Sunday, April 25, 2010

Monarchy From the Middle Ages to Modernity by David Starkey

(Book Review)

A former British co-worker of mine in Japan, knowing my fondness for history and audio books, was kind enough to give me this audio book before he left the country. And lately I've been using audio books as a way to satisfy my interest in history whilst my time for leisure reading has largely disappeared since I'm in grad school studying something completely un-history related.
(Audio books are great. I can listen to them while I exercise, while I get dressed in the morning, while I walk to class, while I eat breakfast, and thus I can keep learning history without interfering with my course studies.)

In addition to this audio book, my British friend also gave me "This Sceptred Isle" (W). I'm not going to review "This Sceptred Isle" because it was originally a radio show and not a book (and hence falls outside the scope of my book review project). But I will say that between both that, and this book, I feel like I've given myself quite an education in British history. Which isn't bad for something you do while brushing your teeth.

(The next time you see me, try and somehow work British history into the conversation. I feel like now I've got all this useless information running around my head that I never get a chance to use.)

This book traces the history of British Monarchy all the way from the wars of the roses to Queen Victoria.

Personally, the monarchs--fat, spoiled, and usually full of themselves-- have always struck me as the most boring part of history. I myself would be much more interested in learning about some of the social movements in British history like the Chartists, the Diggers, the Levellers, the Peterloo Massacre matyrs, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, et cetera.
...Or I'd be more interested in a book about the British individuals who resisted the monarchy like Thomas Paine, John Lilburne, Wolfe Tone, et cetera.

But, never look a free audio book gift horse in the mouth, right?

( I'm a slow reader, so I tend to be very picky about the books I actually physically read because I know I'll be stuck with it for a couple months. But audio books are so painless I'll listen to whatever I can get my hands on.)

And there is no denying that in British history, eras are often defined by the reigning monarch. So it's useful to learn all the different monarchs just to be able to talk intelligently about the history, or to have a framework in which to put the other events.

And indeed, as a result of this book, I now feel confident that if I were in a bar, and the person next to me asked me to trace out the whole line of succession from Henry VIII to Queen Victoria, and outline the highlights of each reign, I could do a pretty good job of it.
(Sadly, however, and no one ever seems to ask that.)

This period also covers some of the more interesting years of the monarchy, such as the English Civil War, Oliver Cromwell, the abolition of the monarchy, and England's temporary experiment with republicanism.
As the author David Starkey points out, an often overlooked fact in history was that England, not France, was the first country to publicly try and execute the monarch, declare monarchy illegal, and declare a republic--something often overlooked in history textbooks.

(I myself once mistakenly told a class of Japanese students that the American revolution was important because it was the first republic since the days of ancient Rome. My Amero-centric scholastic education had completely neglected the short lived English Republic, the Dutch Republic, and some of the republican city states in Italy. But I digress here.)

The main selling point of this book is just its engaging style. The author David Starkey is one of those delightful authors who likes to tell history as a story. And he has excellent skills as a story teller. He focuses in on the quirks and peculiarities of each monarch, and has lots of interesting anecdotes. Despite the rather intimidating sounding title ("from the middle ages to modernity"), this book is incredibly easy to digest and almost reads like a novel.
The beauty of this book is that it touches not only the larger-than-life figures of Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth, but also brings to life many of the lesser known monarchs like William IV or Edward VI. And if those names sound boring, rest assured David Starkey has dug up some interesting anecdotes about them that will make it fun reading.

Link of the Day
Steven Pinker on Noam Chomsky's theory of Linguistics & Politics

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