Christmas gifts 2012: the best history books

David Horspool picks his favourite history books of 2012

Before the faster, higher, stronger stuff got under way at this year's Olympics, British history found itself on show to the world in East London. Danny Boyle's opening ceremony took an unashamed delight in Britain's past glories and nodded to a few of its horrors, from cricket on the village green to the rise of the ironmaster. Granted it wasn't a historical vision that would have stood much historical analysis – the industrial revolution authored by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in the words of Caliban from The Tempest, you'll recall – but it gave an accurate sense of a nation that still thinks the past can be mined for entertainment as well as instruction. This year's glut of history books confirms the impression.

London itself was, predictably enough, the focus of much historical attention, including Judith Flanders's recreation of everyday life in Dickens's London in The Victorian City (Atlantic) and Rosemary Ashton's evocation of a part of the capital in the same period, Victorian Bloomsbury (Bloomsbury). Ashton managed to find an identity for this "intellectual quarter" long before its most famous intellectuals moved in. Less than a mile but also a world away is Hatton Garden, the jewellery district presided over for the most part by Jewish, often Hasidic, dealers. Rachel Lichtenstein's history of Hatton Garden, Diamond Street (Hamish Hamilton), is a follow-up to her equally affecting anatomy of another great London Jewish street, Brick Lane. Whereas the Jews of Brick Lane have almost all moved away, making way for the next wave of immigration, Hatton Garden retains its identity, a thriving pocket of a distinct culture at the heart of the city's commerce.

Another of the dozens of London histories worth seeking out is Peter Barber's London: A History in Maps (British Library), which tells the story of the metropolis through the works of the cartographers who captured it over the centuries. Two other books this year used maps as a way of explaining the wider past. Simon Garfield's engaging On the Map (Profile) displayed that author's knack of finding subjects that show history to a popular readership in a new light. An even more ambitious, and certainly more scholarly, take on the same subject was Jerry Brotton's History of the World in Twelve Maps (Allen Lane), an elegant, powerfully argued variation on the theme of knowledge as power and ignorance as powerlessness.

Medieval history has been steadily clawing its way back to public attention after long years of relative neglect. This year saw the publication of a rare example of popular revisionism on the Middle Ages, RI Moore's The War on Heresy: Faith and Power in Medieval Europe (Profile). Moore shows, by examining the records of those who were burned for their beliefs, that contrary to Catholic arguments in the Middle Ages and historical orthodoxy pretty much ever since, the Cathars were not practitioners of an imported eastern religion bearing little relation to Christianity, but radical Christians whose reforming temperament went rather too far for the church's masters. Another churchman was the subject of John Guy's reassessment, in his Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel, Victim (Viking), an exemplary historical biography that sticks closely to the sources without burying the reader, and retells some of the best-known stories in English history without buffing them up into fairy-tales. Tom Holland's re-examination of the rise of Christianity's new rival in the east, In the Shadow of the Sword (Little, Brown), was taken to task in some quarters for overstating its picture of Islam's confused origins, but it reconfirmed Holland's enviable way of taking epic material and making it graspable to an untutored reader.

Not a year passes without at least one worthwhile book on each of the world wars, and 2012 didn't disappoint. Christopher Clark's book on the origins of the first world war, The Sleepwalkers (Allen Lane), told an apparently familiar story from an unfamiliar perspective, by focusing his narrative not on Berlin, Paris or London, but on Sarajevo and Vienna, seeing the war as an east European event that spread west. For the second world war, Antony Beevor delivered a full history of a conflict he has been approaching in large chunks (The Second World War, Weidenfeld & Nicolson). Beevor relies, as he has done so successfully before, on an accumulation of detail that almost overwhelms the reader, showing the sheer scale of human misery in what one hopes was a unique moment in history.

Beevor focused attention on the conflict between Japan and China that preceded what we think of as the "outbreak" of global hostilities. Our (understandable) preoccupation with China has continued to bear historical fruit, with Odd Arne Westad's Restless Empire (Bodley Head) and Jonathan Fenby's Tiger Head, Snake Tails (Simon & Schuster) – fine examples of the way history can begin to make sense of the country for an outsider. For an insider's take on a horrendous episode in that history, Guo Jian and Stacy Mosher's translation of Yang Jisheng's Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine (Allen Lane) is an almost unbearably vivid portrait of a man-made disaster of epic proportions.


David Horspool

The GuardianTramp

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