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...

And some other unmissable books, recommended by Ellie, include…


Medieval Bodies: Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages – by Jack Hartnell

Gross, fascinating and frequently grisly, art historian Jack Hartnell’s debut book takes an in-depth look at how human anatomy was understood in the Middle Ages. Each chapter focuses on a different body part, examining what various beliefs about them can tell us about life, death, religion, medicine and culture in the medieval world.

This beautifully produced book is peppered with intriguing – and often disturbing – images of the artefacts and manuscripts under examination. Of particular note is a chapter that includes a 14th-century illustration of nuns plucking penises from a “penis tree”.

Listen to Jack Hartnell on our podcast offering some fascinating perspectives on the ways people in the Middle Ages viewed their physical selves:


France: A History: from Gaul to de Gaulle – by John Julius Norwich

In his charming last book, the late John Julius Norwich takes his reader on a typically rollicking ride through 2,000 years of French history. It’s a whistle-stop journey through the big-hitters, whizzing past Gaul, guillotines, Napoleon and the Resistance in less than 400 pages. Whether it’s naked presidents or illicit medieval trysts, Norwich has an eye for salacious scandals, recounted here with glee.

Norwich – the son of Alfred Duff Cooper, who served as ambassador to France from 1944–47 – crams the book full of sparkling anecdotes about his own time in the country (including a teenage encounter with Charles de Gaulle over apple pie), and his love of French culture jumps off the page.


Death in Ten Minutes: Kitty Marion – by Fern Riddell

Activist. Arsonist. Suffragette: Kitty Marion was certainly a gutsy lady. In this distinctly modern-feeling biography, Fern Riddell charts Marion’s extraordinary life. Starting out as a performer in the music halls of Victorian London, Marion later went on to wreak chaos and risk violence under the suffragette banner. Before long she was one of Edwardian Britain’s most wanted women. Forced to flee England, she then became an influential figure in America’s fledgling birth control movement.

Ever unafraid to court controversy, Riddell isn’t scared to tackle the tricky issues here. She draws contemporary resonances with today’s #MeToo movement and unapologetically brands suffragette arson and bombing as “terrorism”. Much like its subject, the book has been deemed incendiary by some.

Were the suffragettes terrorists? Listen to Fern Riddell exploring some of the darker aspects of the campaign for votes for women…


How to Behave Badly in Renaissance Britain – by Ruth Goodman

From mucking out on Victorian Farm to riding the 19th-century railways in Full Steam Ahead, Ruth Goodman has made her name by getting stuck into the everyday lives of our ancestors. In this light-hearted latest book, the social historian transports us back to the mean streets of Renaissance Britain – a world of cursing, brawling and cross-dressing.

Goodman unpicks the manners and morality of the time to uncover why you could get into trouble for mocking a soldier’s walk or flashing someone the inside of your hat.

Particularly enjoyable is the chapter on Tudor curses perfect for casting shade on enemies; these range from the aggressive (“a turd in your teeth!”) to the downright withering (“I care not a fart for you”).


Rise Up Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes – by Diane Atkinson

In this centenary year of British women first winning the vote, 2018 has seen a flurry of books on the suffragettes, from weighty academic tomes to beautifully illustrated picture books. One of the most comprehensive yet accessible has to be Diane Atkinson’s Rise Up Women!, which documents the lives of more than 100 women whose tireless work galvanised the campaign for female suffrage.

Atkinson – who also acted as a historical consultant on the 2015 film Suffragette – is an authoritative guide on the movement. She never fails to bring out the humanity in the women’s stories, whether amusing (a suffragette pelting a heckler with a cabbage); shocking (disabled suffragette Rosa May Billinghurst being pushed out her wheelchair during a peaceful protest); poignant or inspiring. 


Behold America: A History of America First and the American Dream – by Sarah Churchwell

The Trump administration has prompted a veritable landslide of books about the current state of US culture and politics. Literary journalist and professor Sarah Churchwell digs a little deeper than most, providing a thoughtful long view on a highly topical subject.

