The Pursuit of Glory

Empires come and go. The relative strength of cultures around the globe wax and wane. Europe, arguably, has enjoyed a 500 year dominance. But how did its culture rise to achieve imperial influence? Tim Blanning ( offers some answers by giving an account of ‘the long 18th century’ (1648-1815). He begins with The Treaty of Westphalia bringing to an end thirty years of war which had wrought more devastation than any previous conflict. The story is told through to the defining year of Waterloo, 1815.


The author starts with communications as an explanation to a joined-up world. Europe’s roads, neglected since the Romans, were overhauled in the 18th century, whilst this was also the great age of canal-building. These were crucial developments which combined to allow Europe’s national economies to expand. The result was a speeding up of life on the continent – between 1700 and 1800 the travel time from London to Edinburgh dropped from 256 hours to 60. In agriculture, new crops, notably potatoes, and more efficient farming, meant greatly increased food supplies, and consequently more prosperity. With this came a rise in population.


Whilst Blanning is clear about the importance of Europe’s innumerable peasants, and gives an account of the basic factors that influenced their lives, he also presents the individuals whose personal decisions changed the lives of the toiling millions. Within his time frame, the Holy Roman Empire finally collapsed, Spain lost its empire in the New World, Prussia arose as a great power, and America and France both underwent revolutions. In Prussia, the vision and political skill of a series of rulers, above all Frederick the Great, finessed a minor kingdom into a major player. Catherine the Great similarly helped to give Russia an international significance commensurate with its size, whilst Napoleon attempted, and spectacularly failed, to become a second Charlemagne, destroying France as a superpower in the process.


Blanning’s chapter on ‘Court and Country’ reveals much about how rulers actually achieved their ends and about the lives of the elite. Some of it is extremely unpalatable to modern sensibilities – and, consequently, revealing. It opens with a lengthy treatment of hunting, to which 18th-century rulers devoted an enormous amount of time and resource. Royal hunts were an arena for the ceremonial display of power, conspicuous consumption, diplomacy and seduction. Only the pleasure of killing could explain the charm of tossing foxes and other creatures in a blanket till they died: in one year alone at the court of Saxony, 743 wild animals were killed in this way. The 18th century was moving away from the Middle Ages’ robust enjoyment of human torture, but what Hogarth called ‘the sports of cruelty’ continued to exert mass appeal at all levels of society. Stoicism was a necessary virtue, and for all that the 18th century was the ‘era of sensibility’ in a few refined circles, it was also brutal.


One reason the burghers of Gotha, for example, thought they were living in an enlightened new age was that Europe stopped fighting about religion (partly, it has to be said, because in the new age of nationhood, there was so much else to fight about). Superstition and frenzy, they judged, were being consigned to the dustbin of history; the new age they were living in was one of philosophy and love of one’s fellow man. The concept of original sin was replaced by the notion of natural virtue, and along with this revolution in thought came a revolution in taste: thus novels, informal and naturalistic, superseded romances. Landscape gardens superseded formal parterres. Mankind was now sufficiently in control of his environment to become sentimental about it.


This volume is informative, insightful and highly readable. We can’t hope for much more in our history books. I commend it to you.


The Pursuit of Glory is one of the seven volumes in the much praised Penguin History of Europe ( series. If pressed for time, and with an ambition to get a rudimentary handle on European history, this series makes an excellent purchase for your shelves. All but one are in paperback, so the outlay of just over £100 is richly repaid for the pleasure of understanding they yield.



Until his retirement in 2009, Tim Blanning was Professor of Modern European History at the University of Cambridge. He remains a Fellow of Sidney Sussex College and has been a Fellow of the British Academy since 1990.



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736 pages in Allen Lane

First published 2007

ISBN  978-0713990874


Professor Tim Blanning


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