Summer reads 2020: the best history books to take on holiday (or staycation)

It may be a summer like no other, but whether you are on a beach, or, more likely, still at home, it’s always a good time to catch-up on some of the latest, and greatest, history books. Here, a group of historians and authors select their favourite biographies, era-spanning epics and much else besides, plus we share some recommendations from our section editor, Ellie Cawthorne...

In need of some summer reading inspiration? Check out our list of favourite biographies, era-spanning epics and much else besides. (Photo by Goodluz/Alamy Stock Photo)

Hannah Skoda on the medieval world

Medieval history is challenging, exciting and thought-provoking because it’s a constantly evolving field, with a cast of characters that are seemingly so recognisable, and yet inhabit such a different world.

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My first recommendation for reading about this era is Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400–800 (2006). This is a huge book, full of fascinating insights into early medieval society. Wickham is interested in people right across the social spectrum, as well as the bigger social and economic structures through which individuals experienced life and related to one another. He writes about the dramatic period following the fall of the Roman empire, and covers a vast geographical sweep.

My second choice moves away from Europe entirely. François-Xavier Fauvelle’s The Golden Rhinoceros: Histories of the African Middle Ages (2018) tells the story of medieval Africa. Beautifully written, it offers an exciting set of insights into African societies, from the birth of Islam in the seventh century up to the 15th century. Fauvelle reminds us of the rich and diverse nature of African civilisations in this period, from South Africa’s sophisticated royalty to the commercial and cultural crossroads of the Sahara. He draws on an incredible array of sources, including archaeology and material objects.

A peasant carries a basket of eggs in this Byzantine mosaic
A peasant carries a basket of eggs in this Byzantine mosaic. Chris Wickham’s book explores the full breadth of people’s experiences in the early medieval period. (Photo by Bridgeman)

Artefacts form the focus of my next choice: Elina Gertsman and Barbara Rosenwein’s The Middle Ages in 50 Objects (2018). In recent years, medieval historians have become more attuned to the importance of objects that provide us with a tangible connection to the past: in societies where literacy rates fluctuated, people experienced objects in powerful and emotive ways. Rosenwein and Gertman’s choices range globally, from a sixth-century Egyptian pilgrim’s flask to a 12th-century dragon’s head made from walrus ivory. These extraordinary objects remind us of the sheer strangeness of this world, and the volume is beautifully illustrated.

My final nomination is a much older book: Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou (1975). It’s based on the inquisitorial trials of a group of Cathar heretics in the early 14th century in the foothills of the Pyrenees. The beliefs of the heretics are intriguing in themselves, but Le Roy Ladurie also recognises the potential of the sources to tell us about the everyday lives of medieval peasants – what they ate, who was having an affair with whom, how they felt about the beauty of nature and so on.  It’s a very moving read.

Hannah Skoda is fellow and tutor in medieval history at St John’s College, Oxford


Mark Bostridge on biographies

More than half a century after it was first published, Mary, Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser (1969) is still the best biography of the ill-fated Scottish queen. It is vivid, dramatic, explosive (literally, of course, with the murder of Darnley at Kirk o’ Field) and leads inexorably to that tragic end
on the block. Fraser has an eye for Mary’s adversarial strengths and flamboyant miscalculations. Countless biographers, historians and dramatists have portrayed the rivalry between Mary and Elizabeth I, but this interpretation remains the most compelling and convincing.

Victor Hugo by Graham Robb (1998) is a magnificent tour de force. Conveyed in Robb’s inimitable style, it’s full of wit, irony and unflagging energy. Any biographer of Hugo needs as much energy as they can muster to chart the life of a prodigious character who was not only the most famous writer of his age, but also a revolutionary, politician, campaigner, and visionary. The contradictions of his successive political positions are laid bare, from the militant monarchist of the July Monarchy to the revolutionary socialist in the Paris Commune era. And for the first time, an unflinching eye is turned on Hugo’s manifold sexual misdemeanours, a man who notched up each conquest, from grand ladies to servant girls, in his notebooks.

I would also nominate Fiona MacCarthy’s William Morris: A Life for Our Time (1994). MacCarthy, who died earlier this year, was the outstanding modern biographical writer about the visual arts. Her subjects ranged from Eric Gill to Edward Burne-Jones, and, most triumphantly, William Morris, the greatest artist-craftsman of the Victorian age. If you want to understand how Morris’s Romantic anti-industrialism produced all those beautiful fabrics and textiles, then this book is for you. Morris emerges from MacCarthy’s weaving together of the multiple threads of his life as
a pioneer of socialism. He was an inspiration to generations of Labour politicians in Britain, not least to the 1945 Labour government. Clement Attlee spoke of the influence of Morris’s idea of ‘fellowship’ in the building of the welfare state.

