The best books about history’s villains and their sometimes-surprising reputations

Why am I passionate about this?

I'm a professor of history at the Graduate Center and Queens College at the City University of New York, where I'm also director of the Irish Studies program and the MA program in Biography and Memoir. My specialty, covered in five books that I’ve authored or co-edited, is English and Irish history in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; my new book represents the culmination of a decade’s research devoted to Ireland. In addition to teaching British and Irish history, I offer more unusual and wide-ranging classes including the history of the devil, the history of crime and punishment, and the history of the body. My life is divided between New York City and mid-coast Maine.


I wrote...

The Devil from Over the Sea: Remembering and Forgetting Oliver Cromwell in Ireland

By Sarah Covington,

Book cover of The Devil from Over the Sea: Remembering and Forgetting Oliver Cromwell in Ireland

What is my book about?

Oliver Cromwell is the great villain of Irish history, remembered for two spectacular massacres, a scorched-earth military campaign, a policy of banishing priests to Barbados, forced population transfers, and massive land confiscation. My book attempts to chase down all the diverse ways in which Cromwell was bitterly remembered in order to understand the importance of his legacy in shaping modern Irish history and identity. Ruins on the landscape were said to be inflicted “by Cromwell and his men”; Gaelic poets cursed him with venom; political agitators invoked his name in speeches; and folk tales described him as a monster, a cobbler, or a king. The book raises larger questions about the purpose of national villains and the creative channels by which people made meaning out of traumatized pasts.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Nero-Antichrist: Founding and Fashioning a Paradigm

Sarah Covington Why did I love this book?

I was always interested in how the emperor Nero was associated from antiquity onwards with the Antichrist: the world-destroying and tyrannical son of Satan who would prevail until the final victory of God. Only Judas matched him as a villain in the Christian imagination. Malik traces the Nero-Antichrist “paradigm” across centuries, exploring the ways in which Christians viewed Nero as an arch-fiend, the beast in the Book of Revelation, and a figure of evil who tested their mettle and faith. While recent scholars have softened the traditional picture of Nero, his afterlife continues to wield its menacing power, based in no small part on these Christian traditions.

By Shushma Malik,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Nero-Antichrist as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

It has traditionally been assumed that biblical writers considered Nero to be the Antichrist.. This book refutes that view. Beginning by challenging the assumption that literary representations of Nero as tyrant would have been easily recognisable to those in the eastern Roman empire, where most Christian populations were located, Shushma Malik then deconstructs the associations often identified by scholars between Nero and the Antichrist in the New Testament. Instead, she demonstrates that the Nero-Antichrist paradigm was a product of late antiquity. Using now firmly established traits and themes from classical historiography, late-antique Christians used Nero as a means with which…


Book cover of King John (Mis)Remembered

Sarah Covington Why did I love this book?

Like Nero, King John’s awful reputation has been subject to revision in recent years, though others insist that his “lechery and treachery,” not to mention his cruelty, still places him as England’s worst king. John’s image was rehabilitated in the sixteenth century, however, when the king, in Djordevic’s words, became a “virtual obsession” among writers, dramatists, and contemporary historians.  Shakespeare created a tragic John seeking to defend his crown from rival claimants, foreign invasion, and an intrusive pope, while Protestant writers displayed an even more favorable stance towards John, who had opposed an intrusive papacy. John-as-tyrant was a crowd-pleaser, however, which accounted for the production of plays and poems that continued the traditional portraits of the mad, bad king.   

By Igor Djordjevic,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked King John (Mis)Remembered as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

King John's evil reputation has outlasted and proved more enduring than that of Richard III, whose notoriety seemed ensured thanks to Shakespeare's portrayal of him. The paradox is even greater when we realize that this portrait of John endures despite Shakespeare's portrait of him in the play King John, where he hardly comes off as a villain at all. Here Igor Djordjevic argues that the story of John's transformation in cultural memory has never been told completely, perhaps because the crucial moment in John's change back to villainy is a literary one: it occurs at the point when the 'historiographic'…


Book cover of The Image of Ivan the Terrible in Russian Folklore

Sarah Covington Why did I love this book?

The extent of an evil leader’s influence can be measured in terms of whether he or she enters popular folklore. In the case of Ivan the Terrible, the Russian “grozny” in “Ivan Grozny” is actually translated as “awe-inspiring,” though the “terrible” tag has ensured that the czar would be remembered for his paranoia, brutality, and alleged insanity.

In folklore it was different: as Perrie’s book demonstrates, Ivan was a sympathetic figure through the twentieth century, in tales that recounted his triumphs in war or his repenting after an act of cruelty. Perrie attributes the favorable views of Ivan to “popular monarchism,” but he was also a figure whose image could be grafted onto existing folkloric archetypes to powerful effect.

By Maureen Perrie,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Image of Ivan the Terrible in Russian Folklore as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Ivan the Terrible has long been a controversial figure. Some historians regard him as a crazed and evil tyrant; while others (especially Soviet scholars of the Stalin period) have viewed him as a progressive and far-sighted statesman. The folklore about Ivan has played an important part in these debates. Was Ivan's depiction in folklore favourable or hostile? And how far can it be regarded as evidence of contemporary popular attitudes towards the tsar? In this unusual and far-ranging study, Maureen Perrie discusses the nature of Ivan's image in Russian folklore; its historical basis; its development; and the controversies which have…


Book cover of The Man Who Thought He Was Napoleon: Toward a Political History of Madness

Sarah Covington Why did I love this book?

