21 August 2020
Find stories and themes that bring history to life, says acclaimed historian Charles Freeman
I must have been about six when I first started reading history books and the pile of large volumes on my ‘to read’ pile on my desk shows that sixty-five years later I am still at it. Then comes the moment when one is invited to write a history book of one’s own and there is blank page or empty computer screen waiting to be filled.
How does one select a subject? After all, the past is a vast subject, covering so many diverse cultures stretching back hundreds or even thousands of years. My first books, when I was a teacher with the International Baccalaureate, were on current affairs and designed for schools. Then there was a project that took me back to my first love, the ancient world, and which ended up as a chronological account of three great civilizations, Egypt, Greece and Rome. It filled a gap in the American university market and is now into its third edition.
Egypt, Greece and Rome included a lot of philosophy and I gradually became more and more interested in the history of European thought, especially in relation to Christianity. I also take tours of the Mediterranean, with visits to sites from the classical world, through the medieval age into the Renaissance. This has all come together in my new book The Awakening, A History of the Western Mind, AD 500-AD1700.
The Awakening starts with telling how bereft Europe was after the collapse of the Roman empire in the fifth century, so bereft, in fact, that literacy almost vanished. It was left to a few scribes, mostly working in monasteries, to copy the remaining manuscripts before they disintegrated. Then at the end of the eighth century the emperor Charlemagne established a strong central government and saw it as his aim to restore learning through a programme of copying manuscripts in an easier script. Many of these still survive.
So there is a story to be told and following a chronology helps a historical narrative on its way. In a big book like this I had to select clear themes to follow. The civilizations of Greece and Rome had lasted for a thousand years and their impact remained important so I needed to show how the legacy in architecture, literature and politics resurfaced through the centuries. The city states of northern Italy used the philosopher Aristotle’s book on politics from the thirteenth century while Louis XIV of France, the Sun King, followed Roman models of imperialism in the seventeenth century. Isaac Newton, the greatest scientist of the seventeenth century, still found the works of the Greek mathematicians Euclid from 300 BC useful.
Another theme was the influence of Christianity. By 500 there was already a hierarchy of bishops and a structure of learning in the monasteries but the church was also wealthy, owner of much land, and so a conflict arose between those who took advantage of the privileges that wealth offered and those who wanted to follow a more austere life modelled on the life of Christ. I look at the way that different Christian values become prominent at different times and then there is the Reformation when Christianity breaks up into rival Protestant and Catholic churches. By the end of the book I stress how Christianity has become nationalistic – one cannot separate Anglicanism from England!
Both these themes are supplanted by the rise of science. One example I use is the Geographike of Ptolemy, a wonderful set of locations for maps across the known world of the second century AD. The Geographike was rediscovered at the end of the thirteenth century and was used to provide maps of the Mediterranean and the surrounding lands. However with the discovery that Africa had a southern tip and, more dramatically, the New World in 1492, it was gradually replaced so that by 1570 ‘scientific’ maps were being drawn. I finish the book by looking at the scientific revolutions of the seventeenth century when the classical sources are bypassed by experimentation.
There are tips to writing narrative history. A good story never fails but one must learn to pace one without too much digression. (Footnotes are useful to give further explanations.) It is worth looking around for amusing anecdotes and I often find quotations give a flavour of the times. In fact, in The Awakening we start each chapter with an original quotation. I always look for an extra special story for the beginning of the book to set the scene and whet the reader’s appetite. It is also worth having as many pictures as possible. If they are carefully chosen they give atmosphere but you have to persuade the publisher that the extra expense is worth it!
History never bores- I always find ideas or events that interest me and there are always new challenges, especially today in bringing the forgotten histories of exploitation and slavery back in focus.
Charles Freeman has been a professional historian for forty-five years and leads cultural study tours to the Mediterranean. Details of his many books can be found by searching ‘Charles Freeman, Yale University Press’.
The Awakening: A History of the Western Mind AD 500-AD1700 by Charles Freeman is out now by Head of Zeus
Interested in writing histroical non-fiction? Read these top tips from the writers shortlisted for the 2020 Wolfson History Prize.