My shelf is groaning under the large pile of books I have recently bought to develop my subject knowledge prior to starting teacher training. I have a broad range of tomes awaiting my attention, encompassing pedagogy (Dylan William’s “Embedded formative assessment” and Daisy Christodoulou’s “Making good progress?” top of the pile here) to various history books ranging from medieval to modern times.
Unsurprisingly, there are lots of gaps in my history knowledge. When I studied medieval history at A level, the syllabus only went up to the reign of William Rufus. What happened after that was very hazy in my mind. When I went to university, I studied an eclectic choice of topics, but inevitably they would stop at an arbitrary date, and so too would my knowledge. My mission is both to fill in those gaps and to enhance my knowledge of periods I may have already covered in the past.
In terms of modern history, I know I need to scrub up on the First and Second World Wars and in particular, on the Holocaust. Of course, I do have knowledge of these periods, but not enough specialist knowledge. The main reason for this is that, whenever I was given a choice of what to study, I always gravitated towards studying places or periods as far removed from our modern realities as possible. I had, and I’m afraid still have, a lesser interest in the more recent conflicts between nation states in Europe or in the USA. That’s a bias I need to work on. My endless fascination is for those periods of history which we need to piece together from charters, letters and chroniclers. Periods of history where life was materially different to what we know today, but where the personalities of the various protagonists remind us that in terms of our human traits, we are still very much the same.
So where to start, with my large pile of history books? The First World War, the Holocaust? I pick them up, read the blurb, and put them aside, not yet ready to go there. Instead, I make my way towards the other side of the pile. Some of my choices have been influenced by the curriculum of the year 7s and year 10s that I have been working with at school. For this reason, I started with two excellent books by Marc Morris, “The Norman Conquest” and “King John”. The Norman Conquest and the Magna Carta are two big topics on the year 7 curriculum, and I know I will be cutting my teeth on the year 7s next September, so this was a good place for me to start.
Next, as we started our Edexcel GCSE module on Elizabethan England, I read the excellent new book by John Guy, “Elizabeth: the forgotten years” which then led me on to Jerry Brotton’s “This Orient Isle”, exploring Elizabethan England’s relationship with the Islamic world. Reading about Elizabeth, I reflected on the unique challenges she faced as a female ruler and this drew me irresistibly towards Helen Castor’s “She-Wolves”, on the women who ruled England before Elizabeth. The book focuses on four important but often overlooked women, who at one time or another, held power in England. The book starts with Matilda, the Conqueror’s grand-daughter, then goes on to Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France and finally, Margaret of Anjou. I am still finishing up the account of Margaret of Anjou, but so far, it’s been a cracking read.
What I propose to do, if I find the time, is to write up a summary, rather than a review, on each of the books I have read, including important titbits of information I gleaned from them and how they have given me a new understanding of the period or character in question. This exercise is primarily for my own benefit, as a way to capture the bits of knowledge that in my view matter the most, so that I can quickly refer back to them when I need to. However, this may be of use to others, which is why I am sharing them on this website. My very first book summary is on John Guy’s “Elizabeth: the forgotten years”, which is in PDF format and can be downloaded from the link below. I will add more, as time goes on and I promise, I will eventually get to the Great War and the Holocaust.
Since writing the above, I have come to see that writing individual book reviews/notes is the wrong approach (though I will do it for non-history tomes I read). I am instead preparing fact files/ personal notes on different periods of history, so since I started with the Elizabeth book, my first one of these will be about Elizabethan England. Still working on it, as I am putting info from several sources into it but will share when it’s done, in case it’s of any use to anyone else.