A Good Global Read

A Good Global Read

Some places to go if you are interested in Global History

There is no single way to approach global history and many members of our network did not start out as global historians. It has been by reading in a variety of fields that their interests in tackling history from a global perspective have emerged.

On this page, teachers and students can find short summaries of books that members of our network have enjoyed reading. Not all are about the Middle Ages; not all are global. Some are recent books; some are much older. But all have played some sort of role in turning our interests towards the global.


Patricia Crone, Pre-Industrial Societies: Anatomy of the Pre-Modern World (Oxford, 1989)

I spent much of my undergraduate career wondering why so few modules dealt with parts of the world beyond Europe and ‘the West’.  Crone’s book is essential reading for anyone interested in world history before the modern era.  It is a trenchant and concise, at times wry and always lucid guide to the structural constituents of pre-modern civilizations by a scholar of medieval Islamic history and political thought.  If you have an ounce of curiosity in you for the world beyond Europe and the US, and if you are floundering to know where to begin when it comes to acquiring the larger comparative categories to help you begin mapping those richly diverse and varied horizons, then this is the book for you.

Simon Yarrow (Birmingham)


Roy Mottahedeh, The Mantle of the Prophet Religion and Politics in Iran (London, 1985)

This book is a remarkable interweaving of history and biography.  It recounts the career of Ali Hashemi (made-up name), an Iranian Professor from the University of Tehran, who visited Mottahedeh in Princeton, New Jersey, in spring 1978, the final year of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s rule in Iran.  The revolution that toppled the Shah’s regime in February 1979 was masterminded not by an army, a popular Marxist movement or by invasion, but by a highly culturally and socially esteemed community of university academics led by the scholar-poet Ayatollah Khomeini.  Mottahedeh effectively writes the biography of Ali Hashemi, a Shiah scholar trained at Qom, Iran’s foremost university, setting his life against the educational, spiritual and political backdrop of Islamic history, reminding us, among other things, of the common roots of Eastern and Western intellectual endeavour in the ancient trivium (logic, rhetoric and grammar) of Greece and Rome, and carefully tracing this scholastic tradition’s encounters with nationalism and liberalism along the path Iran took through modernity to the remarkable events of 1979.

Simon Yarrow (Birmingham)


Mark Elvin, The Pattern of the Chinese Past (London, 1973), pp. 344

The Pattern of the Chinese Past belongs among the handful of books that every historian should read, whether she is interested in the subject or not – but having read it is hooked. The best history books answer a very simple question in a quite unexpected way. Elvin’s question is why China, united under a single emperor in the third century BCE, has survived for two millennia as ‘the world’s largest enduring state’ while the rise and fall of so many others has shown that large political units are not stable over long periods of time. With expansion the costs of communication, administration and defence rise out of proportion to the benefits, and conquered and subject peoples acquire the skills and knowledge that had given the conquerors their initial advantage. So China almost disintegrated early in the first millennium CE, and almost succumbed to the Mongols and others early in the second. It was, each time, a very close run thing. Yet six centuries after Rome had fallen, for much those reasons, the Chinese lit their streets with natural gas, and produced more pig iron every year than Britain did in total up to 1820 – but after 1820 China could not make the great leap forward that was the industrial revolution in Britain, just because it had already leapt so much of the way. Elvin’s exploration of how that astonishing wealth and sophistication were created and why they became self-limiting carries him into every area of life, at every social level. The questions may seem abstract but the story, told with clarity and vigour, is not: lavish quotation from primary sources keeps the focus always on the people, and makes this book compulsive reading.

R. I. Moore (Newcastle)


Eric L. Jones, Growth Recurring, Economic Change in World History (New York, Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 247

This is a book on how socio-economic growth and development took place spontaneously across different regions of the world in the past. It pays much attention to three key factors and their interplay over the long term, the Middle Ages included: geography (or natural endowments), the state, and the market. The key concepts adopted by the author are ‘extensive growth’ (meaning that although the economy increases its size there is no rise in income per capita) and ‘intensive growth’ (meaning a growth occurs at both the aggregate and per capita levels). In other words, extensive growth does not improve per capita wealth and welfare, while intensive does. The author’s assumption is that extensive growth is common and intensive growth is rare. So, what separated civilisations from one another historically was this growth per capita. The author is very careful not to fall into a trap of European Triumphalism and yet points out, comparatively, why and how Western Europe eventually succeeded in a sustained ‘intensive growth’ ahead of the rest of the world. Despite its heavy title, the book is an easy read.

Kent Deng (London School of Economics)


Michael Gilsenan, Lords of the Lebanese marches: Violence and Narrative in an Arab society (Berkeley: University of Calif., 1996)

This is a very accessible study of a society at the edges of empires written by an anthropologist with strong historical leanings. It examines how local elites from the interior uplands of Lebanon interacted with first the nineteenth-century Ottoman empire and later the French Mandate authorities. But it also focuses on how those same elites continued after the end of empire to control the communities who had traditionally looked to them for lordship. It is an extremely versatile and rewarding study brimming with insights which could be used to make comparisons with other societies in other times. It is particularly thought-provoking for anyone interested in the exercise of lordship and for the mediating role of local elites in imperial settings. Especially intriguing is its evidence base: on the one hand, it considers colonial documents, the kind of written evidence that historians have often rated highly in their analyses of how power and empires work; but on the other hand, Gilsenan uses his experience as an anthropologist to collect and interpret oral evidence, especially the telling of stories about local ‘Mr Big’s. It is these stories, where and when they are told, and how they are used in the exercise of power, which make the local lords at the centre of this study come alive.

