A massive yet accessible study of the historical and linguistic continuity that make up the English people.
In a wonderfully reasoned and tidily structured book presented in one surprisingly approachable doorstop, English scholar of Anglo-French relations Tombs (History/Univ. of Cambridge; The Paris Commune, 1871, 1999, etc.) finds much to (quietly) celebrate in English history since ancient times, especially compared to the more violent convolutions that have plagued neighboring European and Asian states—France, Russia, China, and others. The author embarks on his narrative with an eye toward how the English have regarded and valued themselves, a “collective memory” as recorded in Latin as early as the eighth century by Northumbrian monk Bede. He noted the English people’s significance as deriving from their early Christian conversion, allowing them early access to power and allies and a “much better chance of survival.” Thus, Tombs sees English identity as coalescing around Christian ministries, centers of political, economic, and even military power. A “customary law” emerged, a strong administrative system based on the “scir” (shire), governed for the king and involving, most important, a widespread system of participation in government. The “community of the realm,” as reinforced by the Magna Carta (1215) and incipient Parliament of 1258, allowed the political continuity to prevail even after the cataclysmic upheavals of the Norman Conquest (1066). Moreover, as Tombs emphasizes, the English language displayed extraordinary durability in the wake of the French invasion, moving from vernacular to officialese to law and poetry, becoming a “language for a nation.” While England’s history is enormously complex, Tombs sharply organizes it by galvanizing themes, from the devastating religious wars (1500-1700) and the Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution, and Victorian era to the two world wars and the debate over “an age of decline.” What the author calls a “national nonchalance” is perhaps surprising in light of this unique continuity of political structure and cultural treasures.
European history buffs and readers undaunted by a 1,000-page history will find a lucid, engaging, and pleasantly nondidactic book, with helpful maps.