The Journal of Military History 67.2 (2003) 555-556
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European International Relations, 1648-1815. Edited by Jeremy Black. New York: Palgrave, 2002. ISBN 0-333-96451-9. Maps. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xiii, 274. $15.99.
In many ways this book is typical of the many historical surveys that Jeremy Black has published. He displays here his usual flair for writing, together with a level of factual detail—accurately rendered—that is unusual for books with such a broad reach. He also endeavors to strike a compromise between the need to be comprehensive and to say something new, perhaps even something beyond what he has already written in his other 50+ books.
The volume's first three chapters provide an overview of the nature of diplomacy, followed by a fourth chapter that tries to make some sense of the continental powers' impact outside Europe; the book's second half is neatly divided into four chronological reaches (1648-99, 1700-40, 1740-83, 1783- 1815), even as he warns us that there are certain undesirable tradeoffs involved with any kind of periodization. Naturally, much of what follows can appear fairly pedestrian to the specialist as, indeed, is the immediately preceding section on the "outer world."
Nonetheless, the book is brimming with less well-known—and, I suspect, more than a few previously unknown—facts that reflect Black's incredibly broad, yet intimate familiarity with unpublished sources. He also displays a talent for fresh, sometimes brilliant generalizations which, admittedly, can detract from the flow and integrity of the larger narration. Perhaps the volume's central argument is that we should try, for a moment at least, to move away from the all-too-common "structural approach" that assigns a certain inevitability to diplomatic and other history. To prove his point, he repeatedly stresses the unpredictability of events, most notably accidents of birth and death, and a degree of diplomatic flexibility that abetted numerous watershed events, such as the sudden withdrawal of Sweden and the Netherlands, or the Diplomatic Revolution, none of which he deems to have been inherently inevitable. Black also questions the "supposed transition from medieval to modern" (p. 244) modalities, which he feels come at the cost of ignoring greater structural continuities that have gone unnoticed. Thus he points to the similarities between the violence of seventeenth-century religious warfare and the French revolutionary wars, the resiliency of monarchy beyond early modern times, into revolutionary, Napoleonic, and post-Napoleonic generations, and a persistence of traditional French Austrophobia that led the revolutionary Jacobin regime to declare war on an enlightened Austria, but not Prussia or other, more conservative powers.
The book is attended by a couple of helpful maps, a modest, select bibliography, and able editorial work. Its hybrid nature may, however, make it difficult for it to find a niche in today's competitive book market. The parade of insights and other conceptual forays will likely make it difficult for some students, while scholars may not take the time to slog through the plethora [End Page 555] of well-known facts in search of new information and fresh insights—an exercise which this reader found worth the effort.