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Wednesday, December 1, 2021

The best new history books to buy for Christmas 2021

Christmas is the time of year when people are most likely to attend divine service, and Going to Church in Medieval England by Nicholas Orme (Yale, £20), tells us how they did it 800 years ago: much as today, three masses were allowed (midnight, dawn, mid-morning) in buildings decorated with holly and ivy. Orme also describes how the churches that punctuate our landscape came about, and who ran them. He ends at the Reformation, which underpins Clare Jackson’s Devil-Land, (Allen Lane, £35). It begins as the Armada attempts to reverse the English Reformation and ends a century later with the Glorious Revolution, when James II, the last king to attempt Catholic rule, was driven out. Jackson looks at history from the viewpoint of the loser, painting England as a failed state – though the revolution turned out more glorious than she suggests.

The pivotal figure of the 17th century features in The Making of Oliver Cromwell, by Ronald Hutton (Yale, £25), which meticulously takes the Lord Protector’s story to 1645, showing how his gifts as a soldier equipped him for leadership.

A different type of 16th century is revealed in Antwerp: The Glory Years by Michael Pye (Allen Lane, £25). This was where, before the Dutch unsuccessfully rebelled against Habsburg rule, Bruegel painted The Tower of Babel, Tyndale issued copies of his Bible in English, Erasmus and Thomas More thought world-changing thoughts. Antwerp became a refuge for Jews fleeing a Portuguese pogrom; it was a model for what we call globalism.

Talking of old subjects newly relevant, in The Gun, the Ship and the Pen (Profile, £25), Linda Colley takes a fresh approach to nation-making, showing how the vogue for written constitutions from the 1750s onwards did not prevent nations waging wars on each other, or help them achieve many of the stated aims of the drafters.

In Time’s Witness (Allen Lane, £25), Rosemary Hill argues that after 1789 the way history was written, and its purposes, underwent profound change. Whereas before (to evoke Carlyle) it had been about the lives of great men, it now also looked at the common people – an inevitable result of the French Revolution – and sought to enlighten us about the objects and art of the past, a point Hill makes by studying the lives of various notable antiquarians. Such antiquarianism led on to archaeology, and Alexandria: The Quest for the Lost City by Edmund Richardson (Bloomsbury, £25) recounts the fashion for exploring the ancient world in the 19th century, from Persia to Afghanistan, and notably the adventures of one archaeologist, Charles Masson, who turned out to be more than met the eye.

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