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The Isles: A History by Norman Davies

The Isles: A History

by Norman Davies

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Guto Rhys:
Largely confused and confusing
  kgreply | Aug 6, 2018 |
Bloody bloody, that. ( )
1 vote nog | Apr 1, 2018 |
Superlative doorstopper of a history of the British Isles & Ireland with a focus on the difference between English history & the history of The Isles.
Read Samoa Oct 2003 ( )
  mbmackay | Nov 28, 2015 |
I got this book cheaply (10 US dollars at a Half Price bookstore-list price was 19.99 pounds which is about 30 US dollars) without any idea of how good it was. I had no significant knowledge of the history of Britian or the Isles but hoped to learn. As I have read this book I have learned a significant amount but unfortunately for me this is a history book to "correct" what one has wrongly already learned-ie that which I had not learned. I am sure I missed a lot of what he was saying. So it is not a particularly good introduction to the topic if you have a week "history of britian" background such as I.

It was however very engaging and entertaining and had to be as long as it is. As a survey for that long it certainly leaves out a lot. It bills itself as a survey of the Isles, but it certainly seemed Ireland, the Welsh and Scotland could have been covered more. This is a secular history but religion is important and covered to some degree but I would have been interested in more about William Wilberforce and the abolition movement as well as Methodism and its roots.

Recommend-for those with a background of history of England/Great Britain or who want a broad overview. One point he nicely makes is that historians have become so focused and have such narrow fields of study that no one can look at a broad picture. It is important to study the trees in the forest, but it is important to study the forest as well.
While this book can be read in sections of time, the sections overlap and tie into each other.
Not recommended for a quick read or the faint of heart. ( )
1 vote vanjr | Oct 4, 2015 |
A couple of years ago I read The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes’ brilliant account of Australia’s history as a British penal colony. After moving to Britain this year I became well aware that my own knowledge of British history is pretty hazy – it was only last year that I found out the British actually once executed their king and had a republic for twenty years. I’d heard of Oliver Cromwell and the “Commonwealth” and the “Restoration” and the English Civil War, but didn’t really know what those words entailed – I had no idea of the fascinating story of the king’s overthrow, and his nephew’s straight-from-a-fantasy-novel flight to safety in France. This happens to all of us, of course; we’re vaguely aware of thousands of concepts and phrases from history, society, science and the arts without really knowing the details.

So I wanted a British history book which pretty much tells the story of the nation from beginning to end – obviously a more daunting task than an Australian history book – and also, ideally, one which was well-regarded, entertainingly written and which didn’t make apologies for the horrors of the past. (More on that later.) There are plenty of gargantuan works out there, but I ended up going with Norman Davies’ single-issue The Isles: A History, which covers pretty much everything from prehistoric times to New Labour. Compared to the classic Oxford multi-volume saga, this is a “short” book, although it’s still a 1000-page brick that I’ve been reading on and off since August.

The Isles was specifically written by Davies to tackle what he saw as a confused approach to British history, to wit, the confusion between what’s English and what’s British, and the overlap between them. The title itself is derived from the least contentious terminology for the British Isles and throughout the book Davies makes a point of referring to each island and nation as it was called by its inhabitants – not the Anglicised version that came thereafter.

Another aspect of English history I was foggy on until recently was the Normans. I knew the word derived from Normandy in France, and that in the Middle Ages England had fought a series of protracted wars in France, but I assumed it was a case of England invading and claiming Normandy. It was quite the opposite: the Normans were French, and for a good three centuries after the Norman invasion, England’s king and nobles and knights all spoke French. (And even a thousand years later, those descended from the Normans are more likely to be well-off than those who aren’t.) Davies refers to William the Conqueror as “Guillaime,” as his people would have.

The second reason Davies wrote The Isles was to challenge the politicised view of British history taught in schools for much of the 20th century, a mindset Michael Gove attempted to return to in the 21st – a nationalistic perception which attempts to shore up the idea that there was always something fundamentally British uniting the peoples of the Isles. Davies regularly reminds the reader that the nation-state is mostly a modern invention, and that in feudal times people were far more likely to consider themselves as “belonging” to their local baron or to the pope than they were to the king of England. He acknowledges the British Empire as the product of unrestrained capitalism and exploitation, although – like many British scholars – still seems to consider it a “gentler” empire, as though just because Britain wasn’t as brutal as King Leopold in the Congo, or just because it left India with a pretty good railway system, all the crimes and horrors of the Empire can be summarily dismissed.

The Isles: A History is doubtless an important book and a critical addition to a historical canon which generally elevates the English to the most important strata while marginalising the Irish, Welsh, Scottish, Celts, Picts, Norseman and thousand other peoples who contributed to the long story of these islands. But for obvious reasons it wasn’t the best book for me to read. It’s a book which challenges historical assumptions amongst the British, or those well-versed in British history. For those people I can certainly recommend it. Outsiders like myself would be better off beginning elsewhere. You need to have your prejudices built before they can be challenged. ( )
2 vote edgeworth | Dec 1, 2014 |
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English by birth, Welsh by conviction,
Lancastrian by choice, British by chance
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To write a comprehensive history of one's own country is a forbidding task.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0195134427, Hardcover)

When did British history begin, and where will it all end? These controversial issues are tackled head-on in Norman Davies's polemical and persuasive survey of the four countries that in modern times have become known as the British Isles. Covering 10 millennia in just over a thousand pages, from "Cheddar Man" to New Labour, Davies shows how relatively recently the English state was formed--no earlier than Tudor times--and shows, too, how a sense of Britishness emerged only with the coming of empire in the 18th and 19th centuries. A historian of Poland, and the author of an acclaimed history of Europe, Davies is especially sensitive to the complex mixing and merging of tribes and races, languages and traditions, conquerors and colonized that has gone on throughout British history and that in many ways makes "our island story" much more like that of the rest of Europe than we usually think. Many myths of the English are dispelled in this book, and many historians are taken to task for their blinkered Anglocentrism. But the book ends on an upbeat note, with Davies welcoming Britain's return to the heart of Europe at the dawn of the new millennium. --Miles Taylor, Amazon.co.uk

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:23 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

Narrative history that takes a new perspective on the development of Britain and Ireland, looking at them not as self-contained islands, but as an inextricable part of Europe. At every stage, The Isles connects offshore development with parallel events on the Continent. This history begins with the Celtic Supremacy in the last centuries BC, which is presented in the light of a Celtic world stretching all the way from Iberia to Asia Minor. Roman Britain is seen not as a unique phenomenon but as similar to the other frontier regions of the Roman Empire, such as Germany. The Viking Age is viewed not only through the eyes of the invaded but from the standpoint of the invaders themselves--Norse, Danes, and Normans. Plantagenet England is perceived, like the Kingdom of Jerusalem, as an extension of medieval France. In the later chapters, Davies follows the growth of the United Kingdom and charts the rise and fall of the main pillars of "Britishness"--the Royal Navy, the Westminster Parliament, the Constitutional Monarchy, the Aristocracy, the Protestant Supremacy, the British Empire, the imperial economy and sterling area, and the English Language. The book ends with the crisis confronting Britain at the turn of the 21st century--the emergence of the European Union. As the elements that make up the historic Britishness dissolve, Davies shows how public confusion is one of the most potent factors in this process of disintegration. As the Republic of Ireland prospers, and power in the United Kingdom is devolved, he predicts that the coming crisis in the British State may well be its last.… (more)

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