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The challenges of writing a narrative history

In today's golden age of history books, how do historians overcome the challenges of writing a narrative based on fragmented sources? Listen to this interview with Helen Castor.

This is proving to be a golden age of history books. A few weeks ago, the Wolfson Prize was awarded to Ruth Harris’s The Man on Devil's Island: Alfred Dreyfus and the Affair that Divided France, her extraordinarily expansive treatment of the Dreyfus Affair, an event many thought exhausted. Just last week, the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction went to Frank Dikötter’s Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62, after a (reportedly) fierce battle among the judges, just pipping Maya Jasanoff’s Liberty’s Exiles and Jonathan Steinberg’s Bismarck. I could make the point that all of these celebrated titles are, all too typically, examples of modern history.

Yet there have also been excellent examples of medieval history published recently: Sarah Foot’s groundbreaking study of Athelstan, Michael Hick’s comprehensive, thrilling history of the Wars of the Roses and George Goodwin’s fine account of the Battle of Towton. Perhaps best of all, however, is Helen Castor’s superb study of medieval queenship: She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth, with which we launch the History Today Book Club.

Such titles deserve the widest possible exposure and it is the mission of the Book Club each month to bring to the attention of the wider public a recent paperback publication of the highest order. You can recognize ‘our’ books in bookshops as they will be adorned with a pale blue sticker with the words: ‘History Today Book Club Recommendation’. To be selected a book must satisfy two criteria: it must be of a high academic standard, holding its own among cutting edge studies in its particular field; and it must be written with a wide audience in mind. We encourage readers of History Today to purchase these books, to read them and comment upon their experience on the History Today Book Club section of our website. We will also broadcast a series of podcasts by each of the authors, revealing how they researched the book; how they structured it; what they hoped to achieved by writing it; and what they discovered about their subjects.

In this third part of my interview with Helen Castor, she talks about the challenges of writing narrative history drawing on inevitably fragmented medieval sources.