‘America First’ and ‘the American Dream’ have become some of contemporary America’s most contentious terms. In Behold, America! Churchwell interrogates the history behind these two concepts: tangled stories involving the US Civil War, Woodrow Wilson, and the Ku Klux Klan. She unpicks a complex web of ideas about capitalism, democracy and nationalism to get at the sentiments that originally inspired the phrases, and explores the various ways they’ve been used and abused in national discourse.

Listen to Sarah Churchwell and Adam IP Smith explore the origins of America First and the American Dream:


Pandemic 1918: The Story of the Deadliest Influenza in History – by Catharine Arnold

A hundred years ago, as the First World War lumbered towards its conclusion, a devastating pandemic hit the globe. Up to 25 million people died in its first 25 weeks, and by the time the ‘Spanish Flu’ had subsided in 1919, up to 100 million had lost their lives.

In her fast-paced account of the pandemic, Catharine Arnold looks at the personal stories behind the deadly contagion. It caused not only physical suffering (with symptoms described here in terrifying detail), but also psychological terror, induced by widespread ignorance about disease prevention. Arnold reveals how this strain of influenza proved to be mercilessly indiscriminate – affecting everyone from soldiers and children to silent movie stars, prime ministers and kings.


A Little History of Archaeology – by Brian Fagan

Pompeii, Tutankhamun’s tomb and Stonehenge: these are just a few of the wonders featured in Brian Fagan’s enjoyable introduction to the ‘backward-looking curiosity’ that is archaeology.

The book’s 40 concise chapters (lasting only a couple of pages each) take a quick-fire look at archaeology’s most exciting moments, from deciphering the Rosetta Stone to excavations at colonial Jamestown. The focus is as much on those digging for treasures as the treasures themselves: a cast of colourful characters that includes the doggedly determined Howard Carter and unconventional explorer Gertrude Bell.

Fagan is an enthusiastic guide. His accessible writing makes even the complexities of radio-carbon dating easy for the average reader to understand.


1983: The World at the Brink – by Taylor Downing

 In 1983, the world stood on the brink of nuclear apocalypse. At least that’s what Taylor Downing argues in his latest book. It was a year when Cold War tensions were at an all-time high: Ronald Reagan launched his ‘Star Wars’ nuclear missile defence programme, while in Yuri Andropov’s Soviet Union, paranoia was escalating. In this febrile atmosphere, NATO decided to launch Operation Able Archer – an exercise simulating the launch of a nuclear attack.

Did Soviet officials truly believe that Able Archer was the real thing? How close did they come to retaliating with their own missiles, and could the world really have been engulfed in one mistaken detonation? Downing argues that we came closer to mutual destruction than you might think.


Elizabeth I: A Study in Insecurity – by Helen Castor

British history has seen its fair share of mad, bad and brilliant monarchs, but few have captured the public’s imagination like Elizabeth I. Writing for the Penguin Monarchs series, Helen Castor takes a refreshing look at the queen, arguing that her life and reign were profoundly shaped by an unshakeable insecurity. The personal and political were firmly intertwined for Elizabeth, and Castor tries to untangle the two to gauge what really made the inscrutable queen tick.

At just 128 pages, this slim volume may leave some readers wanting more, but it’s a great jumping-off point for the subject, and has the added advantage of being pocket-sized enough to read on the move.


Secret Pigeon Service: Operation Columba, Resistance and the Struggle to Liberate Europe – by Gordon Corera

Between 1941 and 1944, more than 16,000 British agents were parachuted into Nazi-occupied Europe charged with a top-secret mission – to smuggle information from behind enemy lines. However, these agents were not trained soldiers. They were pigeons.

Dropped at locations stretching from Copenhagen to Bordeaux, these feathered comrades were armed with questionnaires to be filled out and returned by locals keen to provide the Allies with valuable intelligence.

Codenamed ‘Operation Columba’, this was undoubtedly one of the most unusual episodes of the Second World War. But as BBC security correspondent Gordon Corera highlights, it’s not only an irreverent tale of maverick Brits thinking outside of the box – it’s also the story of those under Nazi occupation who were willing to risk their own safety in order to help the Allies along the path to liberation. 


Ellie Cawthorne is section editor at BBC History Magazine