The best books that will make us rethink global history

Fernanda Pirie Author Of The Rule of Laws: A 4,000-Year Quest to Order the World
By Fernanda Pirie

Who am I?

I'm an anthropologist on a mission to discover how people have used, and abused, law over the past 4,000 years. After a decade in a wig and gown at the London Bar, I headed back to university to pursue a long-standing interest in Tibetan culture. I spent two years living with remote villagers and nomads, freezing over dung fires, herding yaks, and learning about traditional legal practices. Now, based at the University of Oxford, I’ve turned to legal history, comparing ancient Tibetan texts with examples from all over the world. The Rule of Laws brings a long sweep of legal history and its fascinating diversity to a wide audience.


I wrote...

The Rule of Laws: A 4,000-Year Quest to Order the World

By Fernanda Pirie,

Book cover of The Rule of Laws: A 4,000-Year Quest to Order the World

What is my book about?

The epic story of the ways in which people have used laws to forge civilizations.

Rulers throughout history have made law. But laws were never simply instruments of power. They also offered diverse people a way to express their visions for a better world. I trace the rise and fall of the sophisticated legal systems that underpinned ancient empires and religious traditions. I describe tribal assemblies, farmers, and merchants who turned to law to define their communities, and I reveal the legal efforts that people repeatedly make to control their leaders. The rule of law has ancient origins, I conclude, but it Is not inevitable. Laws can only make the world better if we understand where they have come from and how they could have been different.

The books I picked & why

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The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

By David Graeber, David Wengrow,

Book cover of The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

Why this book?

A really deep history of civilizations, which calls into question some of the entrenched ideas we hold about the rise of the state. While other authors have questioned whether states have been good for humankind, Graeber and Wengrow ask whether they were even inevitable. A readable account, based on fascinating archaeological discoveries and peppered with anthropological insights, it reveals how ancient people experimented with different forms of social organisation. Often, they came together in immense groups and networks for ritual and trade, without being tempted to form anything like a state. It makes us think again about human society and where it might be headed.


Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States

By James C. Scott,

Book cover of Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States

Why this book?

Scott takes us through the evidence of the earliest hunter-gatherer and agricultural societies and asks why anyone ever allowed rulers to amass power and centralize control of resources. The evidence is that farmers flourished for centuries without letting anyone lord it over them. Why, then, does agriculture seem to have led to the rise of the state? Readable and compelling, Scott's latest book makes a really convincing case against the benefits, and inevitability, of the state.


The Silk Roads: A New History of the World

By Peter Frankopan,

Book cover of The Silk Roads: A New History of the World

Why this book?

An enjoyable read from start to finish, Frankopan vividly describes the successive civilizations that arose in the Middle East, and which influenced the course of world history. As the chapters trace the rise of new technologies, sophisticated philosophies, and cultural refinements, it becomes apparent that he is subtly decentring our traditional view of world history. Europe, we realise, came late to the game, far behind the Assyrians, Byzantines, Sasanians, Abbasids, Mughals, and Persians, who could legitimately have regarded their societies as the centre of world civilization. And their successors, Frankopan argues, still play pivotal roles in global politics.


The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World

By Iain McGilchrist,

Book cover of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World

Why this book?

Philosopher and psychiatrist McGilchrist presented a bold thesis about the working of the human mind. It has profound implications for the way we understand human societies. We’ve long known that the two halves of the brain perform different functions but, using approachable case studies and clearly presenting the science, the first half of the book argues that the left, more rational, part of the brain is dangerously dominant. Controlling and grasping, it needs to remain subordinate to the more inclusive, humane, and intuitive functions of the right brain. McGilchrist goes on to trace the consequences for the development of human societies and their problems. The ideas linger, relevant to practically all aspects of our lives.


Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years

By Diarmaid MacCulloch,

Book cover of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years

Why this book?

Christianity did not begin with Christ. MacCulloch, world expert on the history of the church, begins his epic tale a thousand years before the birth of Christ. Early chapters reveal Christianity’s antecedents and, over the next 1,000 pages, he takes us through the twists and turns of the early Christian church, the trials and tribulations of its members, and those who patronized and persecuted them. He explains the esoteric theological debates that tore communities apart, he follows the early missionaries into China, and he describes the divisions that formed the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant branches. Passionate and critical, MacCulloch gets as close as seems possible to explaining what Christianity really is.


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