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What to read next: the latest history books reviewed

Looking for the next history book for your bookshelf? Explore the latest releases in popular history, from hard-hitting historical biographies to historical fiction, as reviewed by experts historians and the teams behind HistoryExtra

Published: April 22, 2022 at 3:08 pm

Discover the latest new history books taking up space on our bookshelves – from memoirs and biographies to the exploits of kings, the exposure of scandals and examinations of social and cultural change.

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The latest releases, as reviewed by historians

In the Shadow of the Gods: The Emperor in World History

Dominic Lieven | Allen Lane | £35

In this exploration of imperial figures, global history meets the “great man” (and even the occasional “great woman”) theory of leadership for a lively and at times surprisingly personal romp through the past 3,000 years of Eurasian history.

Lieven focuses on a carefully curated selection of empires and the emperors who led them, making comparisons between the different examples. He also draws analogies with modern institutions, even going so far as to highlight relevant contemporary individuals such as politicians and monarchs – New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern, for example, dealing with the demands of having a baby while holding power, as did the Habsburg ruler Maria Theresa. Using this approach, Lieven manages to make the subject accessible and relatable.

Starting with the city-states of Mesopotamia, Lieven surveys the empires of antiquity, including Achaemenid Persia, Rome and Han China. He progresses through late antiquity and into the early modern period, where he discusses the Islamic empires, the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottoman empire, to name a few. Then he travels into the post-industrial revolution empires of the more recent past – think Romanov Russia and Britain’s imperial project – before concluding in the 20th century with the precipitous decline of empire, triggered by the First World War and its aftermath. He succinctly traces how these various empires rose and fell via their acquisition of territories both near and far; their gradual increases in size and complexity; and the development of the military, administrative, social and cultural systems necessary to maintain them – at least for a little while.

Understandably, not all emperors included are covered in the same depth. Particular attention is paid to those who can be truly said to have shaped global history rather than simply being part of it – such as Augustus, founder of Rome’s imperial regime and inspiration to many successors, both members of his own Julio-Claudian dynasty and numerous others over the succeeding centuries. Lieven highlights the successes and failures of these figures – and, on occasion, even the total collapse of their dynasties and empires.

Throughout, he emphasises the fundamental humanity of his subjects, and notes the many and varied demands placed upon an emperor (who was, after all, just a man or woman like any other, albeit on occasion somewhat more intelligent and capable than their peers). Lieven demonstrates, too, that not every emperor was capable of rising to the challenge, whether because of individual or situational circumstances; significant here are issues such as infancy, insanity, impotence and illegitimacy, none of which was the fault of the individuals themselves.

Whereas certain qualities such as charisma were important for the founders of dynasties who needed to solidify their positions, they were less crucial for their successors once those dynasties had been established – and even less once they were so entrenched that a workable alternative was not obvious. Likewise, military genius had its place but, if it wasn’t subsequently supported by a clear and viable line of succession and sustained administrative competence, it could get one only so far. Consider as examples the immense empires of Alexander the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte, both of which collapsed in record time following their demise.

It is the emperors who have left us their own thoughts set down in writing – such as Marcus Aurelius and Catherine the Great – whose lives jump off the page and provide a more private perspective. For those who produced handbooks on leadership for their heirs, we can get a sense of how they viewed their invidious positions, and what they considered important. One example is China’s Tang emperor Taizong (AD 598–649), who publicly and performatively devoured a plate of the locusts that were plaguing his people’s crops. And for those who authored autobiographies or memoirs, the inclusion of charming anecdotes can serve to humanise them. We hear, for example, from Babur – founder of the Mughal empire – fretting about the quality of his Persian poetry.

Of course, emperors did not exist in isolation: their relationships with their blood relatives, spouses, courtesans, favourites, ministers and generals all impacted them, in some cases proving a considerable source of strength and in others fatally undermining their positions. One particularly thought-provoking aspect of imperial rule covered extensively here is the fact that European empires – for better or worse – formally practised primogeniture, whereas Asian empires generally did not. Instead, they encouraged a fight to the death between rival candidates for the succession, with the title going to the last man standing.

