Sunday, November 4, 2012

Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations

I was really curious when I bought this book - the title promises much, about kingdoms lost in the mists of time, and perhaps some interesting historical oddities.

There are places where it delivers, but it didn't quite live up to the book I thought it would be.  The first few were quite interesting, as they are countries that have long since been subsumed into others, but some of the later examples seemed a bit weak.  For instance, Savoy is listed as existing from 1033-1946.  Well, yes, they abdicated from Italy in 1946, but what was actually "Savoy" as a state was radically changed when they let the French speaking part loose and started concentrating on Italy.

This actually brings up something I missed from the book.  Granted, it would not have been easy in all cases, but I would have appreciated something more about what things might have been like for the inhabitants.  For instance, I'm positive that your average Giuseppe who lived in the Republic of Venice certainly considered that to be his country in a very real way that we would understand today.  How about someone from the French bit of Savoy though?  What did they think of their "country"?  How did they seem themselves in relation to it?  I know they're not easy questions to answer, but they seem as interesting as the sequence of ruler X was born on some date, and married so and so, whose children also inherited blah blah, and was an uncle of Y who went on to reign from some other date, and so on and so forth, which talk about the big picture happenings, but don't give a sense if there was any 'there' there, or if indeed, the countries were just collections of land owned by the guy who happened to be ruler at the time. 

If you consider the above, for instance, Savoy was long split into French and Italian speaking bits, so when they dumped the French bits and started working on becoming the Kingdom of Italy, was it really the same country?  Italy stopped being the Kingdom of Italy after the referendum, but it seems to be a blurry line, because Italy, despite cripling debts and Bunga Bunga parties and and whatnot, is still very much a going concern even if there is no longer a king.  I guess it seems arbitrary to me, as if the abdication of the king were more important than the living, breathing country.

In any event, aside from that, there are a lot of interesting details about various corners of Europe, so it was still a good read, just not quite all I had thought it might be.

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