The English and Their History
by Robert Tombs
Published in November 2014
Thibault’s Score: 2/5
I did learn a lot from reading this book, but didn’t really enjoy reading it. Something about the writing style turned me off to the book, and after I reached the 19th century, I had to stop reading it.
The most interesting part of any history, especially the history of an ethnocultural group, is its origins. Who are the British? Where do they come from? This book completely ignores that question, and focuses almost exclusively on modern English history.
I was hoping to read this book as a following to the History of Roman Britain, but was sorely disappointed. Of the 1000 pages, the entire Celtic tribal period, Roman occupation of Britain, Anglo-Saxon invasion, Danish invasion, and Norman conquests cover maybe 50 pages. By contrast, the 19th and 20th centuries cover more than 400 pages.
Because the scope of the book is so huge, I also found that it glosses over every major historical event - this is why I generally prefer more specific history books, which focus on an era or epoch. A proper history of the English would likely be Gibbon-esque is length and scope.
The writing style walks a fine line between being too advanced for the layman, but too simple for the historian. As a result, it fails at being compelling to either group. There was virtually no explanation of the sources used or of the archeological findings, which is acceptable for books written for general consumption, but inaccessible for books intended for historians.
I also didn’t like the blatant British nationalism expressed by the author - for example, he spends much ink trying to determine whether the French or British started a conflict 800 years ago. I felt like this history, especially as it got more modern, was written with a clear modern geopolitical agenda.
Sentences are long and complex, with a focus on flourishes rather than simplicity and understandability.
I do not recommend this book - it isn’t the worst book I’ve read, and readers will certainly learn a lot, but it isn’t by any means a “great read.”
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