2000-08-13: The Isles

The Isles

A History (1999)

by Norman Davies (1939-)

This is a fascinating work, of which I only read about 300 pages, out of 1000+. I deliberately stopped after the Norman conquest, expecting to return at a later date.

Davies’ intent was to discover and write of the broad history of all the peoples and cultures of the archipelago often called the British Isles. In fairness to the peoples and his subject, Davies avoids that term, and scrupulously, with explanation, avoids all anachronistic terms. His care with nomenclature leads to fresh terms in some cases, and a good-natured awareness of the futility of introducing new terms where old terms (even if not justifiable) are in common usage.

In his introduction, Davies lists the states that have existed in the isles:

  • The High Kingship of Ireland, to 1169 AD
  • The Ancient British tribal principalities, to c. 70 AD
  • Independent ‘Pictland’, to the ninth century AD
  • Roman Britannia, 43 to c. 410 AD
  • The independent British/Welsh principalities, from the fifth century to 1283, including Cornwall, Cumbria, and Strathclyde
  • The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, from the fifth to the tenth centuries
  • The Kingdom of the Scots, from the ninth century to 1651, and 1660 to 1707
  • The Kingdom of England, from the tenth century to 1536, together with its dependencies including the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man, the Welsh March, and English-occupied Wales and Ireland
  • The Kingdom of England and Wales, 1536 to 1649, and 1660 to 1707
  • The Kingdom of Ireland, 1541 to 1649, and 1660 to 1800
  • The Commonwealth of Great Britain and Ireland, alias the ‘First British Republic’, 1654 to 1660
  • The United Kingdom of Great Britain, 1707 to 1800
  • The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, 1801 to 1922
  • The Irish Free State (later Éire, then the Republic of Ireland), since 1922
  • The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, since 1922

His chapter titles indicate the scope of (the early part of) the work:

The Midnight Isles

This chapter, with no dates, describes the prehistoric state of the region, including before they were separated from the continent. In this chapter he gives (in translation) somewhat fanciful names that might have been used descriptively by the people of the time: the Green Isle, the Great Isle, the Misty Country, the Outer Isles, the Furthest Isles, the Middle Sea, Lakeland, the Peaks, Land’s End, Southern Straits, The Sleeve (the Channel), and the Great Stone Circle or Giant’s Ring. He justifies each name, even though he expects no one to adopt them. He also mentions the absurdity of using a date like 2700 BC, when no one present could possibly have conceived of such a date.

Davies describes the prehistoric peoples whose remains have been found in the Isles, and the comings of others (such as the Beaker Folk, the ‘Flanged-axe Warriors’, the Urnfield People, and the Celtic peoples). He asserts that the ancient people were not displaced, but their progeny still reside in the Isles, genetically mixed with later arrivals, but never eliminated. In particular he describes the discovery in 1903 of ‘The Canyon Cave Man’ (usually called ‘Cheddar Man’), apparently from the Middle Stone Age (eighth millennium BC). In 1996, DNA matching found that he was closely related to Mr. Adrian Targett, a teacher in the nearby village of Cheddar.

The Painted Isles, c. 600BC to 43 AD

This chapter is about the Celtic peoples who were present when the Romans came, on their own terms. He describes the Celtic cultures on the Continent, as well as the Goidelic and Brythonic cultures of the Isles. Apparently current scholarship places the coming of the Celts to the Isles at about 600 BC, somewhat later than I had thought from other books. Few remains similar to Hallstat or La Tène have been found in Éire, though they are found in south-east Albion.

In this chapter, Davies introduces the names Éire and Albion. In tracing names he finds Britannia < Pretani < Pretaniké (from an account of a voyage by Pytheas of Massilia, fourth century BC). This name came from an encounter with a Brythonic Celt. Had Pytheas met a Goidelic Celt, he would have heard the island called Krutheniké > Cruteni, and “Eventually, we would have ended up not with the ‘Brits’ but with the ‘Cruts’. For some reason, Cruttish does not have the same ring as British”.

