Message in a Bottle
Vanished Kingdoms

 

I’m planning to spend the coming school holiday week on something of a grand tour, visiting the usual vacation destinations—Etruria, Litva, Tolosa, Alt Clud, Galicia, and so on. Not familiar with the names? I’ll admit they’re not easy places to get to. You’ll need a time machine or a copy of Vanished Kingdoms by Norman Davies.

Davies is a much-honored historian who’s written extensively about World War II and other (mostly European) topics, but in this latest book he shifts gears slightly by emphasizing once-potent cultures that disappeared when the modern map of nations was laid over them. Take the Kingdom of Aragon as an example. Its name persists as a region of present-day Spain, but it was once a fully independent mini-empire that stretched across much of the Mediterranean. There’s a tendency, even among professionals in the field, to think of societies like this as failures that were ordained to give way to stronger powers, but that’s a fallacy no less egregious than assuming evolution is a process that’s designed to create particular kinds of creatures. Sometimes things just shake out one way or another for very small reasons. If one warlord had had a better day on the battlefield, or one royal family managed to produce an heir before another, there might still be speakers of Aragonese forming a Christian-Judaic-Muslim federation with a single national border and a population of what are now Andorrans, Basques, Spaniards, Frenchmen, Sicilians, Sardinians, Italians, and Greeks. And that’s just the beginning of the many golden scenarios that can be spun out of the huge pile of historical straw gathered here.

It’s great fun to spin these myriad alternatives, and I’m really enjoying my trip through the looking glass. Reading Vanished Kingdoms reminds me of the childlike pleasures of purely creative world-building and imaginary realms. The cover image perfectly captures this romantic quality, whether in the UK version at the top of the page, or in the US version down below. It’s far more than a castle in the air that the author has created, though. This is a rare work that should appeal equally to armchair travelers and steely-eyed academics. The subjects Davies has chosen, and his beautifully composed introduction, are a testament to the difficult work of studying and writing history, of striving to eliminate contemporary bias and seeing the world that our predecessors saw. For them, boundaries weren’t always as rigid or permanent. The Burgundians at least must have felt this transience. Their travails over hundreds of years forced them to build and rebuild counties, duchies, and kingdoms across a continent, from sunny southeastern France where they gave their name to some of the best wines in existence, to the Danish island of Bornholm in the frigid Baltic Sea. They more than anyone would be able to appreciate a book that’s so sensitive to the idea that all political institutions are products of their time and survive only as long as they can adapt to changing climates.

I’ll let Davies have the last lovely words on that subject:

[S]hips of state do not sail on forever. They sometimes ride the storms, and sometimes founder. On occasion they limp into port to be refitted; on other occasions, damaged beyond repair, they are broken up; or they sink, slipping beneath the surface to a hidden resting place among the barnacles and the fishes.

In this connection, another string of images presents itself, in which the historian becomes a beachcomber and treasure-seeker, a collector of flotsam and jetsam, a raiser of wrecks, a diver of the deep, scouring the seabed to recover what was lost. This book certainly sits comfortably in the category of historical salvage. It garners the traces of ships of state that sank, and it invites the reader, if only on the page, to watch with delight as the stricken galleons straighten their fallen masts, draw up their anchors, fill their sails and reset their course across the ocean swell.

—James

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