Books of the Year
From Piketty’s trumpet-blast to the great deeds of medieval saints, ten leading historians tell us about their best reads from 2014.
Justin Marozzi is both a courageous traveller and a fine historian, with an in-depth knowledge of Arabic culture. His Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood (Allen Lane) reflects these qualities in an estimable fashion. Starting with Caliph Mansur in the eighth century and ending with the recently ousted Nouri al-Maliki government, Marozzi describes 13 centuries of the history of this remarkable city without succumbing to the tyranny of a present in which the Iraqi capital is besieged by the genocidal nihilists of ISIS and subjected to daily sectarian suicide bombings. The various books by Toby Dodge on Iraqi politics also deserve an honourable mention in this context, though he lacks Marozzi’s gifts as a storyteller.
Michael Burleigh’s books include Small Wars, Faraway Places: The Genesis of the Modern World, 1945-1965 (Macmillan, 2012).
One of the quandaries of 2014 has been the volatile role of religion in global conflict and Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (Bodley Head) puts forward a novel and illuminating thesis. The turning point, she argues, is the 16th century, when agrarian empires gave way to a new kind of civilisation in Europe. Economic prosperity was now to be found not in the divinely sanctioned plunder of warrior kings, but in ‘new technologies and the constant reinvestment of capital’. Religion became a matter of private conscience, uncoupled from the state and its monopoly on violence. A disturbing and refreshing view of 20,000 years of human society, from stone age brain development to the peculiar cognitive and social landscape of the age of the Internet.
Kate Cooper is author of Band of Angels: The Forgotten World of Early Christian Women (Atlantic Books, 2013).
My favourite history book of 2014? It is a no-brainer: Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (Liveright/W.W. Norton). Professor Allen (now of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton) is by origin a brilliant classicist and she reads the Declaration as if it were a manifesto drawn up by a committee presided over by a Pericles and drafted by a Demosthenes. She even agonises over its punct- uation. The motor that moves America today, it has been said, is not equality but inequality. Prof- essor Allen aims to reverse that unhappy thrust and, if intellect- ual rigour combined with political commitment and eloquence were enough, she would surely succeed.
Paul Cartledge is A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture Emeritus at Cambridge.
Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Belknap Press/Harvard) is a major study with significant implications for historians. As the Marx-echoing title suggests, it is a work of polit-ical economy with radical implications. Yet there is more. Piketty not only analyses the comparative distribution of wealth since the 18th century (with complex data for historians to debate) but, simultaneously, denounces the current state of economics. In his view, the discipline has atrophied into a sterile set of mathematical models. Instead it should re-tool and re-integrate with economic and social history. Piketty’s trumpet-blast constitutes one notable sign, among many others across the humanities and social sciences, of a desired return to long-term perspectives. The diachronic is back! At last, an intellectual shift which historians can welcome wholeheartedly.
Penelope J. Corfield’s publications include The Time and Shape of History (Yale, 2007).
The history book I most enjoyed this year was also my first of 2014. I tucked into Robert Bartlett’s Why Can The Dead Do Such Great Things (Princeton University Press) on New Year’s Day and could not have hoped for a more stimulating festive read. A sweeping study of medieval saints, covering the entire Christian world from Late Antiquity to the Reformation, it is also a compendium of anecdotes, such as one rarely finds in a work of scholarship. Whether it be St Modwenna of Burton and her red cow, the Bishop of Lincoln who bit off two chunks of Mary Magdalene’s arm, or Queen Bathildis cleaning out toilets, all of human – and much of divine – life is here.
Tom Holland’s latest book is Herodotus: The Histories (Penguin Classics, 2013).
In 2014 I have particularly enjoyed the provocative questions raised by Mo Moulton’s Ireland and the Irish in Interwar England (Cambridge University Press). Moulton portrays the Anglo-Irish war of 1919-21 as a civil war, fought not only in Ireland but also in England, and having deep political and social repercussions for the following decades. Barbara Taylor’s The Last Asylum (Penguin) offers a very different kind of history, in which her own experiences as a service user of psychiatric hospitals allows for a wider historical look at varieties of care for the mentally ill during the transfer from older asylums to new forms of ‘community care’. Alison Light’s Common People (Fig Tree) similarly foregrounds the author through an exploration of her own family history. Tracing the migratory paths taken by the English working poor, Light illuminates what it meant to be ‘common’ across multiple generations.
Lucy Delap’s publications include Knowing Their Place: Domestic Service in Twentieth-Century Britain (Oxford, 2010).
Andrew M. Spencer’s Nobility and Kingship in Medieval England: The Earls and Edward I, 1272–1307 (Cambridge University Press) provides a new and enterprising view of an old subject by arguing, contra almost everyone, that most of Edward’s earls were loyalists during the great crises of his reign and that their local power was more dependent on the defence and extension of jurisdictional rights than on their use of retainers to control the shires. More likely to be overlooked, but equally rewarding, is Nicholas Orme’s deftly and expertly written The Church in Devon, 400–1560 (Imprint Press): a local work but one which exemplifies larger and national themes as well as illuminating the peculiarities of its county.
John Maddicott’s publications include The Origins of the English Parliament, 924-1327 (Oxford University Press, 2010).
My history read of the year – and probably of many years to come – is Geoffrey Parker’s Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (Yale). Even as our world has become more interconnected,
history writing is all too often increasingly specialised, focused on smaller and smaller chunks of space and time. By contrast, Global Crisis is truly global, connecting the dots and making what usually appear as isolated incidents part of a universal chain-reaction. Ground-breaking and thrilling.
Judith Flanders’ latest book is The Making of Home (Atlantic, 2014).
Peter Baldwin’s The Copyright Wars: Three Centuries of Trans-Atlantic Battle (Princeton University Press) traces the swings of power and interest between authors and their audiences in the long struggle between copyright and access. It sparkles with Baldwin’s characteristic qualities: caustic and epigrammatic prose, a forensic comparative approach to differences between the US and Europe, scorn for vested interests and sloppy thinking. It has a special relevance today when corporate rights-owners are seeking in law to extend their ownership of culture in perpetuity and digital activists (and, now, academics) are fighting for open access.
Peter Mandler is President of the Royal Historical Society.
John Sabapathy’s Officers and Accountability in Medieval England 1170-1300 (Oxford University Press) is a very elegant book that comes at how medieval administration worked from a new direction. How rulers kept control over their officials was not a new issue in the 12th and 13th centuries, but the practice of holding officials literally to account now came into western political and administrative life for the first time. Rulers had been concerned before that their officials were just (and of course loyal), but that they were honest had not really been a separate issue in their minds. From here on it would be, at least as an ideal. Sabapathy is the first person to properly set out all the implications of this. There is a real sea-change here, for with accountability comes, fairly soon, the idea that one might also seek to find ways to improve government as well; it would have a long future.
Chris Wickham is Chichele Professor of Medieval History at Oxford and author of The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000 (Penguin 2009).