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review 2019-01-06 11:52
A necessary stop for understanding Mazarin, but not the first one
Mazarin: The Crisis Of Absolutism In France - Geoffrey Treasure
In the mid-17th century, France emerged as the dominant power in continental Europe. While this development was the result of a range of historical factors and personages, one of the people who played a decisive role in bringing it about was the Italian-born Jules Mazarin. As chief minister of France for nearly two decades, he served as the main architect of French policy during this period, establishing the kingdom's preeminence through war and diplomacy. By the time he died in 1661 France had eclipsed Spain militarily, while the marriage Mazarin arranged between the Spanish princess Maria Theresa and the young Louis XIV helped to end France's ongoing wars with the Habsburgs and cemented its status for decades to come.
 
Given his achievements, Mazarin deserves a thorough biography that details his life within the context of his times. One of the things that makes Geoffrey Treasure's account of his life so impressive is that he manages simultaneously to both succeed and fall short in providing one for his readers. In it he charts Mazarin's life from his early years as a precocious young Italian nobleman through his years as a papal envoy (during which time he became a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church) to his emergence as Richelieu's deputy and successor as chief minister. Throughout it he describes the development of Mazarin's considerable diplomatic skills, his application of them in the service of both the papacy and the French monarchy, and his broader influence on policy. While an admirer of Mazarin's, Treasure does not hesitate to identify his flaws and the errors he made in both politics and policy, which he weighs against his many accomplishments to provide a nuanced examination of his subject.
 
It is for these reasons that Treasure's biography is an valuable resource about Mazarin and his role in events. Yet the author's style often inhibits his efforts. His book is a dense text that assumes the reader is already well-versed in the context of 17th century French and European history, which can be problematic given the range of complex subjects he addresses, from state finances to international diplomacy. Treasure's excessively florid prose only exacerbates this problem, with some sentences so convoluted as to be indecipherable. As a result, while his book is a necessary read for anyone seeking to understand Mazarin, to fully benefit from its value it should by no means be the first one they tackle.
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url 2019-01-02 13:54
Podcast #129 is up!
Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely - Andrew S. Curran

My first podcast of the year is up! In it, I interview Andrew S. Curran about his biography of the French philosophe Denis Diderot. Enjoy!

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review 2018-09-22 15:12
Deservedly regarded as a classic
The Franco-Prussian War: The German Invasion of France, 1870-1871 - Michael Eliot Howard

Michael Howard's history of the Franco-Prussian War has long been regarded as a classic of military history, and after reading it it's easy to see why. His book is a incisive recounting of the combatants and the operations they undertook over the course of the ten-month-long conflict. In the process he identifies the elements that defined the conflict, showing how just ill-prepared the French were for the war they faced, how poorly suited the French generals were for the type of war they were in, and how precarious Prussia's victory was after their ostensibly decisive victory in the battle of Sedan. While Geoffrey Wawro's history of the war serves as a better introduction to the subject thanks to its broader coverage of the context of events, nobody interested in understanding the course of the fighting can afford to skip Howard's perceptive and enduring examination of it.

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review 2018-05-20 15:15
Napoleon at his peak
Napoleon: The Spirit of the Age: 1805-1810 - Michael Broers

The second volume of Michael Broers's projected three-volume biography of Napoleon Bonaparte covers the five years of his life between the start of his campaign against the Austrians in 1805 and his marriage to Marie Louise in 1810. This was the period which can be regarded as Napoleon at his peak. With his victories against the Austrians in 1805 and the Prussians and the Russians in 1806-7, the French emperor exercised a dominance over Europe that was unprecedented. Yet one of the themes that emerges from Broers's narrative is the fragile nature of Napoleon's control, as he details the ways in which his power began to evaporate almost as soon as he won it.

 

As Broers details, the main reason for this was the circumstances in which it was won. When Napoleon led the Grande Armée our of its camps around Boulogne and into central Europe, he commanded one of the finest military forces in existence, one that was well trained and consisted of veterans of the many wars that France had fought since 1792. Yet it was an unsustainable force, one that Napoleon's regime scrambled to finance even as it won its great victories against the Austrians. The end of the Austrian campaign led to the discharge of many of those veterans, who were replaced by younger, less experienced conscripts in subsequent campaigns.

