The Isles: A History

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The Isles: A History
The Isles (Norman Davies book).jpg
Cover of the first edition
Author Norman Davies
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Subject History of the British Isles
Published 1999
Media type Print

The Isles: A History is a narrative history book by Norman Davies.


As in his earlier Europe: A History, Davies is not trying to present any new history, but does want to tackle what he sees as historiographical biases in the treatment of the history of Britain and Ireland. Ten chapters span the past of the archipelago from prehistory till the dismantling of the British Empire. The chapters each begin with a specific story to illustrate each period, which is described as a 'snapshot'.

In the introduction, Davies describes the difficulties of even defining what is being described by the words people use for the history of the area, and even their definition today. This includes the term 'British'; the idea that 'Britain is an island'; the position of Ireland in the picture; the problem of the United Kingdom not appearing to have a history where everything is treated as 'Great Britain'. In the title of the book he wanted to avoid the term British Isles but also the various clumsy alternatives that had arisen in recent years (see also British Isles naming dispute).[1]

Also, he wanted to avoid anachronistic terms in the work, such as using names from other times to describe cultures or geography. So for example, instead of using the term 'Wessex culture' in the Bronze Age he uses 'Flanged-Sword culture'. Instead of British Isles in the prehistory section he uses 'Midnight Isles'. These terms are explained separately in the appendices and notes. Davies notes in his introduction that the book is a personal view and that his work is "the view of one pair of eyes".


  1. ^ Davies, Norman (1999). The Isles: A History. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. xxii. Many years later, having written Europe: a history, I was invited to give a lecture at University College, Dublin. After the presentation, someone in the audience asked about my current project. I started to reply that I was thinking of writing a history of 'the British—'. I then realized that in Dublin, of all places, one cannot talk fairly of 'the British Isles'. The Isles ceased to be British precisely fifty years ago when the Republic of Ireland left the Commonwealth, though few people in the British residue have yet cared to notice. Various clumsy alternatives were discussed, such as 'the British and Irish Isles', 'Europe's Offshore Islands', and the 'Anglo-Celtic Archipelago'. In the end, it was decided that the only decent name for the forthcoming book was 'A History of These Islands'. And such was one of several working titles until, after much trial and error, I eventually arrived at The Isles: A History.