Catherine Holmes (Oxford)


Janet Martin, Treasure of the land of darkness: the fur trade and its significance for medieval Russia (Cambridge, 1986)

I first encountered this book as a student preparing an essay on early medieval Rus’. But once I got started, it ceased to be a study that I had to plough through to make sense of my essay title and instead became the catalyst of an imaginative shock-wave. The book focuses on those journeys that were made by traders to the far north of Russia in search of furs, the kind of luxury products valued by elites in the empires which lay to the south of the Eurasian forest and steppe zones; empires such as the Islamic Caliphate and Byzantium.  As I think about it now, I can see the relevance of this book to questions about how traders and traded products created connections between different parts of the medieval globe in the early Middle Ages. In contrast to the east-west silk road perhaps, the interest for me now would be the ways in which these furs and the people who traded them travelled along north-south axes. I would also be keen to think about what the demand for fur would have to say about the relationship between luxury, exoticism and display in imperial centres such as Baghdad and Constantinople. But at the time when I first read it, what appealed to me about this book was its cast of characters: mysterious peoples such as the Volga Bulgars and the Khazars, as well as writers from the Islamic world, such as Ibn Fadlan who observed something like a Viking ship burial far from Scandinavia deep in the river system of modern-day Russia. And beyond the appeal of peoples and places I had never really encountered before, I was simply awed by just how far north these traders were prepared to go in search of their treasure.

Catherine Holmes (Oxford)


William Chester Jordan, A Tale of Two Monasteries: Westminster and Saint-Denis in the Thirteenth Century (Princeton, 2009)

Can the telling of lives lived under different regimes lead to a larger comparison of the history of polities? William Chester Jordan aims to chart a different course through the histories of England and France in the thirteenth century by juxtaposing the lives and careers of two abbots, Richard de Ware who was elected abbot of Westminster in 1258 and Matthieu de Vendôme who rose to the equivalent position at Saint-Denis in the same year. We learn here how two men from common backgrounds (as far as we can tell) faced a set of very similar challenges and managed these to different effect. Richard and Matthieu oversaw leading monasteries with close ties to the monarchy of England and France respectively. Due to their institutions’ wealth and prestige their lives were filled with settling disputes with rival institutions, bishops, laymen and laywomen, aristocrats, the French and English courts as well as other European courts. In a series of engaging snapshots we read how the abbots defended and extended their claims to rights and property, supported their courts, and resolved international disputes. Both men are cast as consummate administrators. Their stories are told on a broader canvas sketching the longer-term trends of thirteenth-century French and English political history. We see Matthieu contribute to the empowerment of French kings and we also see him censure the monarch when needed. We learn how Richard supported the crown in the face of baronial challenges and also restored his own institution’s fiscal health and prestige. The comparison highlights that French and English kings and abbots learned from and rivaled with each other in these areas. This kind of international borrowing need not be surprising as Richard and Henry III spent considerable amounts of time abroad and even at Saint-Denis. Jordan’s fortuitous juxtaposition of the careers and relationships of two abbots suggests how much historians stand to gain from shedding the constraints of nationalist historiographies.

Hilde de Weerdt (Leiden)


Alfred W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900 (Cambridge, 1986)

In this important and well-known book Alfred Crosby wrote a history of the ‘Anthropocene’ two decades before the term entered into the public conversation. He asks a familiar question ­– why have Europeans been so effective in conquering large areas of the globe since the Middle Ages? ­– but gives a different answer from those you might have encountered in other works. Crosby argues that Europeans exported their own plants, animals and bugs around the world, while exterminating the indigenous flora, fauna and humans, sometimes deliberately, often inadvertently. The result is that today we encounter around the world environments and landscapes in the Americas, Australia and New Zealand that, far from being in any way ‘natural’, are the creation of Europeans and European power. The book has a wide-sweep, beginning with the so-called Stone Age ‘blitzkrieg’ on the mammoths at the end of the last Ice Age, continuing through the Viking-Age expansion into the North Atlantic, the Age of Columbus and the conquest of the Americas, to the beginning of the twentieth century. Crosby is an engaging writer who is able to ask timely and necessary questions. If you have ever wondered why we have managed to make a mess of our natural environment, why so many animals and plants have gone or are going extinct, or even why every lawn around the world has got dandelions growing on it, then this is the book for you.

Scott Ashley (Newcastle)

Network Publication: Past & Present Supplement

We are pleased to announce the publication of a supplementary issue of the journal Past & Present on ‘The Global Middle Ages’ – currently accessible online here and available in print soon. Co-edited by Catherine Holmes (Oxford) and Naomi Standen (Birmingham), the supplement applies the study of global history to the pre-modern world through a series of thematic chapters incorporating a wide range of periods and regions. Read more






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