Also discussed are the dangers of emperors breaking with tradition and trying to experiment and innovate, particularly in respect of religion – such as Amenhotep/Akhenaten’s short-lived efforts to transition Egypt from a polytheistic society to a monotheistic one. Emperors’ plans to address social justice also often fared poorly – for example, Russian tsar Alexander I’s failed drive to abolish serfdom.

The perils of attempting too much too soon without the support of subordinates are also explored using as an example Ottoman sultan Osman II: his attempts to reassert royal power were stymied by his own Janissary troops, who assassinated him. For all that an emperor typically was, in theory, all-powerful, each was dependent upon the continuing alliance of the ruling dynasty and the aristocracy, and the goodwill afforded to them by it.

It would be remiss to conclude without mentioning that Lieven takes notable and admirable pains to acknowledge the profoundly negative aspects of empire – particularly nationalism, colonisation, ethnic cleansing, genocide, racism and misogyny.

This candour is refreshing, as is the fact that the book concludes with an acknowledgement of the role that climate change played in the rise and fall of the empires in the past, and the contribution that it could make to the rise and fall of nations in the future. Finally, though Lieven concluded the research and writing of this work long before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it provides a significant amount of context for the tragedy that, at the time of writing, is ongoing.

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Jane Draycott is a Roman historian and lecturer in classics at the University of Glasgow

Making History: The Storytellers Who Shaped the Past

Richard Cohen | W&N | £25

“Before you study the history, study the historian,” said EH Carr in his 1961 lecture series What Is History?’ In these lectures, later turned into a book, he argued that no writer of history has ever been able to recount the past without being influenced by their own present and human experience.

It is Carr’s direction to study the historian – a call against objective history – upon which Richard Cohen expands in Making History. This in-depth analysis considers those who have written about the past, and how their writing was influenced by their present.

Cohen begins with the so-called “father of history”, Herodotus, and considers how much the ancient Greek writer was influenced by his world and personal experiences when writing The Histories. Herodotus was perhaps the earliest narrative historian, erudite and lyrical, journalistic in his approach of collecting reports. But at times he also played fast and loose with the truth, leading Plutarch to critique Herodotus as the “father of lies”. Despite this, Cohen argues that The Histories formed “a new way of seeing”. Certainly, Herodotus’s approach to history writing was different from that of his slightly later counterpart, Thucydides, who – unlike Herodotus – drew entirely from his own research and experiences.

However, it is not only written history that has influenced our view of the past. The Bayeux Tapestry, Cohen notes, has “influenced our understanding of history possibly more than any other pictorial artefact”. Millions of schoolchildren have pressed their noses against the glass at the Bayeux Museum in Normandy to soak in the history of the conquest. Likely created by the nuns at St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury, the Tapestry tells the well-versed story about England’s past as both Norman and Anglo-Saxon propaganda.

The Middle Ages were also a period rife with political propaganda. Chroniclers frequently pitched their viewpoints against one another in order to appease a patron’s perspective or a religious standpoint. William Shakespeare shook this up with his vision of the past, in which he offered historical figures “a psychological depth they had not received before in English drama”. The playwright introduced tropes and caricatures that still endure today, and which have irrevocably influenced our perception of the past and its politics.

By the 18th and 19th centuries, fictive history had gathered pace, and writers such as Walter Scott – author of Rob Roy and Ivanhoe – were prolific. Leo Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace, argues Cohen, is “the world’s likely best historical novel”, and it was followed by a “roll call of notable novelists” interested in romantic nationalism, epic costume drama and romance. Moving on to the 20th century, Toni Morrison’s work is praised as “history, sociology, folklore, nightmare and music”. Hilary Mantel notes the importance of historical fiction, too, writing: “If we want added value – to imagine not just how the past was, but what it felt like from the inside – we pick up a novel.”

