A Brief History of France by Cecil Jenkins

Just as one cannot know the ancient world without knowing Rome, one cannot know the medieval world without knowing France.  I went into this one so as to get some perspective on everything and have a better footing for the Hundred Years War buddy read.  I went into this thinking that the most I’ve ever understood about France was Charlemagne, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Joan of Arc, with a smattering of the Revolution and considerable knowledge of the Impressionists.  Turns out, I was on considerably better footing than I thought, which made me feel pretty good.  It also turns out that it puts me in a better position to review this book.

This audio is, just as it says, a brief history and all that implies.  It cuts through whole swathes of time in the blink of an eye, and you can instantly tell where the biases of the author lie in regards to what he thinks are the important bit.  To be fair, an overview book like this is hardly easy to narrow down.  To its credit, it does exactly what an overview should, hitting the highlights and leaving the reader wanting to know more about whatever most interested them.

The book begins, impressively enough, in the Neolithic age with the magnificent cave paintings that are still only recently being discovered.  From there, it’s a quick stop through Gaul and the Celtic age, and on to the age of the Normans.  The Hundred Years War is a practically a footnote, with Joan taking center stage for most of it after simply stating that Edward III of England had the rights to the throne, and France took a pounding between him and Henry V.  The fallout from Joan builds France into the glorious powder keg we know her to be.  The Renaissance and the Enlightenment push her through the religious wars and into the age of Revolution and the time of Napoleon Bonaparte.  A little extra time is spent here, and the aftermath from that is covered well, leading all the way into the First World War.

Surprisingly, the last 30% or more of the book focuses on the post-WWII era, which leads me to believe the author’s intent is to help us better understand the political climate of modern France with the perspective of everything that’s gone on before.  This, of course, is not what my focus is here, but that doesn’t mean it’s unwelcome by any stretch.  My own knowledge of France pretty much ended in 1945 apart from a couple of artists and musicians.  Charles de Gaulle gets some considerable detail compared with previous sections of the book.

As overviews go, this one’s worth it.  This the kind of book that allows a newcomer to dip some toes into the water and see if it’ll work for them.  The waters here are shallow, but they’re clear enough to know where you’re stepping.

4 stars

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