William Morris
William Morris, who Fiona MacCarthy’s “triumphant” biography reveals to be a pioneer of socialism. (Photo by Getty Images)

Another extraordinary biography I would recommend is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (2010). It uses careful detective work to tell the story of a woman and of the cells removed from her body without her permission, which became one of the most significant tools in the development of modern medicine. In 1951 Lacks, a poor African-American, was dying of cancer. Skloot describes Lacks’ life; the story of the ‘HeLa’ cells, as they were called, bought and sold by the billions; and the fate of Lacks’ family, who can’t afford health insurance for the drugs that her cells helped to make.

Mark Bostridge’s books include biographies of Vera Brittain and Florence Nightingale


Rana Mitter on global history

On 15 August, we will mark the 75th anniversary of VJ Day, when Japan’s surrender signalled the end of the Second World War. Richard B Frank tells the story in the outstanding, wide-ranging Tower of Skulls: A History of the Asia-Pacific War (2020). Breaking with conventional narratives that start with the American entry into the war, Frank begins with the Japanese invasion of China in 1937 and takes the story up to the 1942 Burma campaign (two further books are planned). Frank has a humane, sure eye for detail: his account of Pearl Harbor, where “spilled oil fires flickered out and bodies bobbed until recovered” is haunting.

Our understanding of other cultures has been shaped by anthropologists, often without our being aware of it. Charles King’s fascinating The Reinvention of Humanity: A Story of Race, Sex, Gender and the Discovery of Culture (2019) argues that it was a group of remarkable female scholars who really formed our understanding of why the world is so diverse. He covers not just the well-known Ruth Benedict, who informed western understandings of Japan, but also figures such as the Native American activist Ella Deloria. The book is as sensitive on these brilliant women’s lives as it is groundbreaking on their contribution to shaping our worldview.

US anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston
US anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston beats a Haitian drum, 1937. Author Charles King highlights the role of female scholars in shaping the field of anthropology. (Photo by Keith Barnes)

Another anniversary that will be marked in August is the 1947 Partition of India. Long known to be an event of immense trauma and violence, it’s often been hard to grasp the individual stories behind it. Aanchal Malhotra’s Remnants of Partition: 21 Objects from a Continent Divided (2019) is a revelation. As its title suggests, it tells the story of partition through 21 artefacts from the era, and the oral histories of their owners. From a sword carried for protection, to a family plaque recovered at great expense, the horror of the events is brought home in detail both exquisite and searing.

Finally, a book that gives a riveting new perspective on African history. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Toby Green’s A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution (2019) is that which is rarely covered: the wars, trade and cultural interaction in early modern West Africa before the transatlantic slave trade took off. If you know nothing of the splendours of the Kongo, then this book will open your eyes and show the richness of African history long before Europeans arrived.

Rana Mitter’s books include Modern China: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2016)


Sarah Crook on social history

As is the case for many families, my household has spent the past few months balancing the challenges of full-time childcare with the demands of full-time employment. It comes as a relief, then, to read a book that puts these struggles in their historical context and that explores the transformation of mothers’ employment from a ‘social problem’ in late Victorian Britain to a ‘social norm’ in the present day. Helen McCarthy’s Double Lives: A History of Working Motherhood (2020) shows how the meanings attached to mothers’ paid work have changed, and gives voice to what mothers have been able to articulate about their desires and needs at different moments. McCarthy shows that the pressures and pleasures of paid work are deeply bound up with ideas about what is appropriate for women and the practicalities of what is necessary.

A mother working at her spinning wheel with her daughter
Helen McCarthy’s ‘Double Lives’ examines the experiences of working mothers, such as this woman sat at a spinning wheel with her daughter in c1912. (Photo by Getty Images)

Listen to historian Helen McCarthy considering how women in Britain have sought to balance the demands of work and childcare over the past century:


The theme of the family, in all its knotty entanglements and quiet, painful compromises, is also found in Deborah Cohen’s Family Secrets: The Things We Tried to Hide (2013). Arresting and profoundly engaging, Cohen shows that what we try to keep private says as much about ourselves and our world as the things we promote.

Greg Jenner’s Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity from Bronze Age to Silver Screen (2020) is less focused on the private, and more interested in the glitzy and sometimes grungy world of fame and the lives of those who seek it. Jenner is a witty, personable guide in a book alive with stories of resilient optimism and fierce aspiration. Indeed, it opens with actor Edmund Kean and his pregnant wife walking from Birmingham to Swansea in search of success and celebrity in the summer of 1809, tells us about his years of woe, and chronicles his ultimate triumph against the odds as he became one of the definitive Shakespearean actors of his age.