Because history is largely written by privileged white men, Cohen’s chapters ‘Herstory’ and ‘Who Tells Our Story?’ are important. In the latter, Cohen acknowledges that black history has been mostly ignored. From accounts of life during the Confederacy to slave narratives – such as Elizabeth Keckley’s 1868 chronicle of her life as an enslaved person and her subsequent freedom – Cohen devotes this chapter to the development of black history writing from the 19th century to the present. He’s optimistic that black history now has an indisputable place in historical discourse.

Making History proves that Carr’s lesson to “study the historian” is a good one. This is a biblical text for scholars of history to navigate what it means to write the past.

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Helen Carr is the co-editor of What Is History, Now? (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2021)

The Empress and the English Doctor: How Catherine the Great Defied a Deadly Virus

Lucy Ward | Oneworld | £20

In the lottery of smallpox, declared French mathematician and explorer Charles-Marie de La Condamine, “everyone has his ticket, and many every year must draw the blank of Death”.

Viruses are not alive, yet they create more havoc than the most powerful monarch. Whatever anti-vaxxers may claim, Queen Elizabeth II faced only a minuscule risk when she received a Covid vaccination. The stakes were far higher for two earlier female royals, Caroline of Ansbach (who became the queen of George II) and Catherine the Great, who set national examples during the battle against smallpox by publicly endorsing variolation, an early form of protection that induced a week of sickness with no guarantee of survival.

In her new book, Lucy Ward provides a racy but detailed account of these initiatives. She begins with an episode that is already fairly well known, describing how Caroline whipped up popular support for the procedure shortly after another enterprising woman, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, had introduced inoculation from Turkey. In 1722, the Hanoverian princess subjected two of her daughters to the painful ordeal: they both survived – though the procedure remained dangerous, later killing a son of George III.

Voltaire pithily summarised the rock-and-a-hard-place aspects of variolation, remarking that, while Europeans condemned the English as “fools because they give their children smallpox to prevent their children catching it”, Englishmen regarded Europeans as cowards “afraid of giving a little pain to their children” and thus exposing them “to death from smallpox sometime in the future”.

By the time Catherine the Great became involved in the 1760s, the techniques had been improved and the odds were more favourable. Frustrated after being cooped up during an epidemic, the Russian empress resolved on a striking display of bravura: she volunteered as a test patient. This demanded courage; indeed, after summoning England’s expert, the Quaker physician Thomas Dimsdale, she was sufficiently worried about the experiment’s outcome to organise an escape route for him on a hidden yacht. Insisting on the strictest secrecy, she endured the inevitable fever and pustules that followed variolation before emerging triumphantly to advertise her courage and promote the procedure across Russia.

Ward’s book is informative, enthusiastically written and based on thorough research, but suffers from a somewhat breathless style. Seeking to emphasise Catherine’s commitment to rationality, Ward opens by complaining that sexual liaisons too often overshadow Catherine’s legacy – then, in the very next paragraph, confides that the empress and her physician concocted their secret plans while sitting on her bed with one of her lovers.

Unsurprisingly, Ward grounds her book in comparisons between the current global chaos and previous viral pandemics. But that is no longer an original approach: her book has been preceded by several others that explore connections and glorify unsung heroes. Perhaps I’m being over-cynical, but I anticipate that the next medical pot-boiler will be about Onesimus, the enslaved African who saved America by teaching his enslaver – a Puritan minister – about inoculation.

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Patricia Fara is an emeritus fellow of Clare College, Cambridge. She is the winner of this year’s Abraham Pais Prize for History of Physics from the American Physical Society

Straits: Beyond the Myth of Magellan

Felipe Fernández-Armesto | Bloomsbury | £25

In Straits, we see a master of his craft at work. Fernández-Armesto is arguably the leading scholar of our times in making the early European Age of Discovery accessible to a wider audience. In this book, he takes on the biography of Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese explorer often referred to as the world’s first circumnavigator (although he died en route), who set out on his last great voyage in 1519.

