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The Best History Books: the 2022 Wolfson Prize Shortlist

recommended by Carole Hillenbrand

Every year the Wolfson History Prize celebrates books that combine meticulous and original research with great writing, accessible to the general reader.  Here, one of the 2022 judges, the eminent Islamic scholar Carole Hillenbrand, guides us through the shortlist to explain why each book is a must-read.

Interview by Benedict King

Before we get into discussing what you and your fellow Wolfson History Prize judges regard as the best history books of 2022, have you noticed among them any particular approach to history or way of dealing with the past that is particularly original or interesting?

I think the shortlist shows us that history is in a very healthy state. All six of these books are very beautifully produced. They have a very varied and intriguing subject matter. You have all sorts of different people being discussed. There is one book about God, one about Turkey, one about the United States, and then two about medieval England. Three of the books were written by men and three by women.

First up is The Ottomans: Khans, Caesars and Caliphs by Marc David Baer. Tell us why this one made the shortlist—what makes it one of the best history books of the year?

This is a very interesting book. The Ottoman Turks were a very long-lasting and important dynasty, who ruled for seven centuries. And the book unfolds a sweeping narrative stressing the importance of the Ottoman dynasty, both in relation to Middle Eastern countries, but also its role in European history. For many Europeans for about half a millennium, the Ottomans represented the exotic, dangerous and non-Christian Orient. They were the enemy to fear. The book draws out six key moments in Ottoman history as important.

First, the foundation of the Ottoman state at the end of the 13th century, in northwest Anatolia, by the Turkoman tribal leader, Osman I, who gave his name to the dynasty. Second, the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans after 1354, which transformed the Ottoman state into a trans-continental empire. Third, the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 by Mehmet the Conqueror, which ended the Byzantine Empire. Fourth, the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent from 1522-1566, which marked the peak of power of the Ottoman Empire. Then there is the siege of Vienna, in 1683, which ended in Ottoman defeat by the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I. That marked the beginning of the end of the Ottoman domination in Eastern Europe. Finally there is the successful Turkish War of Independence led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, which brought about the Republic of Turkey in 1923, and the abolition of the Ottoman monarchy.

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Ottoman tentacles stretched everywhere, not just politically, but also commercially. They controlled major trade routes by land and sea. This book delves deep into primary and secondary historical sources, but it is written very clearly and accessibly and will be accessible to general readers as well as scholars and students.

Does he have a take on it that is highly original, or is he just telling a good story well?

He has a very global perspective. There is not an awful lot about what is going on domestically with the Ottomans. It is more about what they are doing abroad. It is about the Ottomans being a great colonial power, wanting to get more lands.

Let’s move on to The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World by Malcolm Gaskill. What makes this among the best history books of 2022.

The narrative of this book centres on the frontier town of Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1651, when there were rumours of witches and heretics, and the community became ensnared in a web of spite, distrust and denunciation. This was the beginning of colonial America, where newly arrived English settlers’ dreams of love and liberty could give way to paranoia and terror, enmity and rage. Gaskill uses previously unexamined sources to tell the tragic story of one family, and through it, to expose an entire society in agonised transition between supernatural obsessions and the coming of a more enlightened age.

Gaskill has written several books on witchcraft, but this one is a little different. He focuses on one specific episode 370 years ago to teach broader lessons about superstition, mental illness and human cruelty. He examines the misery of the isolation endured by pioneers far from home, trapped in an alien and frightening environment.

The book is beautifully and clearly written and it has received great reviews. I was quite surprised to find that I was interested in witches after reading it.

Let’s stay in the 17th century a little longer. Devil Land: England Under Siege 1588-1688 by Clare Jackson takes us from the England of the Armada to the Glorious Revolution, but it has a different take on what people might traditionally think of as its British history in the 17th century. Is that right?

It is a highly original account of perhaps the most turbulent, and radical era of English history—if I can be that daring. It tells the story of a nation in a state of near-continual crisis and it will change our views of the 17th century. It is also extremely well written. It provides fresh insights by looking at England through European eyes. The author emphasizes that foreigners called England ‘devil-land’, a diabolical country, seriously damaged by religious extremism, royal collapse, civil war, and what I would describe as rabble-rousing disturbances. The book examines the complexity of England’s geopolitical involvements, and the perpetually anxious nature of life in Stuart times.

The author paints England as a failed state, and its precarity is presented in great detail. During these 100 years, many of the chaotic events described by Jackson were triggered by England’s ‘quarrelsome relationship’ with Europe. Her book presents England as having a siege mentality. It is  a country ill at ease with the idea of foreign influence and always at odds with itself.

And, at a time when English was a peripheral language in Europe, the Stuart establishment was populated by multilingual, worldly cosmopolitans. Jackson writes about them wittily. She really brings Stuart England alive. However, despite her deep scholarship, her book is clearly accessible to interested general readers as well as specialist historians. All in all, it is a remarkable achievement.

