Tag Archives: Booklists

Books for Women’s History Month 2022

Next week is Spring Break and I haven’t decided if I’m going to get away or get reading a large stack of bedside books. A lot of said books are about later medieval/early modern trade and agriculture in preparation for my new project on saffron, but many are about women’s history over a succession of periods so I thought I’d share some titles for this Women’s History Month. As you will see, there is no rhyme or reason or unifying theme around these titles other than women: all sorts of women in a succession of chronological contexts. I’m always interested in English women of the medieval and early modern eras, lately I’ve become quite interested in the entrepreneurial Salem women of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, I find rich and/or powerful women of all eras endlessly fascinating. It was not always this way: I almost didn’t get the position I currently hold now because I protested the name of a course which my interviewers wanted me to take on: “Herstory in History.” I proclaimed, with all the confidence of a twenty-something, that that was a ridiculous title for a course as women were PEOPLE and all history is about PEOPLE. But the past decades have taught me that a feminine focus in enlightening: it’s another gaze, another perspective, another open window on the past. I still don’t teach a course exclusively on women’s history but I certainly have incorporated a lot of women’s stories into my courses, because of books like these.

So I’ve read all of the books above and am recommending them to you for the following reasons. Judith Herrin is a wonderful historian whose Formation of Christendom got me through the first few years of teaching medieval history. While I teach mostly western medieval history, knowledge of the Byzantine Empire is pretty essential to understanding everything in this era, and Herrin’s book is really substantive and ambitious (and also very academic). Helen Castor’s She-Wolves: the Women who Ruled England before Elizabeth is a more accessible book which presents contextual biographies of four powerful medieval queens: I’m showcasing the Folio edition published in 2017 but there are more affordable options. Judith Bennett’s Ale, Beer and Brewsters is a classic examination of women’s work in late medieval England which I consult regularly, and Monuments and Maidens and The Pocket. A Hidden History of Women’s Lives are two very creative books which examine longer eras from cultural and economic perspectives.

Vast uncharted territory above, but all these books have been recommended to me by colleagues and friends, beginning with Malcolm Gaskill’s The Ruin of Witches, a very welcome microhistory of a non-Salem American witch trial. Salem has become so boring: let’s look west to Springfield, Massachusetts! While not strictly women’s history, I don’t really think any history is strictly women’s history. I’m interested in Material Lives, To Her Credit, The Ties that Buy because I keep encountering entrepreneurial Salem women in that later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries for whom I want to create more context and They Were Her Property appears to be an absolutely groundbreaking work. Jumping up about a century to the late nineteenth century and beyond, The Man Who Hated Women examines anti-vice activist Anthony Comstock’s campaigns against pretty much every everything and The Season and Double Lives looks at a broad spectrum of British women’s experiences in the twentieth century. And so we have progressed (chronologically) from empresses to socialites and “superwomen”!


Books for Christmas/Break

Classes have just ended and after grading I will attack the big pile of books by my bedside: I’ve already dipped into one or two but I have a full month with very few obligations ahead of me to really indulge. As I’ve been consumed with writing my own book (out in February) over the past few years, along with teaching and everything else, I haven’t had much time to read generally and broadly, so I’m really looking forward to the next few weeks. My list below is about as general and broad as I get: when I don’t have to read history for scholarship or teaching I tend to read histories of periods and places which I do not write or teach about. I’d love to read more fiction over the next month, but nothing has caught my attention except for the sole work of historical fiction below—and only because it’s related tangentially to my next project.

So here we go, beginning with two books that fall into the category of personal history:

Mr. Atkinson’s Rum Contract is an amazing personal history of Richard Atkinson’s own family, including his namesake forebear, a British merchant with considerable interests in the West Indies in the late 18th century who acquired the lucrative contract to supply the British army in North America with rum and other essentials during the American Revolution. This is a “warts and all” family history, as the family fortune was based as much on slavery as it was on sugar and land, of course, and one told in a truly captivating manner. Lotharingia is the last of Simon Winder’s surveys of central European travelogue history, following Germania and Danubia. I liked both of these books: they are rather breezy but still engaging and it’s easy to skip over the occasional boring bits. Lotharingia is the “land in between” established by the terms of the Treaty of Verdun in 843, which divided Charlemagne’s empire between his three grandsons: younger brothers Louis the German and Charles the Bald received lands east of the Rhone River and West Francia, respectively, while the eldest brother Lothar received the imperial title and “Francia Media”, a long strip of territory encompassing the Low Countries, parts of modern Germany and France, Switzerland, and much of northern Italy. A place of shifting boundaries and perspectives, for sure.

Since we are back in the early middle ages, I must admit that I have to do some work over the break: I’m teaching our early world civilization survey for the first time in a decade or so, so I must delve into some global history: Silk Road scholar Valerie Hansen’s The Year 1000 will be very helpful, and I’m hoping that Gary Paul Nabhan’s Cumin, Camels and Caravans, written from a more personal and cultural perspective, will provide me with some great “spicy” anecdotes.

And speaking of spices, I also want to use this break between semesters to do some background reading on my next project: a history of saffron in medieval and early modern England. A storied spice, a wonder drug, used in medical and culinary recipes and as a dyestuff, saffron has many threads to follow—through economic, social, cultural and even political history. I’m going to start with its most obvious attribute, its color, and then expand into some textile history. I’m not sure whether or not Atlantic sericulture will have much bearing on my understanding of saffron cultivation, but I’ve met Ben Marsh so I want to read his magisterial book (and you might know him too, from his family’s viral pandemic rendition of “One Day More”—he’s a Renaissance Man!) And then there is A Net for Small Fishes, Lucy Rago’s fictional account of the “Overbury Affair” in which Mrs. Anne Turner, she of the conspicuous yellow ruff, was implicated in the murder by poisoning of courtier Thomas Overbury and executed in 1615. There’s even a fictional Salem connection, as Nathaniel Hawthorne includes Anne Turner in The Scarlet Letter as a friend of suspected witch Mistress Hibbins, even teaching her how to color her ruffs yellow. Anne Somerset’s Unnatural Murder is a more straightforward account of the murder of Overbury set against the backdrop of poisonous Jacobean court culture.

I think I always include books about gardening on my lists, and this one is no exception. I like whimsical, personal books about gardening as an activity, but also cultural histories of evolving landscapes and horticulture: The Morville Hours is a perfect example of the former, and The Acadian Friends of the latter. It would be nice if someone would buy me the forthcoming Architects of the American Landscape and Nature and its Symbols, a reference book from Lucia Impelluso and the Getty Museum.

Finally, two texts focused on the interpretation of history for the general public, a constant concern and interest of mine. The United States is in the midst of a real reckoning (as opposed to a pandering PEM-esque reckoning) about its history and understanding of slavery, and Clint Smith’s bestselling How the Word is Passed is the very next book I want to read about this important process. Here in Salem, there’s very little reckoning; just an increasing amount of ghosts! All summer long, I was hearing ghost stories on the streets of Salem and I feel like I’m surrounded by their professional proponents. This fall, I went to a talk by a very prominent head of interpretation at a very prominent New England heritage organization and in the Q and A I asked him about ghost stories as history and he replied that ghost stories are history. While I understand and agree with that statement to a point, I’ve gone beyond my comfort level and so want to read up a bit more on dark or “paranormal tourism”: Haunted Heritage is about the scene in York, known as Great Britain’s most “haunted” city, so it should be just the ticket.


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