Fernández-Armesto draws on his vast knowledge of the wider context of European explorations: the geographical understanding and economic situation of the era. As he acknowledges, the first chapter – which particularly focuses on historical context – draws heavily on his book 1492: The Year Our World Began. But as a synthesis of the background to the Age of Discovery it is excellent, providing one of the clearest short guides to the forces that shaped the European drive for exploration. The author then moves on to probe the life, mindset and actions of Magellan himself, from childhood to death.

The book is built from the sources up, and here Fernández-Armesto shows his absolute command of the material, using a multiplicity of documents ranging from depositions of survivors captured by the Portuguese to official Spanish records. His linguistic capabilities are important here, too.

The sources are difficult to navigate; at points, the intricacies of both the voyage and the decision-making are almost impossible to discern. However, having highlighted the problems created by gaps and contradictions in the sources, Fernández-Armesto uses his own knowledge of the geography of the area to help the reader visualise and better understand the environment and context of the voyage through the strait now named after Magellan. He also expounds his theory of the navigator’s route across the Pacific; the evidence is too poor and contradictory to be certain of this route, but the author makes a convincing case. However, in addition to the helpful maps illustrating the book, I would have liked one more to demonstrate the route that Fernández-Armesto proposes for Magellan’s Pacific crossing.

Overall, the book provides a far better understanding of Magellan than any previous work. It comprehensively dismantles the heroic myth, and paints a well-rounded picture that is far from eulogistic. From these pages emerges the image of an irascible, egocentric, driven man. Magellan was, the author shows, a gambler, capable of treachery and vindictiveness, who would endure no criticism but who could also inspire staggering and enduring loyalty – particularly, though not exclusively, from ordinary seamen. He was determined to exert sole authority, and to compel obedience.

Fernández-Armesto shows clearly how far Magellan exceeded his remit in claiming sole charge of the expedition, effectively demoting his co-leader, the Spaniard Juan de Cartagena, whom he later marooned off the coast of Patagonia after an attempted mutiny. But we also discover how Magellan won support to overcome the mutineers and pursue his voyage, even though it was already doomed to failure – since it had already proved so long and difficult, it was demonstrably not a viable trade route to the spice islands.

The book’s only weakness is, perhaps, in failing to demonstrate clearly how and why the navigator won enduring support from so many, long after his naked ambition had led him to continue a disastrous voyage. That charming side of Magellan is the least clearly conveyed or understood.

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Margaret Small is a senior lecturer in early modern history at the University of Birmingham

Portable Magic: A History of Books and their Readers

Emma Smith | Allen Lane | £20

Reading books for review is often a hurried activity but, luckily, Portable Magic is not a book to be read slowly. Instead, it sweeps the reader along in its wake – much as the spellbook does the foolish young boy in the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, the story with which Emma Smith begins her book. It is a well-chosen opening salvo: Smith is herself a magical writer – stealing a pinch of literary history here, mixing it with a dab of popular culture there, all the while swinging the wide-sleeved arms of her prose to keep everything in motion.

In 16 chapters, Smith whirls us through many aspects of books that we rarely notice – not so much what their words tell us but, rather, how these words are transformed by the objects in which we encounter them. The shape and substance of the book – its proportions, materials and construction – are often a key part of its eloquence. And these features have a profound effect on every part of our life with books, whether we are buying them, stealing them or giving them as gifts; carrying them into battle or across the world; attacking, altering or destroying them. Here we see books that are burned, drowned, bound in human skin and made of processed cheese; filled with images of devotion and pasted over with smut; chewed up, put on trial, even saved from the apocalypse.

Smith is inventive in using the experience of her book in our hands to illustrate what she means – hence inviting us to read Portable Magic in any order, just like a Choose Your Own Adventure (the subject of Chapter 14). This invitation makes us hyper-aware of how we plot our path through the book, and how our experience will be only one of the myriad possibilities.