Listen to Greg Jenner exploring the changing nature of fame over the centuries and describing how celebrities have fared in the public glare:


Woe and triumph seem to be the two poles through which British history is explained in public discourse at the moment, so David Edgerton’s The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth Century History (2018) is a rewarding, argumentative intervention into discussions about nationalism, capitalism, and the ‘warfare state’.

Each of these books explores themes that speak to current concerns (paid work, family, privacy, celebrity, the state). None provide ready answers, but all suggest new ways to interrogate and contextualise the issues.

Sarah Crook is lecturer in modern European social and cultural history at Swansea University


Catherine Nixey on the ancient world

The History of the Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon (1776–88) is a work of awesome erudition and towering intellect. When it was first published, the English aristocracy therefore welcomed it with their usual reverence for all things intellectual. Or, as the Duke of Gloucester supposedly said: “Another damned, thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr Gibbon?” Decline and Fall might be damned big, but it’s also damnably brilliant: Gibbon combined the mind of a scholar with the effortless wit of a good dinner-party companion. The Catholic church was less amused, and popped his volume onto their Index of Prohibited Books.

There was a period in the late 20th century when the discipline of history seemed to lose a sense of its purpose. Sure, books had all the right bits: dates and battles and emperors and whatnot. But authors seemed to have somehow forgotten that the chief purpose of books is not to be written but to be read – and that books should therefore be not merely accurate but entertaining. Enter Tom Holland, with his fabulously vivid history of the fall of the Republic, Rubicon: the Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic (2003). Replete with eye-opening facts (a Gallic slave cost one jar of wine) and vivid vignettes of thugs hurling excrement in a street fight, this reminded us all what history could be. It’s a superb book.

Next I would nominate Alaric the Goth: An Outsider’s History of the Fall of Rome by Douglas Boin (2020). Where you start a story from matters. As the old storytelling saying goes, start the story of a burglary inside the house and you will be on the side of the homeowner; start it outside, and you will be with the burglar. This brilliant book by Boin, an American academic, starts the story of the sack of Rome not from inside the walls of the eternal city, but outside, with Alaric the Goth. It’s a great trick, superbly executed. Some books tilt the world so that you will never quite see it in the same way again, and this is definitely one.

My final recommendation has to be Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2015). As a boy, Frankopan used to lie in bed and gaze at the map of the world next to his bed, at its countries and oceans and rivers, with their names in “urgent italics”. And how puzzled he was when he went to school and found that his lessons, far from considering the history of these places to be urgent, all but ignored them. In this marvellous and evocative book – that is not just about silk, or just about roads, but that also finds time for frankincense and furs and engaging Chinese myths about Spanish melons – he fills in some of those historical blanks.

Horse riders gallop across the interior walls of a Tang dynasty-era tomb in Xi’an, China
Horse riders gallop across the interior walls of a Tang dynasty-era tomb in Xi’an, China. Peter Frankopan’s ‘The Silk Roads’ looks at trade routes that stretched across Asia (Photo by Getty Images)

Catherine Nixey is a journalist and classicist. She is the author of The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World (Macmillan, 2017)


Andrew Roberts on military history

Paul Lay’s Providence Lost: The Rise and Fall of Cromwell’s Protectorate (2020) is a fascinating short history of the years of the Protectorate, which successfully answers the question of how the Roundheads – who had swept all before them at the battles of Dunbar in 1650 and Worcester in 1651 – could possibly have sunk to the disastrous position of losing power entirely within a decade, especially with so talented a leader as Oliver Cromwell at their head. Lay writes with charm and humour about Puritans, who despised both.

Sometimes subtitles let books down with their ludicrous hyperbole, but the subtitle to Saul David’s The Force: The Legendary Special Ops Unit and WWII’s Mission Impossible (2019) describes its subject perfectly. The soldiers of the First Special Service Force, who fought in Italy in 1943, fully deserved their almost mythical status, and their story is told with insight, humour and verve. How these young Americans and Canadians were trained to scale the rockface and capture the Italian hillside fort of Monte la Difensa will stay with readers for a long time.

Peter Caddick-Adams’s Sand and Steel: A New History of D-Day (2019) and James Holland’s Normandy ‘44: D-Day and the Battle for France (2019) both examine the D-Day invasion and the liberation of France, and it would take a braver man than me to choose between them. Both books represent military history writing at its best: scholarly yet engaging, objective yet passionate. One of many impressive aspects of these volumes is their engagement with the German side of the struggle, as the Wehrmacht woke up to the startling fact that this was no reconnaissance force, but instead
a full-scale invasion.

