Thursday, November 18, 2010

Britain: At the Edge of the World?

A History of Britain: At the Edge of the World? 3500 B.C. - 1603 A.D.
© 2000 Simon Schama
414 pages

Image from audio-book version, as I could not find a suitable image for the standard cover. I get the feeling that Schama has name recognition in Britain, judging by its size on the cover.

During the summer I read Simon Schama's twice-recommended Citizens in honor of Bastille Day, and when I learned that Schama has also produced works in English history, I realized how appropriate it would be to read from him during the week of Guy Fawkes Day in Britain.  A History of Britain: At the Edge of the World? is the first volume in Schama's series on British history, this volume spanning early Celtic societies to the death of Queen Elizabeth. Although titled a history of Britain, England receives the lion's share of attention: Ireland, Scotland, and Wales are usually only mentioned in connection to English history, although one chapter ("Natives and Aliens") catches the reader up on Scotland  during the Wars of the Roses and another section in "The Queen's Body" follows Mary's flight into England.

The tone of At the Edge of the World?  is more personal than Citizens': Schama's fast-paced narrative is lively enough, but he often pauses and focuses on particular scenes, inviting the reader to imagine what history must have felt like to the people who lived it. Perhaps owing to the book's origin in television, Schama also enjoys treating the reader to salacious gossip, especially during the Tudor period. (Henry VIII,  I must admit, lent himself well to such stories.) Schama is delightful to read here, reminding me of Alistair Horne's La Belle France. This is an exhilarating charge through English history, full of dashing figures immensely sure of themselves. Though I am somewhat versed in English history, Schama managed to throw a few surprises my way -- I had no idea that an early English historian tried to connect England's history to classical mythology by presenting the settlers of the Welsh, Scots, Irish, and Anglo-Saxons as grandchildren of Aeneas, the young Trojan who -- if you believe Virgil --  fled the wrath of the Greeks and established a new Troy, Rome, along the banks of the Tiber.  The book's illustrations are a high point: the text is replete with large prints of paintings, sketches, and medieval texts alongside photos of English architecture, typically castles and cathedrals. The resolution of the scanned documents is sufficiently detailed that I could read  from the first chapter of the Gospel of John in its Tyndale translation.

Good book for someone looking for an introduction to English history, and those familiar with the subject can still enjoy its humor, not to mention those gorgeous illustrations.  My only fault with the book is its treatment of the Hundred Years War, which is scarcely mentioned. It barely managed to hang on to background status.  Perhaps the war is worth mentioning more in French history texts than in English surveys?  If you're curious, I'd recommend Desmond Seward's The Hundred Years War: the English in France.


  • Peoples of the British Isles: from Prehistoric Times to 1688, Standford E. Lehmberg.  My English history professor assigned this when I took English history two years ago. He also assigned its succeeding volumes for the second half of that course in the spring.  (Not that we needed them, his exams are always pulled from the lectures.) 


  1. sc said: I realized how appropriate it would be to read from him during the week of Guy Fawkes Day in Britain.

    More correctly this is simply known as Guy Fawkes or Guy Fawkes Night or more generally as Bonfire Night - as most of the festivities take place at night (for obvious reasons).

  2. Ah, thanks for the clarification. Do the festivities start in the evening of November 4th, or does everyone wait for the actual night?

  3. sc said: Do the festivities start in the evening of November 4th, or does everyone wait for the actual night?

    I always remember things actually happening on the night. These days - as fireworks generally go on sale about 2 weeks before - we can get rockets being fired off for quite a long time before the 5th. Organised displays tend to be on the weekend nearest the 5th to make it easier for people to attend - which personally I think dilutes the event somewhat. Being a traditionalist at heart I always blow up part of my friends garden on the night - except for this year when it was raining too hard and we couldn't light the fuses....


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