Norman Davies, the erudite and versatile historian of Poland, of the "British" isles, of Europe as a whole, and of much else, has produced an original and stimulating masterpiece. Reacting against the dominant tendency among historians to concentrate on "powerful, prominent and impressive" states - history's success stories - he presents a selection of kingdoms, grand duchies and republics that have ceased to exist altogether (or, in some cases, ceased to exist in anything like their earlier form).
From the Visigothic realm of the Toulouse region (AD418-507) and a vast Celtic kingdom near present-day Glasgow (5th to 12th centuries) to the short-lived monarchies of Etruria around Florence (1801-14) or Montenegro (1910-18), Davies unveils a fascinating panorama of political entities that found themselves, like Monty Python's parrot, "bereft of life". Reflecting on why this came about, he quotes the view of Thomas Hobbes that "the dissolution of the Commonwealth" can be due either to "foraign warre" or to "internall diseases". The same is true of Prussia (1230-1945) and of Burgundy (c.411-1795). (In presenting the ultra-complex fortunes of the last-mentioned, with its countless dynastic marriages, territorial changes and wars, Davies helpfully remarks: "At this point, faint-hearted readers are advised to take a break.")
At the other end of the scale, two states get only about 15 pages each. One is the extremely short-lived (15 March 1939) republic of Rusyn, or Carpatho-Ukraine. This sub-Carpathian eastern tip of inter-war Czechoslovakia became detached after the signing of the Munich Pact but was swallowed up (by Hungary) as soon as Hitler took Prague. The other, surprisingly, is the Byzantine (soi-disant "Roman") Empire based in Constantinople (AD330-1453). Davies' unwillingness to go into too much detail on this long-lived entity suggests that he sympathises with the view of Edward Gibbon that the history of Byzantium amounted to no more than centuries of sordid decline, leading to a well-merited and welcome fall.
Each chapter is divided into three sections: first, an informative guidebook-like sketch of the present-day state of the territory; second, a chronological narrative of the polity concerned; and third, a reflection on the subsequent and current role of this history as a "site of memory" in the national consciousness.
Some of the "tourist guide" passages provide not only useful practical tips on how to reach the place in question but also recommendations, often lyrical, on what to see there. The chapter on the Napoleonic kingdom of Etruria, for instance, suggests a two-day programme for visiting relevant sites in and around Florence, including the spot on the island of Elba from which the exiled Emperor spent long hours gazing out to sea.
As the book nears its conclusion, the final two chapters deal with broader subjects. The one on Estonia (1918-40) turns into a more general account of the Soviet Union (1924-91), and the chapter on an Irish Free State still linked with the British monarchy (c.1916-49) becomes a discussion of the current decline and (Davies argues) future fall of the UK.
On this controversial issue, as on the many others he covers, both historical and contemporary, Davies' cogently argued and clearly presented views will attract and instruct both specialists in European history and others. The book, which is well furnished with maps, tables and superb colour illustrations, is an outstanding example of historical writing at its very best.
Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe
By Norman Davies
Allen Lane, 848pp, £30.00
Published October 2011