You are here:   History > Books of the Ages
Books of the Ages
January/February 2012


I was one of the historians History Today magazine recently asked to choose their top history books of the last 60 years. Reading the editor's brief too cursorily, I picked Frederic William Maitland's Domesday Book and Beyond, published in 1897. In the related poll where readers chose their greatest historians, I was pleased that Fernand Braudel edged aside ghastly old Eric Hobsbawm, but there was something depressing about the contemporaneity of the choices. Isn't Robert Conquest a "great historian" for God's sake? So I am going to have another go at my favourite history books, sustenance for Standpoint readers in the dark months (and even darker times) ahead. 

Maitland's Domesday is in my category of technical gems, where one marvels at the historian's sheer skill. As an undergraduate I learned from the great medievalist R.R. Davies to appreciate technical precision, where each source — and medievalists have fewer of them — is squeezed to make a precise and telling point. Britain has produced some great medieval historians, such as J.M. Wallace-Hadrill, James Holt or Henry Mayr-Harting. 

My own favorite medieval history books were about the countryside. Reginald Lennard's Rural England, 1086-1135 (about medieval Sussex) is one such book; so is Marc Bloch's French Rural History, in which he studied 18th-century topographical maps to recover the medieval landscape beneath. Another jewel-like book is Émile Mâle's Gothic Image. A.T.Q. Stewart's Narrow Ground shows why even the cobblestones are contentious in Ulster, many having been ripped up to throw at people, a theme more broadly explored in Paul Bew's Ireland: The Politics of Enmity.

In the intervening quarter-century since I read most of these books, those that stick in mind include Correlli Barnett's Pride and Fall sequence, or Maurice Cowling's trilogy Religion and Public Doctrine. Then there are works on specific national themes: Patrice Higonnet's Goodness beyond Virtue is an elegant exploration of the Jacobin mindset; David Apter and Tony Saich's Revolutionary Discourse in Mao's Republic does something similar for a cognate political culture. Easily the best historians of modern Germany are two scholars I am privileged to count as friends: Heinrich  August Winkler's Weimar 1918-1933 is a dispassionate exploration of the Republic's multi-act tragedy, while Karl Dietrich Bracher's German Dictatorship has — like Raymond Aron in France — a political scientist's grasp of the essentials of power. His Thinking Politically is one of the great books of the last century too. I also admire The Spanish Civil War by Hugh Thomas, Britain's greatest living historian, and his gargantuan Cuba: A History in which there is not a redundant sentence. On modern France, anything by Stanley Hoffmann or Eugen Weber is worth reading;  ditto anything on Communism by François Furet and Martin Malia. 

View Full Article
February 2nd, 2012
12:02 AM
To the comment above: you're not alone! Michael Burleigh is one of our greatest historians, with superb powers of analysis and interpretation. Moral Combat is one of the best books I've read on World War 2, and his two books on religion and politics are beautifully written and expressed. He should occupy the pantheon currently held by that odious dinosaur Eric Hobsbawm, an apologist for nearly everything that went wrong in the 20th century.

paul attard
January 12th, 2012
6:01 PM
Blimey, I've heard of almost none of the above writers, apart from Hugh Thomas. Makes me feel rather insignificant.

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.