Even the greatest deeds of brave men can be forgotten in the mists of time – even when those deeds have a direct impact on how our world is organized today.
Like its predecessor, The Victorians, this book is a portrait of an age, rather than a formal history.
In some respects, the Thirty Years War resembles the Great War of 1914-1918. Political friction in Central Europe sparked a rush to arms that dragged in nations and peoples whose best interests lay in peace not war. With the focus of Europe’s economic activity shifting toward the Atlantic Ocean and the East Indian trade zones, the small states of Central Europe needed to integrate their economies to stay competitive. The last thing that petty states like Bohemia, Saxony, Bavaria and the Rhineland needed to do was throw away lives and treasure in futile warfare. But fight they did – for thirty years.
Mawer’s The Glass Room is a genuine intellectual achievement—a breath-taking story of love and its loss, of art and lost art, of wars lost and then won and lost again, of rich gentleman Jews and Jews lost to Nazi madness. His broad canvas covers the decades of Mittel-European horrors that began in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s. The themes are familiar, but treated in a fresh and stimulating, not to say disturbing, way.
Magna Carta, that legendary document which is so frequently referred to in discussions of freedom, and which permeates our cultural history from Rudyard Kipling (“What say the reeds at Runnymede?”) to Tony Hancock (“Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?! Brave Hungarian peasant girl…”) was produced by a power struggle between the military aristocracy and the monarchy. Any resulting “liberty” for ordinary people was a waste product of the medieval warlord industry.
She introduces a woman who may have upset those around her by her promiscuity, even nymphomania, drug use; but also gives us access to a fearless beauty with gifts of intelligence, wit, and extraordinary powers to attract the opposite sex. Then too, she reveals that her antics as combined with her endowments were nevertheless insufficient in her hunt for love and lasting affection.
It seems that world is more fantastic than our own travel brochures today can suggest for comfortable tourists. There has never been such an extensive realm, nor one with such an incredible structure of rapid communication over thousands of miles. Commerce thrived from Persia to Java, and one reason that may account for it, was order — and a flat tax of 10%. The law was strict and strictly administered everywhere, which was a marvel to Polo, in comparison with fractious Europe.
Much more serious, though, is the book’s take on the medieval world as a whole. Alongside the loud cynicism of its insistence that the battles are meaningless, the church is corrupt and the aristocracy live in a different world, Agincourt continually asserts a broadly positive, modern outlook.
Set against the backdrop of a yachting trip to the German coast, the story weds a tale of adventure with the reality of Britain’s imperial overreach thus beginning a genre that – as continued by the likes of Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, and John le Carré – has matured into one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the literate world.
Nicolson concludes his reflections by noting that “the custom of the manor” believed “to an extent the modern world can scarcely grasp, in the rights of the community as a living organism.”
For English-speaking peoples, 1066 and 1776 still evoke powerful recollections of liberty lost and freedom won. For most people in the West, however, 711 hardly strikes a note of any significance. But it should, for that was the year when a small force of Muslim Arabs and Berbers from Morocco crossed over from North Africa to Spain. Islam reached Europe in 711 and the world has never been the same.
Counts who stank of garlic–as did the whole country–had sponged on him for seats in his box at the opera. He was meeting diplomats who had “titles as long as a flagstaff, and heads as empty as their hearts.” These were strictly private comments, Daniel told Peticolas, and none of it should get into the papers. All of it did, in Richmond and soon in Turin. Now it was not garlic but what people called “the garlic letter” that caused a stink.
To be sure, the fifteenth century was one of the most politically unstable periods in English history and most modern readers’ view of the period is heavily colored by Shakespeare. He portrayed the bitter civil war known as the Wars of the Roses as divine punishment for the Lancastrian usurpation and the murder of Richard II, and in his portrayal of Richard III he created one of the most magnificent villains of the English stage.
The seventeenth and eighteenth century philosophical movement that came to be known as the Enlightenment was once the crown jewel of the western intellectual heritage. It promised lives based on order and reason. It seemed to offer the promise of human perfectibility. Such claims, however, have for some time not gone unchallenged.
The story of modern Britain – at least one of the stories – begins some three hundred years ago with the 1707 Treaty of Union between England and Scotland.