Davies gives suitable weight (i.e., some but not too much) to myth, as well as archeology. He avoids using inappropriate names for the tribes (mostly based on Latin descriptive names or epithets), with the result that few tribal names are actually known. As elsewhere in the book, he disapproves the neglect by most historians of the Celtic (or other non-English) element of the history of the Isles. He describes the way in which interest in Celtic matters and themes has become popular among lay people and in academic circles.

The Frontier Isles, 43 to c. 410

This chapter is about the Roman occupation and its effect on the cultures of the Isles. He describes the different types and degrees of effects that Romanization had in different regions of Albion/Britannia, and how these differences affected subsequent events after the Legions left. As elsewhere, he is inclusive in his treatment, not merely focusing on the ‘conquerors’, but on those who felt the direct influence of the Romans, as well as those who remained outside the Roman province and its subprovinces.

The Germanico-Celtic Isles, c. 410 to 800

Davies hardly mentions Arthur, to my disappointment. Still, his treatment of the influx of Germanic people to Britannia, including, as usual, attention to nomenclature, is very interesting. This period is a quagmire of possibilities for misuse of the terms ‘British’, ‘Celtic’, ‘Pictish’, ‘Saxon’, ‘Anglo-Saxon’, ‘English’, and other terms. I think Davies has the right approach to this issue throughout the work.

The Isles in the West, 795 to 1154

The men of the North are as carefully treated as everyone else in this book. I read up through the Norman Conquest and its immediate aftermath, then stopped for now. I hope to find time to resume the narrative.

Other Notes

Davies previously wrote Europe: A History. I expect to look for it as well.

Davies includes over 60 appendices, including special-purpose maps, songs of significance to various of the people of the Isles (lyrics and music), genealogies, tables of economic and other data. I didn’t notice any references to appendices in the first five chapters, so perhaps they are merely included for their intrinsic interest. Appendix 50 is called ‘Modernization – the Component Processes’. A quick glance at the index doesn’t show any reference to this appendix, so I don’t know how it figures in the book, or its source; but here is its content (including informal grouping of items):

(The Industrial Revolution)

  1. Scientific and mechanized agriculture
  2. Mobility of labour: enclosures, emancipation of the serfs
  3. New sources of power: coal, steam, gas, oil, electricity
  4. Power-driven machinery
  5. Heavy industry: mining and metallurgy
  6. Factories and factory towns
  7. Improved transport: canals, roads, railways, flight
  8. Communications: post, telegraph, telephone, radio
  9. Capital investment: joint-stock companies, trusts, cartels
  10. Expanding domestic markets: new industries, internal trade
  11. Foreign trade: import and export, colonies
  12. Government policy
  13. Demography: rapid population growth and its consequences
  14. The money economy: wages prices, taxes, paper money
  15. Marketing skills: advertising, stores, sales distribution
  16. Science and technology: research and development
  17. Financial services: credit, savings banks, insurance
  18. Standardization of weights, measures, and currencies
  19. Urbanization: town planning, public services
  20. New social classes: middle classes, domestics, ‘workers’
  21. Transformation of family structures: ‘the nuclear family’
  22. Women: dependency and subordination
  23. Migration: local, regional, international
  24. Public health: epidemics, hygiene, medical services
  25. Poverty: unemployment, vagrancy, workhouses, slums
  26. Exploitation: child labour, female labour, sweatshops
  27. Organized crime: police, detectives, criminal underclass
  28. Private charities
  29. Education: primary, technical, scientific, executive, female
  30. Literacy and mass culture
  31. Leisure: organized recreation and sport
  32. Youth movements
  33. Religious trends: fundamentalism, temperance, worker priests
  34. Social sciences economics, anthropology, ethnography, etc.
  35. Collectivism: industrial and urban psychology
  36. Consumerism
  37. Class consciousness
  38. National consciousness
  39. Political consciousness
  40. Extension of the electorate: universal suffrage, suffragettes
  41. Political parties with mass constituencies
  42. State-run welfare: pensions, social insurance, benefits
  43. Elaborate social legislation
  44. Expansion of the civil service: bureaucracy
  45. Reorganization of local government
  46. Political associations and pressure groups: trade unions
  47. Imperialism
  48. Total war: conscript armies, mechanized warfare, home front

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