Smith’s fun, playful, learned and accessible tome will remind readers of quite how many ways they love their books.

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Edward Wilson-Lee is the author of The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books (William Collins, 2018)

Conspiracy on Cato Street: A Tale of Liberty and Revolution in Regency London

Vic Gatrell | Cambridge University Press | £25

Anyone who still thinks that the Regency period that largely followed the Napoleonic Wars was a genteel, Jane Austen-infused era of elegance and romance should read this book by Vic Gatrell. As he argues in this definitive study: “Inequality, exploitation, disfranchisement, enclosure, factories, slavery, war, hunger, beggary, hangings, transportation, floggings, bullets, sabres and government repression… were what guaranteed Regency order and enabled the privileged to cavort so stylishly.”

The Cato Street conspiracy of February 1820 was the culmination of a series of incidents of unrest caused by unemployment, bad harvests, high prices and starvation following the war. A small group of desperate and deluded men, holed up in a dilapidated stable in Cato Street off London’s Edgware Road, planned to assassinate cabinet ministers who, they supposed, were dining in a house on Grosvenor Square. But it was all a set-up fomented by government spies, and the gang was rounded up by the Bow Street Runners, an early police force.

Five of the ringleaders were tried and then publicly hanged at Newgate. Afterwards, to the horror of many, their bodies were cut down and decapitated by axe – the last time such a macabre medieval punishment for treason was inflicted.

The plot has usually been dismissed cursorily by historians of the period as a delusional failure. But Gatrell’s intense study of the men’s lives – and what brought them to believe that violently overthrowing the government could solve their problems – is forensic and vivid in its detail, drawn from official documents and transcripts: the men seem to speak directly to us. It is clear where his sympathies lie, but that does not blind him to the hopelessness of the men’s cause. My only cavil is the poor reproduction of contemporary illustrations.

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Stephen Bates is the author of 1815: Regency Britain in the Year of Waterloo (Head of Zeus, 2015)


What else is on our bookshelf?

Embroidering Her Truth: Mary, Queen of Scots and the Language of Power

Clare Hunter | Sceptre | £20

This revealing account looks at the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots through an unusual lens: the textiles she owned, embroidered, and gave away as gifts. What may sound niche to our 21st-century sensibilities were key expressions of power in the 16th century – particularly to women, whose ability to explore or influence their world was limited. It’s a fresh take on a fascinating period, and one that also serves to cast the Scottish queen in a new light.

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The Castle: A History

John Goodall | Yale | £18.99

Places to live and work, reign and rule, and defend or intimidate the local population: castles performed a wide range of functions, often simultaneously, across hundreds of years of Britain’s history. This lively, literary book illuminates each of these facets by drawing on the accounts of people who were there at the time, and also sets out to explain why castles continue to exert such a pull on our imagination today, in the 21st century.

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The Penguin Book of Dragons

Edited by Scott G Bruce | Penguin Classics | £12.99

From the ancient world to epic TV fantasies, tales of dragons are intertwined with centuries of human history as JRR Tolkien’s Smaug was coiled around his hoard of treasure. This edited collection features excerpts from a rich variety of sources describing such menacing, mysterious creatures, each with accompanying historical context. Beowulf faces a fire-breathing monster in an epic poem; a Chinese herbologist praises the benefits of the beast’s bones; and a German adventurer warns of wild dragons, roaming the very fringes of knowledge.

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The Normans: Power, Conquest & Culture in 11th-Century Europe

Judith A Green | Yale | £25

If a time machine was to deposit us 10 centuries ago, as the Normans were spreading across Europe, how recognisable would the events and people we encountered be to our popular understanding of the period? That’s a central question of this book, which seeks to puncture some of the more overblown myths about the dynasty and its achievements – often perpetrated by the era’s own chroniclers. In doing so, it never loses sight of the real personal relationships at the heart of the story.

