The Best Books On The 17th Century

Geoffrey Parker Author Of Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century
By Geoffrey Parker

The Books I Picked & Why

Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World

By Timothy Brook

Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World

Why this book?

Brook uses artifacts portrayed in six paintings by the Dutch Golden Age painter Johannes Vermeer to show how, several centuries before the World Wide Web, the local and the global were intimately connected. He surprises his readers by showing that people and goods and ideas moved around the 17th-century world in ways that – rather like us – their ancestors would have considered impossible. Perhaps because Brook is a Canadian historian of China who is familiar with Europe, he provides a truly global history and almost every page contains a “gee whiz” fact. I also love the idea that “Every picture tells a story.”


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The Death of Woman Wang

By Jonathan D. Spence

The Death of Woman Wang

Why this book?

We know more about “ordinary people” from the 17th century than any previous period. Some wrote their autobiographies; others left life histories written by friends or family; others still appeared in multiple sources that historians can link to reconstitute their existence. Most of the surviving evidence concerns males, but Jonathan Spence’s book about a region in northwest China examines the impact of floods, plagues, famines, banditry, and heavy taxation on women as well as men. One of those women was an unhappy wife – we don’t even know her name – who ran away from her husband with her lover but reluctantly returned when abandoned by the lover. Her husband then murdered her. Woman Wang thus epitomized the verdict of her English contemporary, Thomas Hobbes, that life in the 17th century was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The English Atlantic in an Age of Revolution, 1640-1661

By Carla Gardina Pestana

The English Atlantic in an Age of Revolution, 1640-1661

Why this book?

Between 1640 and 1660, England, Scotland, and Ireland experienced civil war, invasion, religious radicalism, parliamentary rule, and the restoration of the monarchy. None of that will surprise historians of Britain, but they may not realize the impact of these events on Britain’s new colonies across the Atlantic. Some of them remained loyal to the king until his victorious opponents sent the first major Transatlantic expeditionary force to subdue them. 

Pestana shows how war and rebellion in Britain increased both the proportion of unfree labourers and ethnic diversity in the colonies. Neglected by London, several of them developed trade networks; some entered the slave trade. By 1660, the English Atlantic had become religiously polarized, economically interconnected, socially exploitative, and ideologically unstable.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age

By Simon Schama

The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age

Why this book?

I first met Simon Schama in 1963, when he joined me as an undergraduate reading History at Christ’s College Cambridge. Both of us decided to undertake research on the Low Countries, but in an international context: in my case, Spain and the Netherlands between 1550 and 1650; in Simon’s case, France and the Netherlands between 1770 and 1815, leading to his brilliant first book, Patriots and Liberators (a study of what the expansion of Revolutionary France meant for an occupied country.) This led him to analyse the social and cultural history of the country before occupation, using visual as well as written sources to recreate the mental state of a complex society. The embarrassment of Riches tells of bloody uprisings and beached whales, of the cult of hygiene and the plague of tobacco, of thrifty housewives and profligate tulip-speculators. It shows how the Dutch celebrated themselves and how they were slandered by their enemies.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner

By Daniel Defoe

The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner

Why this book?

Good historical novels concentrate on gaps in the historical record, and use fiction to fill them – and in doing so, they illuminate the facts. Robinson Crusoe, the first historical novel in English (some claim the first English novel), used the story of a fictional sailor who left home in 1651 and returned in 1687 to show how the mental world in which his character grew up, riven by confessional conflict and civil war, differed from the mental world of his readers, in which colonies and capitalism had combined to produce great wealth. 

Among more recent works of fiction set in the 17th century, I particularly enjoyed Günther Grass, The meeting at Telgte (1981), set in Germany in 1647; and Iain Pears An instance of the fingerpost (1997), set in Oxford in 1663. Both include real historical figures.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Random Book Lists