014 - Version 4At the end of the book, I was left wondering what the future holds. In my lifetime, the political lines drawn on maps have shifted, and names have changed. Davies asserts, “That the United Kingdom will collapse is a foregone conclusion.”  He reminds us that “sooner or later all states do collapse, and ramshackle, asymmetric dynastic amalgamations are more vulnerable than cohesive nation-states. Only the ‘how’ and the ‘when’ are mysteries of the future” (679). One just hopes, I suppose, that if one has to live through the collapse of a state the change occurs through gradual evolution rather than revolution. And one thinks about the relationship between history and geography. How much is determined by landscape? Turn a map upside down and look from another angle. The world changes according to one’s perception of what is the centre. And then one thinks about the dangers of forgetting.

 Europe 07022014 - Version 7Writing of the British “risk [of] falling into a state of self-delusion” about the stability of their state and commenting on humanity’s “essential vanity” (6), Davies quotes both Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” and Shelley’s “Ozymandias” in his introduction. He ends his work with the passage in Beowulf (as translated by Heaney) describing the funeral rites for the hero and then gives the very last word to Wordsworth, quoting in full the sonnet “On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic.” I am going to end with a quotation from Anne Michaels’ novel Fugitive Pieces, words that resonated with me as I read Davies’ book: “History is amoral: events occurred. But memory is moral” (Fugitive Pieces. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1996. 138.)


 Mappa Mundi: Dover Castle (my own image)

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