The History Beyond History

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Mary Evans Picture Library
King Nikola and his family at the time of the proclamation of the Kingdom of Montenegro, 1910. In the foreground, reclining, is the king’s grandson, Crown Prince Aleksandar of Serbia, who later became the first king of Yugoslavia.

The publication of the British historian Norman Davies’s account of the “vanished kingdoms” of Europe fits this moment of concern about American political decline, plutocracy, and installation of permanent war, as well as pervasive skepticism about the European Union’s future. He is interested in how nations begin, but also in how they disappear. He describes Europe as it was when European civilization took its original form and American civilization was unimaginable. He illustrates the reality that history promises only change, not progress. All is passage, and the future can be worse than what has already gone, and is only sometimes better, which is not as commonly assumed.

Davies’s account of Europe’s origins teaches humility before the constancy of humanity, and the ultimate transience, or even irrelevance, of power, empire, state ambition and pride, and “greatness”—including the transience of “our” civilization, Western civilization, to which Europe was a relatively late arrival. Some thirty-five centuries separate the Neolithic period from the Bronze Age empires of the Euphrates valley that existed some four thousand years ago, from which we derive. Pharaonic Egypt and its Old and Middle Kingdom predecessors, and our own Mediterranean and classical ages—the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations anticipating classical Greece (to take the most familiar examples)—all preceded Europe in Western humanity’s emergence into history.

We today are mere twigs atop a vast human forest, whose roots are in a prehistoric past of which we still have very incomplete knowledge. This is a warning of how ephemeral we and our institutions and events today really are, soon in our turn to be tipped into the humus of a human past mostly already forgotten, or rarely acknowledged, but that Vanished Kingdoms explores. Davies’s book is an exercise in historical realism whose effect is to undermine the ideologies of human progress and perfectibility by which Europe and its intellectual offspring have lived since the Enlightenment.

The author’s chosen “vanished kingdoms” include Alt Clud, Kingdom of the Rock (Scotland, fifth to twelfth centuries AD), Burgundia (411–1795), Aragon (1137–1714), Litva (modern Belarus, 1253–1795), Byzantion (Byzantium—the Eastern Roman or Greek Christian Empire, 330–1453), Borussia (modern Prussia, 1230–1945), Sabaudia (Savoy and Piedmont, 1033–1946), Galicia (1773–1918), Etruria (historic Florence, 1801–1814), Rosenau (Thuringia, 1826–1918), Tsernagora (Montenegro, 1910–1918),1 and Rusyn (Carpatho–Ukraine, March 15, 1939). After a chapter devoted to this republic, which lasted a single tragic day in the lifetime of many who are still alive, the author goes two states too far, in my opinion: to Éire and the USSR, which do not belong in this book, also being contemporary affairs, about which we already know a great deal (while even Norman Davies …

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  1. 1

    This period refers only to the dates when Montenegro formally “took its place among the kingdoms of Europe” and when the kingdom “lost its statehood” at the end of World War I. As Davies shows, the royal family established its rights of hereditary succession in 1696.