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Wednesday, September 03, 2014

The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648-1815 by Tim Blanning

A political map of Europe in 1648, the beginning of the time period surveyed in The Pursuit of Glory by Tim Blanning.


Book Review
The Pursuit of Glory:  Europe 1648-1815
 by Tim Blanning
Viking Press, First American Edition 2007
674 pgs.

  Tim Blanning was a professor of Modern History at Cambridge University up until his retirement five years ago, and he turns out the kind of expert volume you would expect for someone writing within The Penguin History of Europe (General Editor: David Cannadine.)  The 2007 American publication date makes The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648-1815 practically a new release within the field.  Certainly, Blanning is well positioned to take full account to the revolution of historiography that has engulfed the field from the 1960s onward.  That revolution was the inversion of the concerns of traditional historians.  Instead of kings and diplomacy, you heard about the working class, farmers and minority groups. Although in America this focus is distinctly tied to the "politically correct" university culture of the 80s and 90s, the roots of this shift in Europe go back to Braudel and his "Annales" school.   The Annales school famously focused on the experience of every day life for normal people, and eschewed a larger subject specific agenda in favor of a history that operated largely without personality profiles or important human actors.
Political map of Europe in 1815, the end of the period surveyed in The Pursuit of Glory: 1648-1815 by Tim Blanning


  In 2007, this means that although Blanning gives his historical overview a very traditional sounding name, the actual progress of the book is from bottom to top, with the last hundred pages devoted to the wars and machinations that typically characterize past histories of this time period. Yes, Blanning has much to say about Louis the XIV, Napoleon and the rise of Prussia, but he also devotes equal space to the importance of the improvement in the ability to communicate over long distances, the lack of change for agricultural workers, the role of religion and a sparkling section on culture that is a must for anyone interested in cultural history (a roughly 70 page chapter.)
The Court Library in Vienna (now the Austrian national library) a high point of Austrian Baroque, designed by Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach in 1722.


  Through out The Pursuit of Glory, Blanning makes the case (or restates the case made by others) that the period of 1648 to 1815 was the birthplace of "modern Europe" making it the "early modern period" in European history.   Trends like improvements in roads and the efficiency of government cut across national lines and seems to represent the take-off point for the "rise of Europe" though Blanning is not so gauche as to make a lame superiority of Europe type argument.  Blanning is not blazing any new trails, I've already read many of the more specific studies that he uses to support his arguments, so in almost all cases he is condescending and summarizing work that may be unavailable to the general reader.
Bonaparte at Arcole in 1796, by Antoine-Jean Gros


  By the end, a clear picture of winners and losers from the period emerges.  The winners are England, Russia and Prussia.  The losers are  Sweden, Poland, the Ottomans and Spain.  Austria, France and Netherlands/Belgium occupy the middle, with gains and losses cancelling one another out.   An important fact to remember about this period is the hit that Sweden took.  During this period they challenged Russia and Prussia, got stomped by both of them, and that was it for them on the world stage, more or less.

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