Are countries stable facts of life or tangled webs of meaning?
Consider Burgundy. The purplish-red color comes from the wine, which by law must come from a few designated grape-growing pockets on the west bank of the Saône River, a tributary of the Rhône in eastern France. The surrounding Burgundy administrative region - one of modern France's 27 - covers about 12,000 square miles, with 1.6 million residents. At the center of Dijon, Burgundy's capital and largest city, a sprawling Ducal Palace complex dating to 1364 houses the city's town hall and Musée des Beaux-Arts, hinting at pasts significantly grander than provincial tourist hub.
Tracing the etymological and historical lineage farther lands one inevitably in 1477 and the death of Duke Charles the Bold. In the previous century, Charles's family, the House of Valois-Burgundy, had managed through smart politics and smarter marriages to join the Duchy of Burgundy, roughly coterminous with today's French region, and the neighboring County of Burgundy (the modern region of Franche-Compté) under one ruler. But their domains stretched considerably farther, steadily accreting northward along the borderlands between France and Germany to encompass Luxembourg, Amiens, Calais, Antwerp, and Amsterdam. Charles le Téméraire - alternatively translated as Charles the Rash - made a play for independent kingship free of feudal submission to either the king of France or the Holy Roman emperor (of the German Nation) and, at war on all sides, was finally cut down in battle with the Swiss. His southern territories were annexed by France. Lacking a son, his only heir was a daughter, appropriately known as Mary the Rich. She married a Hapsburg crown prince, and her dowry became the Spanish Netherlands. Burgundy was wiped off the map, not for the first time and not for the last.
In "Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations,'' Norman Davies has crafted an alternative history of Europe that tells us what we're talking about when we talk about Burgundy, and 14 other "dead states'' - nouns, adjectives, acronyms, and systems that have gone into abeyance but maintain the ring of familiarity. Densely packed yet commendably accessible, magisterial and uncommonly humane, it also achieves something greater, and timelier: A vision of geopolitics grounded neither in some ideal end state of human affairs nor an unceasing, unchanging "realist'' struggle, but instead a basic ephemerality to identities and loyalties, through which the meanings of words and worlds are always spilling out and seeping in, dissolving into air and saturating the ground.
Indeed, if every sip of Burgundy draws one imperceptibly into the long-term orbit of Charles the Bold's rash decisions, the Valois themselves were no less ensnared by the past. "According to definitions,'' Davies notes, "there have been five, six, or seven kingdoms, two duchies, one or two provinces, one county-palatine, one landgravate, one 'United States,' and one Imperial Circle, and at least one region . . . . At the beginning of the twenty-first century a running total of fifteen Burgundies is absolutely defensible.'' These very different entities are linked by equal parts continuity and contingency: The Valois states stretched toward the North Sea; the 10th-century Kingdom of the Two Burgundies, another high point, reached from Dijon in the north to Marseilles on the Mediterranean. The first kingdom dates to A.D. 406, with the settlement of a barbarian horde near the modern German city of Mainz.
In fact, the book's "Burgundia'' chapter opens in the present day and well north of wine country, on a "small, lonely'' island in the Baltic Sea. Bornholm, or Bergundarholm in Old Norse, is believed to be the homeland of the eponymous Germanic tribe that started it all, though in Davies's telling the place is, mostly, what it is: a sedate, second-tier weekend destination, Denmark's Block Island. Davies begins every chapter with these short, presumably first-person travelogue vignettes, and can be amusingly cutting about the pretensions of local tourism boards. The structure is a beautiful set-up: "Belarus does not attract visitors,'' starts the chapter "Litva,'' before launching from the Chernobyl-scarred wasteland of today into a movingly elegiac chronicle of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which at its height joined the Baltic and Black seas and eventually morphed into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Europe's largest "republic'' (the kings were elected by nobles), or state of any kind.
Davies made his name as a scholar of Poland, but has since become perhaps the leading historian of Europe qua Europe - a sort of ecumenicalism rarely bred, and grudgingly tolerated, in modern academia. But "Vanished Kingdoms'' inevitably does some periods and places better than others. Offered in rough chronology, its first chapters - Tolusa in modern Spain and Alt Culd in Scotland - trace a basically tribal story of Visigoths against Romans and Britons against Anglo-Saxons. Its last chapters capture the 19th- and 20th-century tumults of nationalism and ideology, as seen through Napoleonic puppet states, the last days of British Ireland, and "the ultimate vanishing act'' of the USSR.
Strangely, these most ancient and most modern of forces are the ones we understand. As a guide, Davies is at his best in the long time in between, in the Burgundies, and Aragons, and Prussias, and Poland-Lithuanias of the world. These countries, some reborn and all still alive in the language, were founded on a principle that, outside of the pages of certain British tabloids, most of us find utterly daft. At its best, "Vanished Kingdoms'' suggests that there's something to the dynastic idea after all - that the strongest states are the ones who know their birth was accidental, their death unavoidable, and their goal reproduction of the things that matter in the short time each generation has left.
Jonathan Liu, a writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y., can be reached at email@example.com.