The best new story books to buy for Christmas 2021


Christmas is the time of year when people are most likely to attend divine service, and Nicholas Orme’s Going to Church in Medieval England (Yale, £20), tells us how they did it a while ago 800 years: just like today, three masses were allowed (midnight, dawn, mid-morning) in buildings decorated with holly and ivy. Orme also describes how the churches that dot our landscape came to be and who ruled them. It ends at Reformation, which underpins Clare Jackson’s Devil-Land (Allen Lane, £35). It begins as the Armada attempts to reverse the English Reformation and ends a century later with the Glorious Revolution, when James II, the last king to attempt Catholic rule, was ousted. Jackson looks at history from the loser’s perspective, painting England as a failed state – even if the revolution turned out to be more glorious than it suggests.

The central 17th century figure features in Ronald Hutton’s The Making of Oliver Cromwell (Yale, £25), which meticulously recounts the Lord Protector’s story up to 1645, showing how his soldiering gifts equipped him for the leadership.

Another kind of 16th century is revealed in Antwerp: The Glory Years by Michael Pye (Allen Lane, £25). This is where, before the Dutch unsuccessfully rebelled against Habsburg rule, Bruegel painted The Tower of Babel, Tyndale published copies of his Bible in English, Erasmus and Thomas More thought they would change the world. Antwerp became a haven for Jews fleeing a Portuguese pogrom; it was a model for what we call globalism.

Talking about old topics that have become topical, The Gun, the Ship and the Pen (Profile, £25), Linda Colley takes a new approach to nation building, showing how the vogue for written constitutions from the 1750s did not stop nations from coming together to make war, nor to help them. achieve many of the stated goals of the editors.

In Time’s Witness (Allen Lane, £25), Rosemary Hill argues that after 1789 the way history was written and its purposes underwent profound changes. Whereas before (to evoke Carlyle) it was about the lives of great men, he was now also interested in the common people – an inevitable consequence of the French Revolution – and sought to enlighten us on the objects and the art of past, a point Hill made by studying the lives of various notable antiquarians. This antiquarian led to archaeology, and Edmund Richardson’s Alexandria: The Quest for the Lost City (Bloomsbury, £25) chronicles the fashion for exploration of the ancient world in the 19th century, from Persia to Afghanistan, and notably the adventures of an archaeologist, Charles Masson, which turned out to be more than expected.


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