Books that Made me a Historian
Long before I even knew what a historian was or did, I was fascinated by stories about the past. My grandparents indulged my endless questions about their lives in the 1920s and 1930s and my parents and older siblings made sure I had an endless supply of diverse reading material at all times. One of those books was a version of “Sleeping Beauty” illustrated in the style of the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, the famous fifteenth-century Book of Hours illuminated by the Limbourg brothers. The strange clothes and the rich colors in the book captivated me, as did the idea that people might have lived in castles and spun their own thread.
One of my sisters noted my interest in historical legends and gave me a copy of Tales of Great Cities, by Vladimir Hulpach. A compendium of stories unique to particular places in Europe—the golem of Prague, the Pied Piper of Hamlin—the book opened my mind to the way that human experience leaves traces in objects, names, rituals, and places. Around the same time, I encountered an old copy of Bulfinch’s Mythology, which introduced me to the Greek and Roman myths that had been left out of the D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths that I was reading in school, as well as tales of King Arthur and the Round Table and Charlemagne. The medieval legends in Bulfinch’s led me straight to A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver, by E. L. Konigsburg. Already a fan of Konigsburg’s About the B’nai Bagels and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, her account of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Empress Matilda, William Marshal, and Abbot Suger reminiscing in Heaven while waiting for Henry II to come “Up” presented these very grand people from long ago as completely recognizable. Eleanor is proud, Henry irascible, Matilda haughty, Suger arch and avuncular, and Marshal a loyalist and a skeptic. Suger’s account of the construction of the grand Gothic cathedral of St.-Denis made an impression on me, as did the story of the furious quarrel between Henry II and Thomas Becket. So a few years later, when The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett, came out I snatched it up. Over 1000 pages, a mass-market paperback with tiny print on pages as thin as onion skin, I read and re-read that book until it wore out. The story of the wreck of the White Ship and the ensuing period of the Anarchy—the contested reign between Stephen and Matilda—sent me scurrying to reference books that had elaborate genealogies, so that I could piece together the contested claims to the throne of England.
My father loved haunting antique stores and flea markets, and he often insisted that I accompany him, despite my protests that I was old enough to stay home alone. I soon discovered that, although looking at furniture bored me to tears, paging through old books, with their musty smell and faded covers, offered a window into the past that I could peer through. It was on one of these outings that I acquired a book I still own: a 1927 edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette. In its pages I discovered how to hire extra footmen for a dinner party, the correct address for a cardinal (Your Eminence) or a reigning monarch (Your Majesty), the attire of a lady’s maid, and why a chaperon was a necessity for young ladies. Etiquette also provided vital context and background information to help me understand the alien concepts and practices in books from that period, from The Great Gatsby to the early works of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers.
My mother recognized my interest in medieval history and fostered it by giving me a copy of Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror when I was fourteen. I slowly worked my way through it, with maps and a dictionary, over the next few years. Tuchman’s account of the fourteenth century in France was an eye-opener in every way. I learned things I didn’t know before, and I also discovered that it was possible to write non-fiction about medieval history that was almost as compelling as the historical novels I adored. That the book existed at all seemed to me to be a reason for optimism about the world.
Finally, I must mention the Lymond Chronicles and the House of Niccoló, two series by Dorothy Dunnett. More than any other books, these fourteen novels inspired me to become an historian. I discovered The Game of Kings, the first book in the Lymond Chronicles, at the public library when I was fifteen. The world of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century mercenaries, vagabonds, councilors, courtesans, slaves, and artists—from Timbuktu under Songhai rule to the court of Ivan the Terrible—came alive with a vividness and abundance that I have not encountered elsewhere. And some of the objects, texts, and events Dunnett mentions in passing in her novels found their way into my own book of medieval history, Medieval Robots.
E. R. Truitt is Associate Professor of History at Bryn Mawr College. She is the author of Medieval Robots, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press (2016)
The image featured at the top of the post is an illuminated page from Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, the month of April, featuring an image of the Château de Dourdan c. 1400.