The 1840 burial of Napoleon’s remains in the Invalides coincided with the psychiatric admission of fourteen men who claimed they were the real Napoleon, and he lived on yet. A number of Napoleons—or those claiming to be Napoleon’s son—had also emerged during the emperor’s own lifetime, suffering from the recently identified “delusions of grandeur” diagnosis.

Murat offers a larger study of madness and asylums in nineteenth-century France, and the impact of political events, including the French Revolution and the Terror, on psychiatric patients and doctors. Her chapter on “madhouse Napoleons” is particularly intriguing, as it reveals how the ghosts of powerful historical leaders can infiltrate the minds of the disturbed. For me, the book also raises questions about memory and psychology more generally, about why the mad latched onto Napoleon specifically, and how history or historical figures can live on in surprising places.

By Laure Murat, Deke Dusinberre (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Man Who Thought He Was Napoleon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Man who thought he was Napoleon is built around a bizarre historical event and an off-hand challenge. The event? In December 1840, nearly twenty years after his death, the remains of Napoleon were returned to Paris for burial - and the next day, the director of a Paris hospital for the insane admitted fourteen men who claimed to be Napoleon. The challenge, meanwhile, is the claim by great French psychiatrist Jean-Etienne Dominique Esquirol (1772-1840) that he could recount the history of France through asylum registries. From those two components, Laure Murat embarks on an exploration of the surprising relationship…


Book cover of Sherman's March in Myth and Memory

Sarah Covington Why did I love this book?

The American Civil War would produce a number of legendary figures, but William Tecumseh Sherman has long interested me for the extreme reactions he continues to provoke. Northerners would view him as a heroic if ruthless conqueror, while Southerners attributed the Confederacy’s destruction and humiliation to this uncavalier “Yankee.”

Sherman’s March in Myth and History traces the mythmaking of Sherman by historians, poets, novelists, and filmmakers, but it also goes deeper in its exploration of how myths and memories about Sherman served to bolster present-day interests. The vilification of Sherman helped to boost the Old South aristocracy and the idea of the "Lost Cause," while northerners viewed Sherman’s march as positive evidence of a superior industrialism. Sherman himself attempted to shape his legacy through lectures and a memoir. Even so, his legacy remains deeply divisive even now, with the authors writing that “there is no conciliation in sight for the myth of the March.”

By Edward Caudill, Paul Ashdown,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Sherman's March in Myth and Memory as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

General William Tecumseh Sherman's devastating "March to the Sea" in 1864 burned a swath through the cities and countryside of Georgia and into the history of the American Civil War. As they moved from Atlanta to Savannah-destroying homes, buildings, and crops; killing livestock; and consuming supplies-Sherman and the Union army ignited not only southern property, but also imaginations, in both the North and the South. By the time of the general's death in 1891, when one said "The March," no explanation was required. That remains true today.

Legends and myths about Sherman began forming during the March itself, and took…


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Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

By Rebecca Wellington,

Book cover of Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

Rebecca Wellington Author Of Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I am adopted. For most of my life, I didn’t identify as adopted. I shoved that away because of the shame I felt about being adopted and not truly fitting into my family. But then two things happened: I had my own biological children, the only two people I know to date to whom I am biologically related, and then shortly after my second daughter was born, my older sister, also an adoptee, died of a drug overdose. These sequential births and death put my life on a new trajectory, and I started writing, out of grief, the history of adoption and motherhood in America. 

Rebecca's book list on straight up, real memoirs on motherhood and adoption

What is my book about?

I grew up thinking that being adopted didn’t matter. I was wrong. This book is my journey uncovering the significance and true history of adoption practices in America. Now, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, the renewed debate over women’s reproductive rights places an even greater emphasis on adoption. As a mother, historian, and adoptee, I am uniquely qualified to uncover the policies and practices of adoption.

The history of adoption, reframed through the voices of adoptees like me, and mothers who have been forced to relinquish their babies, blows apart old narratives about adoption, exposing the fallacy that adoption is always good.

In this story, I reckon with the pain and unanswered questions of my own experience and explore broader issues surrounding adoption in the United States, including changing legal policies, sterilization, and compulsory relinquishment programs, forced assimilation of babies of color and Indigenous babies adopted into white families, and other liabilities affecting women, mothers, and children. Now is the moment we must all hear these stories.

Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

By Rebecca Wellington,

What is this book about?

Nearly every person in the United States is affected by adoption. Adoption practices are woven into the fabric of American society and reflect how our nation values human beings, particularly mothers. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade, the renewed debate over women's reproductive rights places an even greater emphasis on adoption. As a mother, historian, and adoptee, Rebecca C. Wellington is uniquely qualified to uncover the policies and practices of adoption. Wellington's timely-and deeply researched-account amplifies previously marginalized voices and exposes the social and racial biases embedded in the United States' adoption industry.…


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