Vanished Kingdoms, Small Countries

A cursory look at my website will show my interest in small countries, by which I mean not just nation-states that are small in size, such as the Caribbean and Pacific island countries, but countries that are not, for various reasons, nation-states. Many of these countries have never been nation-states in the modern sense of the phrase, though may well have had some sort of independent status many years ago, before modern times. Others are really just ethnic groupings within a modern state and probably do not aspire to being a separate independent state. But they appear on my website because they do have some sort of literary status, producing or having produced some works of literature as, of course, most peoples have done at some time in their history. A quick look at some of these show that some will be generally well known while others will be generally little known to the Western world. Countries like Scotland, Brittany and Catalonia are generally well-known. They are part of modern nation states but, at least for some of the population, aspire to autonomous or independent status. Others such as Abkhazia and Chechnya are known because they have been in the news, usually because of some political and/or military event(s).

Pitsunda Cathedral, Abkhazia (© http://abkhazia.travel)

Odigitrievsky Cathedral, Ulan-Ude, Buryatia

I imagine, however, that few westerners will be too familiar with Sorbia or Buryatia, though Germans may be familiar with the Sorbians under the deprecatory name of wendisch. A quick browse will probably show others that are also not so well-known. I am very much in favour of balkanisation. The late jazz critic Mike Zwerin once wrote an excellent book called A Case for the Balkanization of Practically Everyone. However, this post is about another book, Norman DaviesVanished Kingdoms.

Davies is writing about those European kingdoms (though not all were kingdoms) that have now become extinct, often, as he says, because it is the victors that write the history. It is a superb book and one that I cannot recommend too highly, even if, on occasion, he gets on his high horse and starts preaching. While I was aware of some of the places he mentions, I was not aware of many of them and, even those that I had heard of, I was not aware of much the information he gave. Take Burgundy,for example. He states that it had fifteen different versions over history and, at various times, included parts of what are now France, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands and Belgium. Burgundians controlled chunks of Italy and even occupied Athens for a while, where Catalan became the de facto official language. For most people, I imagine, it remains associated with wine and a region of France and no more.

Burgundy wine

Savoy Palace

Did you know that the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was, at one time, the largest country in Europe? Did you know that the Savoy Hotel was once the Savoy Palace, built on land granted by Henry VIII to the Duke of Savoy, an independent duchy covering parts of what are now France and Italy? That Prussia was formed from the Teutonic Knights? Or that Ruthenia did actually exist as an independent country, albeit for less than a day, under the name Carpatho-Ukraine? Or that there was a kingdom centred on Dumbarton, that stretched down South as far as Rochdale? And that this kingdom was British (i.e.pre-Roman Celtic) and not Gaelic? All these and loads of many other interesting stories can be found in this wonderful book. It all makes you rather sad that some of these places have disappeared and have, in all too many cases, been completely forgotten, even by their inhabitants.

As Davies rightly points out, we tend to think of most countries in the West being permanent fixtures but as we know, e.g. from the Soviet Union, this is definitely not the case. It is a certainty that many countries we now take for granted will soon disappear. In recent years we have seen a whole host of countries go and a whole host come into being. Last year South Sudan came into being. There are two possible changes in Europe in the near future. Scotland is seeking independence while Belgium may split into two. The countries Davies discusses presumably all seemed to their inhabitants to be more or less permanent, except, of course, for Carpatho-Ukraine, though some did seem to change with monotonous regularity, as bits were added and bits taken away. So you may expect to see one or two new countries on my website in the years to come and I shall certainly look forward to reading their literature.

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