A History of Britain: At the Edge of the World, 3500 B. C. — 1603 A. D.

The time of new posts is coming closer — but not yet here.

So you get a review of a companion book to a Simon Schama tv series.

A retro review from October 27, 2008.

Review: A History of Britain: At the Edge of the World, 3500 B. C. — 1603 A. D., Simon Schama, 2000.A History of Britain

As with the companion DVD series, Schama has a knack for the framing metaphor and – as befits an art historian – vivid image and anecdote.

There’s a lot of ground to cover in that subtitle. Chapter One starts with the Celts and Skara Brae, quickly goes through pre-Roman Britian, Roman Britain, the Dark Ages, Vikings, and King Alfred. Chapter Two is William the Conqueror and the Conquest. Chapter Three, “Sovereignity Unbound?”, concentrates on the struggle to define the nature of English kingship – and its limits up to the Magna Carta. Since this is a history of Great Britain, Chapter Four, “Aliens and Natives”, chronicles the entanglements of Welsh, Scot, Irish, and English from King John’s death to the plague. King Death and its effects are the subject of Chapter Five. The “Burning Convictions” of Chapter Six concern the English Reformation. “The Body of the Queen”, both literal and as a political symbol, concern the final chapter on Queen Elizabeth.

Clearly, Schama doesn’t give every period equal coverage. Neither the Baron’s War nor Richard III get much of a mention at all. Something, after all, has to go to give us those stories like the miserable death of William the Conqueror or Edward I’s bank robbery. And Schama takes a few swipes at revisionist history for instance when he tells us that maybe those English tales of Viking atrocities weren’t that exaggerated. Nor does he have much of a patience for structuralist history. In the plague chapter, he relates the Black Death’s horror while acknowledging that it precipitated a perhaps inevitable reform of late medieval society. (But would that reform have taken place without the plague?)

Schama is quite consciously bringing back the excitement of history as a story. Yet, the colloquial prose genuinely instructs. We may not be invited to draw utilitarian lessons from history – few modern historians deign to do that – but Schama’s prose suggests the possibility.


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