Fern Riddell: “Popular history has never been so strong, or important”
Is the Age of Great Men finally dead, and have we actually arrived in an Age of Equality? If the History Hot 100 is anything to go by, the answer to that is a resounding yes. Women are rising at lightning speed through the chart, and new lives are featuring beside well-known names. The indomitable Bess of Hardwick, Catherine de Medici and Hatshepsut all make first-time appearances, demonstrating powerful women are fully capable of reaching across time to captivate us, as popular history brings their little-known stories to light,
As we face huge social upheaval, the desire to understand human nature also stands out. Jane Austen, Nikola Tesla and Marie Curie bring in the worlds of literature, science and medicine, while the battle of good vs evil is clear in the rise of Adolf Hitler, Jesus, Goebbels and Joan of Arc. Popular history has never been so strong, or so important, because it keeps us questioning the world around us, and how we can make it better for everyone.
Fern Riddell is author of A Victorian Guide to Sex (Pen & Sword, 2014)
Michael Scott: “Our ancient focus, it seems, is still far too much on the Mediterranean”
This is clearly the year when the ancients climb the charts and make big strides forward into the public consciousness! The historical Jesus has climbed 42 places from 2016; Alexander the Great is up 10; Boudica is up 38; and Cleopatra and Hatshepsut are new entries. But even more interesting is who from the ancient world is not in the list.
While rulers such as Alexander, Cleopatra and Hatshepsut are in from the Greek and Egyptian worlds, not a single Roman ruler or emperor is in the top 40. Instead the ‘rebels’ against Roman rule – Jesus and Boudica – are the ones in vision. It seems we want a different kind of Roman history – not one in which we recite rulers’ names, or learn more about the traits of these particular powerful individuals, but rather examine the bubbling undercurrents/counter-currents in Roman society.
The other absence in the list is any ancient from Asia, India and the east – what about the rulers of the Qin and Han dynasties for instance? While we like our modern history with a more global flavour, our ancient focus, it seems, is still far too much on the Mediterranean.
Michael Scott is a historian and broadcaster. His latest book is Ancient Worlds: An Epic History of East and West (Hutchinson, 2016)
Rana Mitter: “The boundaries of history stop at the borders of Europe”
The Hot 100 has a decent mixture of men and women and it’s also chronologically wide-ranging – everything from medieval kings to contemporary politicians. But the boundaries of history do stop mostly at the borders of Europe and are concentrated within the UK. And when we do hit 41, the top non-western figure is Genghis Khan. At least he’s being balanced out by Gandhi at 50 – and I’m glad to see Hatshepsut, nipping in at 85.
Might this change in future years? Non-western history is beginning to make its way into the school curriculum – could we see Mao Zedong there in future? The Chinese empress Wu Zetian? In universities and in publishing these days Britain boasts a wide expertise in history. We need to do more to spread that message.
Rana Mitter is professor of the history and politics of modern China at the University of Oxford
Janina Ramirez: “We are drawn in by big events”
The Hot 100 list tells me, sadly, nothing
I didn’t already know about how we relate to historical figures. We are drawn in by big events, we are attached to great monarchs and even terrible figures, and we remember a few who made great changes. A list like this risks reducing history to individuals.
As a cultural historian, I believe the full fabric and texture of the past is composed of so many factors: literature, art, social organisation, philosophy, religion, economics. These lists are interesting, but they are a single and stultifying way to see the rich and endlessly unfolding discipline of history.
Janina Ramirez is a cultural historian, broadcaster and author
Marc Morris: “The seating plan is essentially unchanged since 2016”
Focusing on the top 10, the most striking thing is the degree of stasis. Victoria and Alfred the Great have joined the top table, but otherwise the seating plan is essentially unchanged since 2016. Richard III tops the board for the third year, and does not want for royal company, surrounded as he is for the most part by other English monarchs. Readers seem as determined as ever to disprove Monty Python’s assertion that you don’t vote for kings. Further down the list, the outstanding trend is the rise of the fascists. Mussolini has surged 61 places, almost joining Hitler in the top 10, and there are strong new entries from Mosley, Franco and Goebbels. Is this genuine historical curiosity or a worrying reflection of current political fashion?
Marc Morris is a historian and broadcaster. His most recent book is William I (Allen Lane, 2016)
Dan Jones: “What this year’s list really shows is that people remain fascinated by one big idea: power”
Historians recently spent a few weeks shouting at each other on social media about the whiteness, maleness and general conservatism of historical TV commissioning and history festival line-ups.
Many in my line of work feel that the great British public is being swindled out of its chance to learn more about long-gone figures from the margins. I do not contest the righteousness of that argument but it sails against the evidence.
The 2017 History Hot 100 demonstrates unequivocally that people are still intrigued by kings and queens, emperors and dictators, generals and prime ministers. The only historical personages in this year’s top 20 who do not fall into one of those categories are William Shakespeare, Martin Luther and Jesus.
That is not to say that the list wholly lacks diversity: Jesus was an Israelite, Genghis Khan was a Mongol and Martin Luther King… was Martin Luther King.
Behind the seemingly unmovable Richard III in first place, it is cheering to see the leading spots evenly contested between men and women, with Eleanor of Aquitaine, Elizabeth I and Anne Boleyn dominating the top of the list.
But what this year’s list really shows is that people remain fascinated by one big idea: power. I commend my fellow historians who wish to make the world other than it is, but as John Adams once said: facts are stubborn things.
Dan Jones is a historian and broadcaster. His book The Templars: The Rise and Fall of God’s Holy Warriors is out this month, published by Head of Zeus
Joanne Paul: “The cast of The Tudors is fading”
Whereas last year’s top five represented the standard make-up of a lecture on the Tudors, this year’s list represents a broader approach to history (though few non-European figures make the list). The widening of historical interest away from an exclusive look at the Tudors (followed closely by the Second World War) is refreshing, and perhaps says something about the sources of interest in historical figures. The casts of The Tudors and Wolf Hall are fading, while those of The White Queen, The Last Kingdom and a number of films and books stake their claims to our historical imagination. If this assumed connection is correct, then perhaps we – as the generators of such historical outputs – need to embrace the opportunity to steer interest in new directions and to more unexplored shores.
Joanne Paul is lecturer in history at the University of Sussex. Her books include Thomas More (Polity, 2016)
Greg Jenner: “These top 10 historical icons
are old favourites, most of whom would have polled highly in 1957”
I am currently writing a book about the history of celebrity, so I am keenly
aware of how star names linger in our cultural imagination.
These top 10 historical icons are old favourites, most of whom would have polled highly in 1957. Indeed, while
the wider top 100 includes new entries (hooray for Æthelflæd!), it too
reflects long-standing traditions
in popular history.
Men predominate by two-thirds; of
the women included, all but seven were royals. Indeed, royal identity accounts
for about half of all entries, while around 50 per cent of the top 100 wielded direct political power. Nearly a third fought on
a battlefield. Roughly 60 per cent are people drawn from British history. More than 90 per cent of the people in the poll were Caucasian, despite exciting recent research by historians of black and
Asian British history.
All of this feels very familiar. However, what did shock me is that scientists, cultural icons and explorers (just Drake and Columbus) are poorly represented,
as are social reformers. And I’m surprised that ancient history received a meagre
All considered, this poll suggests we remain most interested in our own island story, particularly the themes of power, politics, royalty and war. But Britons also used to be passionately interested in radicals, reformers, revolutionaries, and pioneers. There are a handful in this list, but not nearly as many as I expected.
Greg Jenner is author of
A Million Years in a Day: A
Curious History of Daily Life (W&N, 2015)
David Olusoga: “The big story this year has to be the number of women, almost a third of the 100”
If it wasn’t for Shakespeare, the only cultural figure in the top 10, the top places would be entirely dominated by men and women who wielded political and military power. With Hitler, Mussolini and Henry VII all in the top 20 there’s no shortage of history’s strong men, but as the list goes on it gets more surprising.
The big story this year has to be the number of women, more than a third of
the 100. Of course, that’s nowhere near 50-50 parity, but the number of female figures is, to me, strong evidence that
the readers of history books and the audiences that watch history
documentaries are after histories that are less male-focused.
The other great take-away has to be that the Tudors still reign supreme. If we include Richard III, whose defeat and death left the way open for Henry Tudor, half of the top 10 are figures from that greatest of all dynastic epics.
David Olusoga is a historian and broadcaster. His most recent book is Black and British:
A Forgotten History (Macmillan, 2016)
Joann Fletcher: “At long last we are moving away from the same old names”
It’s no surprise Richard III remains at number one, the discovery of his remains in 2012 having done so much to generate interest in him. Yet it is striking that four of the top 10 in this year’s list are women, with Eleanor of Aquitaine up five places to number two.
There is an overwhelming number of British figures throughout, with my own favourites, Cleopatra and her pharaonic predecessor Hatshepsut, only making 64 85. Yet both are new entries and are the only Egyptian pharaohs on the list, with no sign of Tutankhamun! It seems that, at long last, we are moving away from the same old names to engage with far more diverse characters, many of whom are increasingly featured on TV and in the popular media – long may this continue!
Joann Fletcher is visiting professor in archaeology at the University of York. Her latest book is The Story of Egypt (Hodder & Stoughton, 2015)
Peter Frankopan: “We take huge comfort in name-checking the same heroes and villains”
This year’s History Hot 100 offers no surprises, with all the usual suspects present albeit with some movements up and down. But it does reveal a lot about how we view the past. We take huge comfort in name-checking the same heroes and villains, the same stories, and the same episodes from history that we’ve heard about time and again.
It’s amazing, though, in the global world of the 21st century that there is not a single figure from Chinese history; apart from Gandhi, not one from south Asia; not a single ruler, scholar, writer or artist from nearly 3,000 years of Persian history; not one person from the Arab world; not one from the Ottoman or great Khmer empires. And not one from Africa from the last 2,000 years.
I’m too much of a realist to call this list depressing but it is predictable, insular and narrow to the point of being blinkered. It’s not just unadventurous and boring to find the same names again and again. I think it distorts history itself.
Peter Frankopan is author of The Silk Roads: A New
History of the World
Tracy Borman: “The eclectic mix of new entries is reassuring”
Henry VIII down five places? Three of his wives down 80 places between them? Even that stalwart of the top 10, Elizabeth I, has slipped from second to fourth. Does BBC History Magazine’s latest Hot 100 poll signal the demise of the dynasty that has dominated British history for the past
500 years? Not necessarily.
Henry VII, founder of the dynasty, has moved up the chart, as have his wife and mother. And of course, his vanquished rival, Richard III, has held onto the top slot for the third year running.
Perhaps, in this age of the prequel, we’re getting more interested in what happened before the most famous events in our history. With Alfred the Great and Boudica making great strides up the chart, we may also be experiencing a Game of Thrones moment.
The eclectic mix of new entries is reassuring. With everyone from Cleopatra to Charles Dickens entering the frame, perhaps the overall message from this year’s list is that our historical tastes are broader than ever before.
Tracy Borman is joint chief curator for Historic Royal Palaces. Her most recent book is The Private Lives of the Tudors (Hodder & Stoughton, 2016)
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