Reading French History to Understand the English

I’m about a third of the way through Isaac Asimov’s The Shaping of France (Houghton Mifflin, 1972).  Not exactly a proper history book, since there are absolutely no citations or bibliography or anything else to back up his various claims, but more like a highly readable report written by an astonishingly good undergrad.   For all the man can’t seem to document, he can tell a mighty good story.

I picked up the book from the library wanting shore up my knowledge medieval french history, and certainly it’s been helpful for that.  But the surprise was this:  Suddenly the history of medieval England makes so much more sense.   Asimov’s telling of the Capetian kings’ efforts to build a stable (French) kingdom works like the denoument of a good mystery, where Father Brown or Miss Marple explain the motives of that one character you never really noticed before, but whose actions were driving all the strange comings and goings of the rest.  You need, of course, to already have the outline of English history in the back of your head, or else the final explanation won’t do you any good.

–> I’m don’t know that Asimov’s book is the best out there.  You could never use it for academic purposes without making your advisor chuckle (or cringe, or both).  And I’m only up to Philip VI, so this a PBR.  But if you need an easily-digestible history of the kings from Charlemagne forward, in a way you can actually pretty much remember and make sense of, Asimov is mighty handy in a pinch.   And just the trick for making sense of England.


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