Book review – History

The outcome of Diderot’s discussions with Catherine was that she largely ignored his advice. Engraving from François Guizot’s Histoire de la France

How Diderot’s pleas to end despotism fell on deaf ears in Russia

23 March 2019 9:00 am

Denis Diderot (1713–84) is the least commemorated of the philosophes. Calls for his remains to be moved to the Panthéon…

The North Pole, from the star atlas of the French Jesuit priest and scientist, Ignace-Gaston Pardies, published in 1674

The unearthly powers of the North Pole

16 February 2019 9:00 am

Having spent too much of my life at both poles (writing, not sledge-pulling), I know the spells those places cast.…

In August 1819, the cavalry charged a crowd of 60,000 in Manchester who had gathered to demand parliamentary reform

‘The reality was disgusting’: Peter Ackroyd slams Victorian Britain

15 September 2018 9:00 am

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… it was the epoch of belief, it was…

Did the notorious Zinoviev letter ever exist?

18 August 2018 9:00 am

This is a well-written, scrupulously researched and argued account of an enduring mystery that neatly illustrates the haphazard interactions of…

The First Opium War: The East India Company’s Nemesis and other boats destroy the Chinese war junks in Anson Bay, 7 January 1841 [Bridgeman Art Library]

Global Britain was built as a narco-empire

4 August 2018 9:00 am

China, wrote Adam Smith, is ‘one of the richest, that is, one of the most fertile, best cultivated, most industrious…

Galileo before the Inquisition in Rome, by Cristiano Banti

The Inquisition on trial: the ordeals of Giordano Bruno and Galileo

28 July 2018 9:00 am

If you go to the Campo dei Fiori in Rome on 17 February every year, you’ll find yourself surrounded by…

Roman mosaic from the Villa of the Nile, Leptis Magna, Libya (2nd century AD)

Holy mackerel! Civilisation begins with fishing

18 November 2017 9:00 am

Fish. Slippery, mysterious creatures. They are mysterious because of where they live, in vast waters, and because they elude the…

‘Speak! Speak!’ by John Everett Millais (1895)

The spirits of the age

28 October 2017 9:00 am

Children started knocking on my door last month wearing Donald Trump face masks and asking for money. Indeed, one enterprising…

Songs of the blood and the sword

28 October 2017 9:00 am

Jihadi Culture might sound like a joke title for a book, like ‘Great Belgians’ or ‘Canadian excitements’. But in this…

The keys to Chinese

7 October 2017 9:00 am

The history of industry is the story of the reduction of complexity to easily manageable, replicable components or actions. But…

The cornucopia of food advertised by the Empire Marketing Board, 1927‑1933

The fruits of imperialism

2 September 2017 9:00 am

Imagine yourself a middle-class person in England in the 1870s. You sit down to drink a cup of tea while…

A woman on a ducking-stool, accused of witchcraft. Drowning would have proved her innocence

The roots of witchcraft

19 August 2017 9:00 am

Until the mid-1960s many historians believed witchcraft was a pre-Christian pagan fertility ritual, witches worshipping the Horned God, whose consort…

The new age of the refugee

22 July 2017 9:00 am

After years of estrangement in a foreign land, what can immigrants expect to find on their return home? The remembered…

William Joyce — better known as Lord Haw-Haw: an ideological enthusiast for fascism

The infamous four

22 July 2017 9:00 am

Most books about British traitors feature those who spied for Russia before and during the Cold War, making it easy…

A poster from the 1930s advertising Shanghai

'Wicked old Paris of the Orient': a portrait of 1930s Shanghai

4 June 2016 9:00 am

Here’s the Mandarin for ooh-la-la! As Taras Grescoe, a respected Canadian writer of nonfiction, shows in this marvellous, microscopically descriptive…

Breaking the commandments on Moses’s mountain

28 May 2016 9:00 am

A medieval party of 800 Armenians at the top of Mount Sinai suddenly found themselves surrounded by fire. Their pilgrim…

Equipped for life with a copy of Thucydides

28 May 2016 9:00 am

‘What distinguishes Cambridge from Oxford,’ wrote A.A. Milne in 1939, is that nobody who has been to Cambridge feels impelled…

How The Satanic Verses failed to burn

28 May 2016 9:00 am

This is a book which, as one eyes its lavish illustrations and dips into its elegant prose, looks as if…

Following a mistranslation of the Old Testament, Michelangelo depicted Moses with horns

‘Thou shalt commit adultery’

14 May 2016 9:00 am

Jesuits, the leading apologists for Rome and Catholic revival in Elizabethan England, cast a long shadow over the paranoid post-Armada…

HMS Agamemnon lays the first Atlantic telegraph cable between Trinity Bay and Valentia Island

The 1850s: a dizzying decade of boom and bust

26 March 2016 9:00 am

We can all identify decades in which the world moved forward. Wars are not entirely negative experiences: the social and…

Ford Madox Brown celebrates 17th-century advances in science in his painting ‘William Crabtree watches the Transit of Venus in 1639’

A.C. Grayling reduces history to a game of quidditch

12 March 2016 9:00 am

It is very difficult to uncover accurate connections between ideas and events in history. A.C. Grayling is a philosopher and…

The Green Man on a roof boss in Norwich cathedral

The Green Man's journey from Nazi to sweetcorn salesman

12 March 2016 9:00 am

The other day I visited a psychic medium in Croydon, south-east London. Mavis Grimstick (not quite her real name) boasted…

The British give the Chinese a taste of their own medicine in the First Opium War

Why has China taken so long to make its mark?

12 March 2016 9:00 am

‘China is a sleeping lion,’ Napoleon reportedly remarked. ‘When it wakes, the world will tremble.’ There is no need to…

A Russian barber cuts off the beard of an Old Believer. In 1705, as part of his ruthless campaign of modernisation, Peter the Great imposed a tax on beards of up to 100 roubles

Why do men grow beards?

27 February 2016 9:00 am

The ocean that Christopher Oldstone-Moore has set out to chart is as broad as it is shallow: what it has…

The death of General Gordon by George W. Joy

Why the British make a virtue of defeat

20 February 2016 9:00 am

When Henry Worsley died last month attempting the first solo, unaided expedition across the Antarctic, he was 30 miles short…