in Book Review

The Pursuit of Glory

The Five Revolutions that Made Modern Europe: 1648 – 1815

The world as it was at the end of the Thirty Years’ War is vastly different from that at the end of Napoleon’s wars across the continent. The roughly one-and-a-half century in between saw Europe undergo a number of thoroughly vast transformations across all aspects of life – be it political, economic, cultural, or religious. The book The Pursuit of Glory: The Five Revolutions That Made Modern Europe: 1648-1815, by Timothy Blanning, examines “five of the modern world’s great revolutions – scientific, industrial, American, French, and romantic”. The book shows how all these five events come together to redefine Europe, in a period that serves as a bridge from the Medieval to (Early) Modern times.

It is, however, a daunting read, much more because the thematic approach causes some jumps and leaps in the chronological narrative. The first part is an overview of life in Europe during the period, including the state of peasantry and serfdom, plus the Industrial Revolution. This part is still pretty light on the names and dates, but nonetheless a slow read if one isn’t too invested in the details.

A second part tackles the sovereign entities of Europe, of who ruled what empires or territories, and also includes overview of the American and French Revolutions. The third part discusses culture, religion, the Scientific and Romantic Revolutions, and the state of monarchies and monarchs throughout the period. This is where things get really confusing, as all the nitty-gritty details start to come together, and things already discussed previously are brought back to be blended into the relevant themes.

Now, this can be discouraging to all but the most passionate readers. I personally struggled through much of the book too, as I didn’t have enough prior relevant knowledge of European history covered by this book. The morass of names, dates, events, and everything else can get difficult to follow really quickly. And it doesn’t help that the Scientific and the Romantic Revolutions aren’t sharply distinguished, and are situated within an overarching overview of European culture as a whole.

But once the reader has gotten through the third part, things start to all become clearer, and exciting too. At this point the relevant details have been mentioned and repeated enough that it should (hopefully) be easier for the reader to follow through. Not to mention, the chronology is a lot more consistent and cohesive now. The final – and arguably the best part of the book – is all about the wars waged in Europe, from the Peace of Westphalia (which ended the Thirty Years’ War) to the 1815 Treaty of Paris (which ended the Napoleonic Wars).

And boy, are there so much wars to tackle, as the 167 or so years covered by the book is packed with so much conflicts, (largely useless) treaties, territorial changes, and generally just straight-up political drama, the reader would be advised to have maps and maybe Wikipedia ready to consult often. That said, the timeline is a lot more cohesive, and unlike in previous chapters, the conflicts are discussed more in-depth, so things are way easier to follow and understand in general.

At this point, it should be obvious that this book is not for the faint of heart – neither is it for the simply curious reader, who probably just want to widen their bit of knowledge of history. Even for someone like me, the book still feels pretty convoluted. Yet, for the well-prepared history buff, I would say this is a good book to have, though possibly more as a general survey of the period than a serious dive into early modern European history.

The Pursuit of Glory succeeds in illuminating the period 1648 – 1815, in a truly comprehensive – if not the most cohesive – manner. As a guide for the political upheavals of the times, the wars fought, and the revolutionary changes that defined the era, it can be daunting and intimidating, but the effort it requires the reader definitely pays off, and towards the final part of the book, pays off really well.