Dan Jones’ book Crusaders: An Epic History of the Wars for the Holy Lands (2019) approaches the three centuries of the west’s military involvement in the medieval Holy Land from a multicultural perspective, where some earlier histories tended to concentrate much more on the Christian invaders than the Muslims and other defenders. Jones is one of the most readable military history writers working in Britain today, and has the ability to make complex interactions – the struggle between the Mamluks and the Mongols in the mid-13th century, for example – instantly comprehensible.

Andrew Roberts’ most recent book is Leadership in War: Lessons from Those Who Made History (Allen Lane, 2019)


Robyn Young on historical fiction

My first recommendation would be Liberation by Imogen Kealey (2020). It tells the extraordinary story of real-life hero and freedom fighter Nancy Wake, an Australian runaway in France. After losing her husband to the Gestapo, she escaped to Britain to train with the SOE, then returned to avenge his death at the head of 7,000 French Resistance fighters. The novel rips along at a thundering pace, propelling us, at Nancy’s side, through midnight escapes and parachute drops behind enemy lines, ambushes and skirmishes. But it does so with humour and heart, never allowing us to forget the human dramas playing out in this arena of war.

A scene from the stories of King Arthur
A scene from the stories of King Arthur in a c1220 manuscript. Bernard Cornwell’s novel ‘The Winter King’ transports readers back to the age of the mythical monarch. (Photo by Getty Images)

The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell (1995) is the first in a superb trilogy following the story of Derfel, a captain in King Arthur’s warband. Set in late fifth-century Britain, after the Romans have departed and the Saxons have come, this is a story of old gods and new religion, epic battles, courtly intrigue, betrayal and sacrifice. All the heroes you would expect are here: Arthur and Lancelot, Guinevere and Merlin. But Cornwell has taken the mythos of these eternal characters and shaped them into complex – often monstrous – human beings, while losing none of the magic of their stories. A beautifully woven spell of a book.

A scene from the stories of King Arthur in a c1220 manuscript. Bernard Cornwell’s novel ‘The Winter King’ transports readers back to the age of the mythical monarch. (Photo by Getty Images)Ros Barber’s The Marlowe Papers (2013) is also remarkable. Told in verse, it poses the question: what if Christopher Marlowe escaped death that night in Deptford and fled to live in exile, still writing – but under the new name of William Shakespeare? I was briefly nervous about reading an entire novel in verse, but from the first page you’re swept in to be raced along. Barber has a rare talent in being both an outstanding poet and a terrific storyteller, with a clear eye for history and scholarship. Each page sizzles with imagery and drama.

Set in Oxford in the 1660s, Iain Pears’s novel An Instance of the Fingerpost (1998) is essentially a whodunnit – but a truly terrific one. It’s told in four parts, from the perspective of four characters, each of whom tells the story of the murder of an Oxford fellow and the young woman accused of the crime. But only one is telling the truth. It’s one of the most intricate novels I’ve read, and has all the historical drama you might expect from the era, with plotters and schemers, spies and traitors around every shadowy corner. A sumptuous treat.

Robyn Young is the author of the Brethren, New World Rising and Insurrection fiction series. Her latest novel, Court of Wolves (Hodder & Stoughton, 2018), is set in Medici Florence


Looking forward: Ellie Cawthorne on books coming up in 2020

It’s certainly been a strange summer for the world of publishing. But if there’s one small silver lining on our current situation, it’s that some of us have more time for reading than ever before. And as we move towards autumn, there’s plenty for book-lovers to look forward to.

The news agenda has been dominated recently by the Black Lives Matter protests, and there’s plenty of books coming up that provide vital historical background for understanding current debates. I’m especially interested to learn more about the game-changing people of colour that shaped our nation in Patrick Vernon and Angelina Osborne’s 100 Great Black Britons. Olivette Otele’s African Europeans, revealing the long and untold history of Africans on this continent, promises to be another enlightening read.

Meanwhile, the Middle Ages continues to be as popular as ever. Rosemary Horrox will be profiling one of history’s most obsessed-over figures, Richard III, while Charles Spencer will be telling the story of The White Ship – the naval disaster that threw medieval England’s royal dynasty into turmoil.

Moving forward a fair few centuries, Laurence Rees will explore the relationship between two tyrants that defined the 20th century in Hitler and Stalin, and Richard J Evans is set to investigate why so many corrosive myths continue to swirl around the Third Reich with The Hitler Conspiracies. For a broader examination of how conflict has shaped societal progress, look out for Margaret Macmillan’s War.

For those interested in the history of Asia, Priya Atwal will be sharing the stories of the Royals and Rebels that built the Sikh empire, and Michael Wood’s The Story of China recounts the fluctuating fortunes of one of the world’s most fascinating civilisations.

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Finally, Andrew Marr’s Elizabethans promises a lively “living history” chronicling the transformation of modern Britain since Elizabeth II’s coronation.