Next up is Going to Church in Medieval England by Nicholas Orme. This is about parish life in the Middle Ages, isn’t it? Why does it stand out among 2022’s history books?

It is often moving. It shows us how religious life was woven into people’s everyday experiences, from Anglo-Saxon times to the Reformation. It is richly illustrated, too. These churches were crucial to English, religious and social life, for church services on Sundays weekdays and for feast days, such as the celebrations at Christmas and Easter. The recurrent cycle of baptism, marriage, funerals, the everyday existence of ordinary people in parish churches are at the very centre of the story.

The book looks at who went to church and who did not. The last chapter discusses the English Reformation: which aspects of church worship changed, and which remained. It shows how, unlike today, religious practice was the very warp and weft of life—although parish churches still hold an important place in the English imagination, even as church-going has declined. In the modern era churches are part of national heritage. But medieval churches were more than pretty buildings. They were the heart of a community, the focal point of an unceasing cycle of feasts and fasts that make sense of a fragile and transitory life. Orme mainly focuses on the period 1200 to 1530.

Let’s move on to God: An Anatomy by Francesca Stavrakopoulou.

Stavrakopoulou is a remarkable and unusual historian. Her attitude to the Bible in this book is controversial. It has a decidedly anthropological slant. She describes how, three thousand years ago in the Holy Land, the inhabitants knew of many deities, led by a Father God called El. Later, one such deity, known as Yahweh, had a human-shaped body and he possessed feet to walk on. He had a wife, offspring and colleagues. His body changed all the time. At one point, he was virile young, strapping, and emanated red hot light. However, in the book of Daniel, he had a more celestial colour. He had the white hair and the beard of an aged deity who possesses wisdom.

“The book is steeped in unusual interpretations of how the Bible shows the divine”

In this whole book God is anthropomorphised. Through a close examination of the Bible, Stavrakopoulou writes about the various gods depicted in ancient myths and rituals. They came from a particular time, and they were made in the image of the people who lived then, who were shaped by their circumstances and experience of the world. She argues that important people in the Hebrew Bible were not historical figures and that probably very little of the Hebrew Bible is historical fact. She bases this on arguments that ancient writers had an understanding of ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ very different from a modern definition of those terms.

The book is steeped in unusual interpretations of how the Bible shows the divine. The author argues that her arguments about the physicality of God enhance our understanding of the history of the great monotheistic religions and Western culture. It is a thought-provoking book and cannot fail to spark controversy.

Let’s go onto the last of the best history books of 2022, Fallen Idols: Twelve Statues That Made History by Alex von Tunzelmann

Of all these six books this one is the most accessible to the general reader. It is fascinating. It examines the fate of fallen statues of famous figures from the past.

In 2020, statues from around the world, from the United States to New Zealand, were pulled down and broken up by protesters. This book examines why statues were put up, what messages they conveyed, how those messages were challenged, what controversies these statues caused, and why and how they were destroyed. The book is very well-researched and looks at statues as a visible and public form of historical storytelling.

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The choice of statues is very wide ranging, geographically, including among others Stalin, George V, Lenin, Saddam Hussein and George Washington. I cannot resist pointing out that it is not surprising that the statues are all of men. Above all, it is worth reading this book for the light it shines on the function of statues today, as well as yesterday, and the book does seek to discuss the contemporary debate and the rewriting of the past by the present. It also looks at the curious absence of historical awareness on the part of many of those who are still determined to topple statues. It is a kind of a commentary, if you like, on ‘wokeness’, I think. As the military historian, Dan Snow, so rightly put it, “Like all the best historians, von Tunzelmann uses the past to explain what’s going on today”. I found this book intelligent, illuminating and thoroughly enjoyable.

What does she say about the modern debate about statues? Does he ask whether we should be putting them up and what they mean and all that sort of thing? Does she have a particular take on that?

Not a particular take. She just leaves us to decide what we think. So much depends on who the people are. But her view is that it doesn’t seem as if the people who are pulling these statues down really understand the historical milieu in which they were put up.

But she’s not going into that controversy at all.

Not really. She’s more interested in in the statues and why they were put up in the first place. It is a very interesting book. I found it quite thought provoking.

Part of our best books of 2022 series.

Interview by Benedict King

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Carole Hillenbrand

Carole Hillenbrand

Carole Hillenbrand is Professor Emerita of Islamic History at the University of Edinburgh and Professorial Fellow of Islamic History at the University of St Andrews. In 2005 she was awarded the King Faisal Prize for Islamic Studies,  the first non-Muslim to be awarded this prize.

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Carole Hillenbrand

Carole Hillenbrand

Carole Hillenbrand is Professor Emerita of Islamic History at the University of Edinburgh and Professorial Fellow of Islamic History at the University of St Andrews. In 2005 she was awarded the King Faisal Prize for Islamic Studies,  the first non-Muslim to be awarded this prize.