The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648 – 1815

Tim Blanning’s The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648 – 1815 is a good book of the history of Europe during the time period between the Peace of Westphalia and the Congress of Vienna.

Rather than organizing the book chronologically, Blanning organizes it according to topics. I think this approach is wise in most regards because it is better for the reader to understand what changes occurred in one sector of culture over the time period, such as life in the country, rather than losing the cohesiveness of that topic in a chronological review – although this way does lose some continuity. The book has four major parts (Life and Death; Power; Religion and Culture; and War and Peace). Each part is composed of several different chapters covering such topics as communications, court and country, and the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon.

This period in Europe is a time of immense change when nation-states began to form and people’s attitudes toward such subjects as religion changed. For example, in 1648, Prussia was a very small principality in northern Europe, but by 1815 it became one of the major powers in Europe. Blanning provides excellent examples of how the Prussians came to become a major force in European politics.

Blanning also weaves the various topics together into a fairly seamless history. For instance, he describes the horrible condition of the roads at the beginning of the Eighteenth Century – few of them were improved beyond the original Roman roads that were built fifteen hundred years earlier. This poor road network prevented adequate communication within and outside a country and stunted commerce. Blanning convincingly argues that those countries, mainly England, that built better roads were able to develop their economies faster than those countries that did not put their money and efforts into a better road network. As a result of a stronger economic foundation, England became one of the strongest powers, if not the strongest power, at the end of the time period studied.

I think that Blanning makes several good points with regard to how each country’s leadership made decisions and how those decisions influenced their future prosperity. For example, Blanning argues that Louis XIV harnessed his country’s nationalistic fervor to extend France’s borders at the expense of those principalities that were not as unified as a nation. This age of expansion for France vaulted it into major power status that it was able to sustain until the middle of the Eighteenth Century.

Although Blanning covers economic, political, military, and cultural aspects of Europe, he also looks at the more controversial subjects such as religion. The period begins at the end of the Thirty Years War, which pitted Catholics countries against Protestant countries. Many scholars contend that the Enlightenment “freed” Europe from the bondages of religion, but Blanning counters this belief by stating that many countries had revivals (both Catholic and Protestant) – although the importance of religion in public life did slip during this time. Several monarchs, such as Frederick the Great of Prussia, may have eschewed religion, but the vast majority of the common people strengthened their faith.

In some instances, I think that Blanning could have pared back some of his subjects. For example, I do not think that he should have had an entire chapter on palaces and gardens. This subject could have been incorporated into another chapter.

Overall, I think the book is well written with a good mix of direct quotations added in. Unfortunately, there are not any footnotes to see where Blanning gets his support for his arguments. The writing flows and it is a relatively fast read considering the nature of some of the topics and the length of the book – it is 677 pages. The book has a good assortment of general maps in the front of the book, but lacks some detailed maps that could have been added amongst the text for clarification purposes.

The Pursuit of Glory is a good overview of a very dynamic period of European history.

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