The Rise and Fall of States and Nations
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Vouille, formerly Vouille-la-Bataille, is a small country bourg of some three thousand souls in the French Departement de la Vienne, and cheflieu of a rural commune in the region of Poitou-Charente. It lies close to the Route Nationale 149, the old Roman road that runs from Poitiers to Nantes, and it is traversed by a pleasant stream, the Auzance, as it meanders towards the Atlantic. It boasts two churches, two schools, a tiny central square entered through an arch, a large terrain de pétanques, some fine riverside gardens, a town hall, a couple of restaurants, a modest stadium, a tall water tower, a listed chateau-hotel, Le Perigny, a Saturday market, and no special celebrity. It is also the presumed site of an early sixth-century battle. A memorial plaque, erected by the local history society in 2007 on the 1,500th anniversary, is so well hidden that the Office de tourisme in the square cannot always say exactly where it is.1
In one of those delectable adjectival flourishes which the French language adores, the inhabitants of Vouille rejoice in the name of Vouglaisiens or Vouglaisiennes; they call the surrounding district, popular with ramblers, the Pays Vouglaisien. Not surprisingly, they take great pride in their patrimoine, the legacy of their forebears. A statement made in 1972 by the president of the local Syndicat d’Initiative can be found both on the municipal website and on a simple monument erected at the Carrefour de Clovis. ‘L’histoire de la France’, it says with no noticeable modesty, ‘commença donc a Vouillé’ (‘The history of France began at Vouille’).2
On 24 August 410 Alaric the Visigoth achieved the ultimate goal of the many barbarian chiefs who invaded the crumbling Roman Empire of the West. At the third attempt, he sacked Rome:
Having surrounded the city and once more reduced the inhabitants to the
verge of starvation, he effected an entry at night through the Salarian Gate . . .
This time, the king was in no humour to spare the capital of the
world. The sack lasted for two or three days. Some respect was shown for
churches . . . [but] the palace of Sallust . . . was burned down; and excavations
on the Aventine [Hill], then a fashionable aristocratic quarter, have
revealed many traces of the fires which destroyed the plundered houses. A
rich booty and numerous captives, including the Emperor’s sister, Galla
Placidia, were taken.
On the third day, Alaric led his triumphant host forth . . . and marched
southward . . . His object was to cross over to Africa, probably for the
purpose of establishing his people in that rich country . . . But his days
were numbered. He died at Consentia [Cosenza] before the end of the year.3
Alaric’s name meant ‘the Ruler of All’.
From VANISHED KINGDOMS by Norman Davies. Published by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © Norman Davies, 2011.
Review by Geoffrey Wawro
Readers will be delighted by this rambling, wayward Grand Tour of Europe. It will make you rethink all of your assumptions about history.
Davies is a marvelously fluid scholar. This book reminds the reader of Davies’ fascinating Europe (1996), which roved from the Ice Age to the Cold War, employing a method described by the author as ”a combination of picture-gallery and echo-chamber, where all the mingled images, sounds and emotions of Europe’s past interact and reverberate.” Vanished Kingdoms, like Europe, defies conventional narrative to make the point that Europe emerged spasmodically and unevenly from many sources and effects.
Vanished Kingdoms is charming and engaging. Davies’ thesis is that both academic writing and popular history tend to reinforce success. They write over and over about successful powers, kings, and “big wars,” or objects of dread fascination, like Nazi Germany. Historians (and their publishers) rarely write about the losers, because there’s no market for that.
We’re all left stunted as a result; we know a lot about China, the United States, Germany or the Romans, but we know next to nothing about failed experiments like Aragon, Burgundy, the Black Mountain of Montenegro, Galicia (“the Kingdom of the Naked of the Starving” straddling Poland and Ukraine), or even Byzantium. Our minds, Davies finds, are like checkerboards—with half the spaces empty and half of them filled in.
Davies finds this curious, for every state eventually fails. Look at the Romans, the Edwardians or today’s “exceptional Americans”; they all thought that their dominance would last forever. Davies writes a history of Europe from the far more common perspective of the losers: the empires, kingdoms and duchies that thought that they too would go on forever, and not only vanished, but often vanished without a trace!
Davies travels to all of these places—in the British Isles, Germany, Poland, the Baltic, Belarus, Turkey, Ukraine and the Balkans—and his account of the past as well as his juxtaposition of past and present is wonderful. One fine example is his visit to the oblast of Kaliningrad, the heart of old Borussia (Prussia), annexed by the Soviets in 1945, and now marooned in a Russian-run, post-Soviet hell: “a cesspool of cesspools,” where counterfeit cigarettes (for sale in Germany) are the biggest industry and living standards crawl along 65-times lower than the EU average. Could the rich burghers of old Königsberg ever have imagined such an unenviable fate? Another example: Davies rescues the poor Byzantines from neglect as well as Edward Gibbon, who, Davies points out, cruelly and permanently slandered the Byzantines from ignorance as well as necessity. Gibbon had hit a wall familiar to any author in the writing of Decline and Fall. “After forty-seven chapters, he had only reached the end of the sixth century and he had nearly nine more centuries to cover.” As a short-cut to the end, Gibbon replaced analysis with mockery and negativity and forged the lasting caricature of Byzantium as a place not of culture and refinement but of decadence and barbarism.
Vanished Kingdoms is a journey—half erudite lecture, half exquisite travelogue—from a world-class historian.
Hardcover Book : 848 pages
Publisher: Viking Penguin/Div Of Penguin Putna ( January 05, 2012 )
Item #: 13-504031
Product Dimensions: 6.0 x 9.0 x 1.7inches
Product Weight: 45.0 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
Tried to impress with too much in the way of obscure languages and pedantic references that overwhelmed the reader- I am in total agreement with Raymond S-I looked forward to reading this book and quickly got a headache!!!!
Boring, scattered, overly pretentious, not worth the paper it is written on.
I was really looking forward to reading this, so much so the book leapfrogged many other books on my to be read shelf.
I read 120 pages (of 720) and threw the book in the trash-something I never do.
I could not possibly have been more disappointed.
Reviewer: Raymond S