 

Though Napoleon still won many victories with his new recruits, this was just one of the many challenges he faced. Another was with his efforts to control the lands his forces occupied, as he proved far more successful in defeating the armies of the old order than he was in controlling their territories. Here Broers's expertise as an historian of the era is employed to his greatest effect, as he demonstrates how the French occupation of southern Italy in 1806 foreshadowed the problems the regime would face in Spain just two years later. Napoleon's efforts to establish his brother Joseph as king of Naples proved less than successful, as French reforms such as the end of feudalism quickly turned the Neapolitan aristocracy against the regime, forcing the French to maintain a military presence the region could not afford, and confronting Napoleon with a low-level uprising he did not know how to win.

 

Further hampering Napoleon's efforts to cement his dominance of Europe was his reliance upon his family as puppet monarchs. Here Broers astutely dismisses traditional criticisms of his use of them as rulers of the regions he conquered, pointing out that the practice was commonplace for ruling families throughout European history, Yet his brothers ultimately did not live up to the (often impossible) demands Napoleon placed upon them, and suffered the fore of his ire as a result. His frustration with them also informed his growing concern over the issue of succession, as his difficult marriage of Josephine had not produced the heir he so desperately desired. Though his efforts to wed a Russian princess ultimately proved fruitless, his negotiations with the Austrians proved more successful, and in 1810 he became the son-in-law of his twice-defeated opponent Francis II. Yet as Broers ends the volume he makes clear that the seeming solidity gained by the Napoleonic regime still rested on a foundation of sand, with Napoleon facing rebellions in occupied territories, resentful monarchs in the rest of the continent, and an ongoing war against Britain that showed no sign of resolution.

 

Broers describes all of this is a clear narrative that moves briskly through the many of events of the emperor's busy life. Drawing upon the bounty of the ongoing Correspondance générale series as well as recent scholarship on various aspects of his reign by the leading scholars of the era, he provides a fuller picture of Napoleon's rule than was possible for previous biographers. The result is a worthy successor to Broers's previous volume, Soldier of Destiny, and a book which further establishes his biography as the best one yet written about Napoleon Bonaparte.

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review 2018-05-05 15:17
A war that defined modern Europe
The Franco-Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870-1871 - Geoffrey Wawro

Of all of the wars fought in Europe between 1815 and 1914, none was more important in terms of its impact than the Franco-Prussian War. The culmination of Otto von Bismarck's strategy for unifying the German states into a single country, it saw the displacement of France as the dominant Continental power and the formation of a new nation that would dominate events in Europe for the next three-quarters of a century.

Such an epochal conflict is well deserving of study, yet for Geoffrey Wawro to write this book is in some respects an act of bravery. For decades Michael Howard's The Franco-Prussian War has been the go-to source for readers seeking an English-language history of the conflict, and little has changed since its publication in 1961 to undermine its value. Yet Wawro's book is a worthy addition to the literature on the war, thanks to the directness of his analysis and the clarity of his prose. He provides readers with a superb introduction to the conflict, starting with an analysis of its political background and the strengths and weaknesses of the two armies before detailing the major campaigns of the war. From his analysis emerges a tale of two powers, one rotted yet still possessing formidable strengths, the other dynamic but suffering from its own set of flaws. Wawro makes it clear that while the Prussians enjoyed several advantages the outcome was far from ordained, with the flaws of French leadership being a decisive factor in its defeat.

Wawro's book illustrates the depth of France's humiliation in their defeat. In doing so, he helps to underscore the long-term significance of the war, as France would emerge from it determined to undo its loss. Though this may not have made the conflict that took place four decades later inevitable, the seeds for it were clearly sown in 1870-1. To understand why is just one reason why this book is necessary reading for every student of modern European history, as well as anyone seeking an accessible overview of this pivotal clash of powers

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