Best history books of 2009: First came the doom-and-gloom pillaging – then the raging battle between wainscotting and marble

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

History feels urgent again. Perhaps it's the new decade, perhaps it's the intense political and economic challenges of the last, but history has cast off its donnish tweeds and emerged lean and sexy.

Early-medieval Europe generally gets a rough deal. Sandwiched between the fall of Rome and the rise of proto-nationalist polities, the period is frequently defined only in terms of what came before or after. Chris Wickham's The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000 (Allen Lane, £35) insists on its value as an independent field of study in a daring effort at "history without hindsight". The clumsiness of received divisions between East and West, civilisation and barbarism is convincingly elucidated, but Wickham's dexterity with his sources transcends theory, creating vibrant living portraits of individuals who were unaware that history would condemn their lives as no more than a mosaic of decline and fall.

Hemlock all round for those who think the classics are irrelevant: like Wickham, Josiah Ober's Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens (Princeton, £20.95) provocatively re-examines an unfashionable period. Unapologetic about the relationship between democracy and knowledge, Ober is also explicit in drawing comparisons between Athenian democracy and American attempts to promote its own version around the world. Participatory democracy on the Athenian model, Ober argues, can surpass authoritarian rivals, particularly as the potential of technology for facilitating knowledge aggregation and public action has yet to be explored.

Robert Ferguson's The Hammer and the Cross: A New History of the Vikings (Allen Lane, £30) is a new account of "Viking heathendom" which incorporates not just a significant period of British history, but a discrete culture which dominated Northern Europe for centuries. The definition of "Western" values has been an ongoing debate in recent years, and Ferguson, one of the world's leading scholars of Scandinavian literature and archaeology, adds another layer to our perception of our origins, in this compelling and often poignant portrait of a pagan warrior society faced with Christianity on the march. Ferguson rejects revisionist views of the Vikings as "a group of long-haired tourists who roughed up the locals a bit", seeking to show how our understanding of the Vikings is incomplete without a consideration of the violence of their culture. But he remains sympathetic to the poetry of their doomed world. Rape and pillage have never been so thrilling.

Revolting peasants are the history teacher's standard gag, and two books on the British penchant for dissent illuminate the background to our unique political consensus. Inspire your inner anarchist with David Horspool's The English Rebel: One Thousand years of Troublemaking from the Normans to the Nineties (Viking, £25), a millennium's worth of British bolshiness which demonstrates that "left-wing is the last adjective that could be accurately applied to rebellions from the Middle Ages to the early 20th century". The English reputation for ' placid stoicism, Horspool argues, derives more from the fact that our revolutions are older than those of continental Europe. Indeed if there is such a thing as national character, ours includes a talent for tactical violence – inherited from the Vikings, perhaps? Horspool's invigorating comparisons between, for example, the silvatici of the 11th century and contemporary eco-warriors suggest that rebellion remains a thriving tradition.

Summer of Blood: The Peasants' Revolt of 1381 (HarperPress, £20) by Dan Jones is more tightly focused; an alliance of sound scholarship and sexy writing which makes this first popular account of our most famous class war essential reading. Jones' account of the circumstances leading to the Peasant's Revolt places it within the negotiations between monarch and people power which shaped the British constitution, as well as assessing the influence of wider European circumstance. The real draw, though, is the troubled yet admiring face-off between Wat Tyler and the boy-king Richard II.

In Martyrs and Murderers: The Guise Family and the Making of Europe (Oxford, £18.99), Stuart Carroll also re-evaluates royal history in a Continental context. Where they are remembered at all, the dukes of Guise appear as pantomime characters, the "wicked uncles" of Mary Queen of Scots. Professor Carroll dispenses briskly with their romanticised relationship with the Catholic queen, focusing instead on the role of the Guises in the wars of religion which dominated 16th-century Europe and which were elemental in the creation of recognisably modern nation states. Professor Carroll's scholarship exposes the parochialism of much British work on the period, while dealing elegantly with the complex theology behind the politics.

It is a perfect balance between academic and popular history writing, which might also be said of Amanda Vickery's Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England (Yale, £18.99). Comparison between Vickery and Jane Austen is irresistible. In a sense, this is history on the scale of the famous square of ivory on which Austen claimed the ideal novel should be created: graceful, delicate, sparkling with sprezzatura. As with Austen's novels, though, Vickery's research into the landscapes of Georgian domestic politics reveals a great deal more than embroidery going on in the drawing-room. This book is almost too pleasurable, in that Vickery's style and delicious nosiness conceal some seriously weighty scholarship. Using more than 60 archives, Vickery develops her theories through the perceptions of her protagonists, themselves so vivid and memorable that observations such as "The battle of wainscot versus marble, or stucco versus rampant wallpaper was a motif of a wider cultural debate in which gender was a weapon" sneak slyly under the dado.

The Britain of Richard Overy's The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars (Allen Lane, £25) is considerably less light and sparkling, but proves that gloom can have its charms. His account of the pervasive pessimism which dominated inter-war British thought is illuminating, intriguing and at times brilliantly funny. Whatever their position on the political spectrum, Overy demonstrates that intellectuals were united in the belief that "civilisation faced a potentially terminal crisis", and his discussion of both the origins of and solutions to that crisis cannot fail to resonate with contemporary political debate. History has to be as much about what was thought as what was done, and Overy resurrects many now-forgotten thinkers, providing a masterclass in early 20th-century philosophy as well as a portrait of an earnest culture too often subsumed beneath Jazz Age glitz.

There's nothing retiring about Shlomo Sand's The Invention of the Jewish People (Verso, £18.99). The outrage surrounding Sand's book in Israel has positioned him as an enemy within, an arch-revisionist working out of the university of Tel Aviv. Sand's contentions – that much Zionist history derives from deeply unreliable sources and that Jewish identity is essentially defined by religion rather than race or nationalism – are thorough and reasonable, but this has not prevented his attackers from claiming he wants to write Israel out of history. Sand's arguments are considerably more subtle; he does not question the right of Israel to exist; rather, he calls for a more rigorous examination of the premises on which that existence is based and suggests that they require redefinition. Sand takes on a formidable tradition in claiming that moral validity in the Middle East needs good history, and no discussion of the region any longer seems complete without acknowledgement of his book.

Anyone still needing to be convinced of the vitality of current history writing need only glance at Victor Sebestyen's Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire (Weidenfeld, £25). Sebestyen's writing is as exhilarating and powerfully emotional as the events he describes. At the beginning of 1989, 10 nations remained Soviet vassal states; by the end of that year the empire was gone. In a narrative as intoxicating as it is intricate, Revolution 1989 not only encompasses the political confrontations which fomented revolt but uses brief, skilful vignettes of ordinary lives to recreate the world behind the Iron Curtain.

'Queen's Consort: England's Medieval Queens' by Lisa Hilton is published by Phoenix at £20

Comments