Robert Tombs, *The English and Their History*

by on January 8, 2015 at 1:48 am in Books, History | Permalink

I ordered this book through the UK, as it does yet have a U.S. publication date on Amazon.  It has a fascinating 891 pp. of text (and an excellent annotated bibliography), virtually all of which are worth reading.  In just about any year it is one of the top five non-fiction books of that year.  I found it especially strong on English-French relations, and early modern times, and perhaps a bit weak on post-1970 developments, which are in any case harder to cover.

It is not an easy book to excerpt but here is one short bit on Shakespeare:

…at deeper levels he is astonishingly not the product of his times, which is an evident reason for the continuing power of his work.  Most obviously, he is not dogmatic; he displays a wide variety of cultural and religious influences, but is not defined by the religious conflict that shaped his time — hence continuing modern debate about his personal beliefs.  He pays little respect to social and gender hierarchy.  He writes of a ‘deep England’, beyond London and the court.  Women are always important and often dominant in his plays, and women came in large numbers to see them, scandalizing foreign visitors.  It is often said that he conceals his opinions; it seems rather that the ideas he explores transcend the limits of contemporary polemics.

Definitely recommended, I quickly became addicted to this book.  Do any of you know when it will have a formal release on this side of the Atlantic?

1 Henri Tournyol du Clos January 8, 2015 at 2:15 am

If you want to dwell deeper into the subject of Britain vs France, which had an inordinate influence on the shaping of the modern world, his wife Isabelle is a French historian and together they wrote That Sweet Enemy, an 800pp history of Anglo-French relations, which I found extremely enjoyable and would recommend wholeheartedly.

2 PD Shaw January 8, 2015 at 10:28 am

I recall Benjamin Schwarz gave a glowing review of “That Sweet Enemy” in the Atlantic several years ago as well; and it’s been in the back of my mind to read one day.

3 Henri Tournyol du Clos January 9, 2015 at 2:24 am

Benjamin Schwarz’s review (“one of the most engaging and invigorating works of international history I’ve read in years) for The Atlantic is here : while Julian Barne’s jolly but superficial (and gated) review for the NYRB can be found here : or, in full, temporarily here (pdf) :

The best review is however Walter Russell Mead’s in Foreign Affairs : : ‘Entente Infernale: How 300 Years of Anglo-French Rivalry Shaped the World’. Indeed, being familiar with the story of that rivalry – something that sadly most people in English-speaking countries no longer are – is fundamental to understanding the modern world.

4 Ray Lopez January 8, 2015 at 2:53 am

I find this quote unbelievable: “Most obviously, he is not dogmatic” about Shakespeare!? I thought Shakespeare was famous for outlining stark contrasts between “good and evil”, sort of like J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”? Wasn’t Marlowe more balanced? (I’ve not read any of them either, except excerpts). I find the rest of the book suspect as a result of this quote.

5 Millian January 8, 2015 at 5:29 am

You conflate the dogmatic with the Manichean. Perhaps they do not have a distinction in Tagalog.

6 Ray Lopez January 8, 2015 at 6:01 am

What’s the difference between seeing everything in black and white vs being dogmatic, you iconoclast? Or is that another thread?

7 Anon. January 8, 2015 at 7:16 am

On what end of that spectrum do you think Falstaff falls?

8 Ricardo January 8, 2015 at 10:55 am

Shakespeare is not “famous for outlining stark contrasts” between good and evil… if anything he is famous for exploring the boundaries (e.g., characters like Macbeth, Othello, Brutus).

9 Thursday January 8, 2015 at 3:00 am

He pays little respect to social and gender hierarchy.

An extremely dubious assertion.

10 Steve Sailer January 8, 2015 at 5:31 am


Is there anything — seriously, anything? — in Shakespeare to suggest he was anything other than a worldly man of his time?

11 Peter Akuleyev January 8, 2015 at 3:36 am

perhaps a bit weak on post-1970 developments

Maybe because there isn’t much to say about “English” history, after the 1990s at any rate. Due to globalization and uncontrolled immigration, the English nation began to wither away and die. The end.

12 Millian January 8, 2015 at 5:32 am

There are more English people today than at any other time in history. Or maybe you think dark-skinned people are not allowed to be English? But that is tautological: to deny that they are equal to whites just because you think they should not try to be.

