The best books on premodern societies, climate, and environment

John F. Haldon Author Of The Empire That Would Not Die: The Paradox of Eastern Roman Survival, 640-740
By John F. Haldon

Who am I?

History has always fascinated me because it offered ways through which I could begin to make sense of the present. History is about how and why things change over time, above all about the causal dynamics underlying how societies, economies, and cultures work and transform. The history of Byzantium is a perfect example, offering many challenges of understanding and interpretation of its own, yet at the same time opening up a whole world of medieval societies and cultures around it, helping to illuminate not just the history of the immediate regions concerned – the eastern Mediterranean and Balkans – but of the world beyond.  


I wrote...

The Empire That Would Not Die: The Paradox of Eastern Roman Survival, 640-740

By John F. Haldon,

Book cover of The Empire That Would Not Die: The Paradox of Eastern Roman Survival, 640-740

What is my book about?

From being the most powerful state in western Eurasia in 600, by 700 the eastern Roman empire was on the point of collapse. Yet it did not die.

This holistic analysis elucidates the factors that allowed it to survive against all odds, integrating the history of the landscape and cities, the environment and changes in climate, the history of beliefs and ideas, the institutions of the state and the church, secular politics, and the international scene. State, elite, and church together embodied a sacralized empire that held the emperor, not the patriarch, as Christendom’s symbolic head. The empire suffered no serious political rupture and what remained became the heartland of the medieval Roman state that we call the Byzantine empire.

The books I picked & why

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The Holocene

By Neil Roberts,

Book cover of The Holocene: An Environmental History

Why this book?

This book offers a magisterial survey of the last 10,000 years and puts human history firmly in its full environmental context. There are many different ways of writing about the past, but historical writing is above all about how and why things change over time, about the causal dynamics underlying how societies, economies, and cultures work and transform. But in order to achieve this historians have first of all to establish a narrative – their own particular narrative – and it is their critical analysis of the ways in which this narrative can be constructed that helps us understand the past and that can help inform our understanding of the present. This book succeeds wonderfully in this fundamental task.


Understanding Collapse

By Guy D. Middleton,

Book cover of Understanding Collapse: Ancient History and Modern Myths

Why this book?

“Collapse” is a term frequently bandied about in the press and popular as well as academic historical writing. Middleton’s book, well-informed by the palaeoenvironmental, archaeological, and documentary evidence shines a powerful light on some of the pervasive myths about supposed historical collapses, many of which were not at all what the term might suggest. He challenges us to think carefully and critically about what we really know about a past civilisation before we rush into easy judgements. His book made me rethink many of my own assumptions on the subject and undoubtedly influenced my own work.


A Rural Economy in Transition

By Adam Izdebski,

Book cover of A Rural Economy in Transition: Asia Minor from Late Antiquity Into the Early Middle Ages

Why this book?

This is a wonderful illustration of how to do integrated, holistic history that takes into account every aspect of the way a society works and evolves. Combining archaeology with landscape history, social, political, and economic history, Izdebski’s book is also a handbook on how to do environmental history, with detailed and informative methodological considerations on the problems that come with it. It is quite technical in places, but really sets out very clearly how historians who want to incorporate palaeoscientific data into their discussion should be doing it.


The Inheritance of Rome

By Chris Wickham,

Book cover of The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400-1000

Why this book?

This really is a “great read”, an exemplary and multi-faceted discussion by one of the leading historians of the early medieval world in western Eurasia. Integrating archaeological with documentary research and a vast range of sources of many different kinds, it offers a coherent, consistent and plausible account of the beginnings and early development of the post-Roman world in Europe, N. Africa, and the Middle East, covering also the origins of Islam and its impacts as well as the rise of the Carolingian empire and the origins and foundation of modern European politics and nations. Technically refined, clearly, coherently and entirely persuasively argued, this is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the end of the ancient and the beginnings of the medieval world in Europe and the surrounding lands.


The History of the Countryside

By Oliver Rackham,

Book cover of The History of the Countryside

Why this book?

This book by Oliver Rackham, the doyen of British landscape history, offers the reader a detailed and more chronologically specific discussion to accompany and in many respects to illustrate the argument in Neil Roberts’s The Holocene. If you want to understand the long process of landscape evolution, the amazing continuities, and deep structures of the British landscape, this is the perfect book. Through detailed discussion of the sources, written, archaeological and environmental, the author presents a topic-by-topic study of every aspect of the British countryside and its deep history, from the Neolithic to the present. I thought I understood something of all this until I read Rackham’s revealing, instructive, and deeply impressive book.  Well-written and scholarly yet entirely accessible, this is one of my favourite, and still most useful, books.  


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