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Persians: The Age of the Great Kings

Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones | Wildfire | £25
Spanning an enormous region from southeastern Europe to the steppes of Asia, the empire of the ancient Persians was – at its height in around 500 BC – the largest that had ever existed until that point. Yet, as this major new book argues, our view of the civilisation has been warped by accounts written by other cultures, most notably the ancient Greeks. Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones sets out to put that right, offering a vibrant portrait of the dynasty’s highs and lows, triumphs and failures.

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Black Ghost of Empire: The Long Death of Slavery and the Failure of Emancipation

Kris Manjapra | Allen Lane | £20

The abolition of slavery, when it finally came to various parts of the globe, is often regarded as an ending – as a distinct point in the story of enslaved people. Yet, as this provocative book argues, emancipation brought with it a new set of injustices: continued prejudice, additional forms of oppression, and a lack of reparation that persisted for many decades. Kris Manjapra’s account tells this longer story, and the ways in which these historical ghosts continue to haunt us in the 21st century.

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France: An Adventure History

Graham Robb | Picador | £25

Covering the entire history of France in 544 pages might sound like an impossible task, but Graham Robb’s enjoyable romp makes light work of it, surging from the legendary origins of the Gauls to the 21st-century Tour de France, with some unexpected detours along the way. The narrative is interspersed with his own experiences of travelling in France, revealing historical landscapes in a new light.

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Dinner with Joseph Johnson: Books and Friendship in a Revolutionary Age

Daisy Hay | Chatto & Windus | £25

Once a week from the 1770s to 1809, the publisher Joseph Johnson invited friends to his London home for dinner. But the leading lights of the intellectual scene didn’t come for the food – often veal and boiled vegetables – but for the vibrant conversation. Chronicling Johnson’s fascinating dining companions and the changes that rocked Britain during the period, this is a feast for those interested in the 18th century.

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Iconicon

John Grindrod | Faber & Faber | £20

Which architectural landmarks symbolise modern Britain? Obvious examples might include the Gherkin or the Angel of the North, but John Grindrod makes a convincing claim for the everyday architecture of the past four decades, from skyscrapers to business parks. Packed with anecdotes from residents across the country, Iconicon explores how Britain’s urban landscapes have evolved in recent times.

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The Matter of Everything

Suzie Sheehy | Bloomsbury | £20

The past 130 years have seen a tsunami of scientific breakthroughs that have helped us understand our world, from the accidental discovery of X-rays in 1895 to the race to split the atomic nucleus. Suzie Sheehy revisits 12 pivotal experiments from this span of history that have transformed our understanding of physics and the universe – and the pioneering scientists who made these finds possible.

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The Shortest History of the Soviet Union

Sheila Fitzpatrick | Old Street Publishing | £12.99

From its inception, forged in the chaos and violence of the 1917 Russian Revolution, to its final days of disintegration and dissolution, the history of the Soviet Union is complex, tumultuous and fascinating. In light of Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine – and president Vladimir Putin’s view of the breakup of the USSR as a tragedy – this concise, incisive introduction is more timely now than ever.

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Why Religion Evolved and Why It Endures

Robin Dunbar | Pelican | £22

The ways in which humans have attempted to bring meaning to life – often brutal, sometimes joyous, frequently perplexing – by believing in something are explored in this engaging book. Robin Dunbar mixes science with history to chart the experiences, beliefs and behaviours that define our relationship with the mystical, aiming to explain why people across the globe have continued to find hope in religious belief.

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The Premonitions Bureau: A True Story

Sam Knight | Faber & Faber | £14.99

Ever had that eerie feeling of knowing something was going to happen before it did? In the 1960s, psychiatrist John Barker set out to discover if there was any genuine basis for that feeling and, if so, whether it could be harnessed to alert us to future disaster. Such ambitions might sound like something from The X-Files but, as this dynamic history shows, they reveal a lot about how we make sense of our own minds.

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These reviews first appeared in BBC History Magazine or BBC History Revealed.

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