13 Peter Akuleyev January 8, 2015 at 6:06 am

“Equality” has nothing to do with it. England is an ethnic group with a shared culture, history, traditions and myths, not a political entity. You aren’t “allowed” to join, you either are English or you aren’t. A dark-skinned person adopted by an English family would be English. If that dark skinned person had children with another dark skinned person who had been raised as English, their children would be English. A Pole (or a Scot) immigrant will never be English. The number of people being raised as “English”, that is with ties to a deep English culture and traditions that span generations, is not growing as fast as the British population that has no real connection to that culture and tradition.

It is not necessarily a tragedy. We don’t mourn the disappearance of the Etruscans, the Goths or even the Romans. New polities and ethnic groups sprung up in their place. Partially descended from those earlier peoples but also very different. 22nd century Great Britain will probably have a similar relationship to England as 7th century Italy did to ancient Rome.

14 tjamesjones January 8, 2015 at 10:06 am

i think there’s some truth in this.

15 Brian Donohue January 8, 2015 at 3:29 pm
16 msgkings January 8, 2015 at 6:40 pm

Brian, for this crowd, if current UK stats include brown English people, they don’t actually count as ‘English’. See Peter A’s comment just above.

17 Roy January 8, 2015 at 5:04 am

Maybe Shakespeare was really reminiscent of the late Tudor era and the court poets and proto-Puritan religious fanatics, who in this period were often not even in England, were not so representative of that time…

Imagine how impoverished our understanding of Victorian England would be if we just had the Pre-Raphelites and Karl Marx, plus Dickens, and nothing else? Of course I would love the arguments about how money grubbing and uneducated Dickens couldn’t have written such masterpieces and people argued it was really John Ruskin writing in secret, or maybe Disraeli…

18 Steve Sailer January 8, 2015 at 5:43 am

“He pays little respect to social and gender hierarchy. … Women are always important and often dominant in his plays, and women came in large numbers to see them, scandalizing foreign visitors.”

You know, the monarch of England for the first 39 years of Shakespeare’s life was a woman.

19 tjamesjones January 8, 2015 at 10:08 am

i’ve actually read this as well, being in the UK, and i agree it is quite fantastic: it’s also a revelation in demonstrating the evolution of Whig and Tory positions over time, and showing the importance of William III in forming modern Britain post 1688. anyhow, i think every high school history teacher should read this before teaching english history.

20 Florian January 8, 2015 at 12:00 pm

The real classic on this subject is of course “History of the English Speaking Peoples”. By Winston Churchill, no less.
It even won him a Nobel Price (the only time ever, as far as I know, that the Nobel in Literature was a awarded to a non-ficiton work).

21 Sam January 8, 2015 at 12:11 pm

Bertrand Russell

22 CM January 8, 2015 at 1:27 pm

Why is this book so awesome? Does it have an interesting thesis? Does it popularize any new ideas about English history? I’m skeptical on these fronts because it’s a synthesis written by a non-specialist (Tombs’s original scholarship is focused on 19th century France with a side line on British-French relations), though I could be wrong. The online reviews make it sound like an exceptionally well-written popular history that celebrates English exceptionalism – i.e., great for businessmen to demonstrate their cultivation by carrying on airplanes.

23 AB January 8, 2015 at 4:28 pm

Sounds like a very Tyler Cowen sort of book!

24 tjamesjones January 9, 2015 at 8:32 am

CM that isn’t generous but not entirely unfair. however, the lack of specialism is no weakness here: nobody specialises in the entire history of a people and country over 15 hundred years. and yet, everybody carries around with them some sense of what happened in their country in the past. having a professional historian pull together an up to date and well thought out and expressed history is surely a good thing.

25 Jeff Rensch January 8, 2015 at 6:16 pm

Tyler – “to be published in February by Knopf” according to the Economist review of 12/13

26 Nigel January 9, 2015 at 9:01 am

For Britain post 1970, Dominic Sandbrook is excellent.

27 Henri Tournyol du Clos January 13, 2015 at 1:31 pm

Thanks for the tip. Just browsed and bought ‘State of Emergency: The Way We Were – Britain 1970-74’ and it does look great on an era I was old enough not to forget but young enough not to fully understand. Really looking forward to reading it.

28 Allen Lane January 9, 2015 at 1:29 pm

Thanks for the glowing mention of the book, Tyler. The US edition will be forthcoming from Knopf sometime in the autumn of this year (or, if you like, the fall).

29 Dredd January 10, 2015 at 2:35 pm

We can thank them for the current addiction to fossil fuels.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: