Popular Histories for Understanding and Teaching

Popular Histories for Understanding and Teaching

I have to confess most often I do not like “popular histories.”  I have been trained to read dull, dry, technical works of history in my fields of study, and I find popular histories often misleading, and without the understanding of the mentality, questions, problems, institutions, and limitations of the times they are writing about necessary to write insightful history.  Many of our professions, not just in academia, have similar occupational hazards.

But I make an effort to read popular histories to gain ideas and insights into how to teach the subjects I have the privilege of discussing each week with students, often in introductory courses.  Popular histories offer models of communication of difficult subjects for non-specialists and provide ways of developing a subject in the classroom.

This last year I have read a few that I can recommend to my current and former students.  These have the benefit of being by academically trained writers who want to present their subjects accurately and with some depth, but also to communicate with broad audiences. They are sensitive not to politicize their arguments, but also to address their subjects in ways that allow their readers to recognize the complexities of the political world we live in and make judgements about how we should understand and respond when needed.  Here are three about the Middle East that I have read in the last year that I hope some readers of this blog might find interesting. 

The first is on a large topic, Islamic governmental order throughout its history, Hugh Kennedy’s (University of London) Caliphate: The History of an Idea (Basic Books, 2016). A “caliph” is the successor of the prophet Mohammed in leading the Muslim community (though not as a prophet) and a deputy of God.  Kennedy focuses on three questions, how a caliph should be chosen, “what should the caliph do and how extensive were his powers to be,” and how these questions were to be decided and on what evidence choices would be made. He develops the variations in answers to each of them, bringing the story up to the 21st century and the proclamation of the restoration of the caliphate by ISIS. That story adds great depth to our understanding of a very large and powerful political tradition, and how we might understand the conflicts and claims we see today. 

The second and third each focus on individual cities: Thomas F. Madden of St. Louis University, a historian of the crusades, Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World (Viking, 2016) and Simon Sebag Montefiore, Jerusalem: The Biography (Vintage, 2011).  Madden describe “The City” (the meaning of Istanbul) from ancient times, through its centuries as Constantinople the capital of Byzantine civilization and its Ottoman centuries, to the 20th century as the capital of secular, modern Turkey, and the 21st as Turkey has returned overtly to Islam under Erdogan. Madden illustrates the power of the city that was feared in Reformation Europe and a source of mystery before and after.

Montefiore likewise develops a history of Jerusalem from its ancient centuries as the city of David, Solomon and other Israelite kings, through New Testament times, to Islamic centuries where it was sometimes a religious center, sometimes the place of conflict (the crusades and between competing Muslim political leaders) and when it was a forgotten, dusty, small town in a desert.  He brings the story up to 2010, with it now as a Jewish and Muslim city, a place of passionate claims, tension, violence, intense archaeological work, and cherished sites for worship. You can find a presentation of the book and how he wrote it by Montefiore at C-Span.

All of these offer understanding without the technicalities and arguments of academic works.  Each is engagingly written and rewards anytime we spend with them.

One more written just last year might be added. It too is by an academic historian, written for a popular audience, and focuses on a topic of interest today, Robert Louis Wilken’s (Emeritus, University of Virginia) Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom (Yale, 2019).  Today when the media narrative is that religion and Christianity are inherently oppressive and violent, Wilken tells the story of how arguments for religious freedom developed in the ancient church and were rediscovered during the Reformation in response to political and religious conflict. Ideas such as freedom of belief, conscience, and an allowance for multiple faiths in single political order were not, it turns out, the result of secular thinkers who turned from violent religious commitments to scientific toleration and peace. Rather these developed in the heart of Christian theology and political experience in ancient Rome and the kingdoms and cities of the sixteenth century.  

The reading of each of these has already found their way into my teaching. I think they have offered me ways of communicating more effectively (something we who teach always strive for), and greater understanding of our complex world.

Educated State

Steve Varvis