The best books about values in European historical periods

Larry Silver Author Of Europe Views the World, 1500-1700
By Larry Silver

Who am I?

A retired professor, an art historian who taught at Berkeley, Northwestern, and the University of Pennsylvania. Since my main interest is the emergence of Europe from the late Middle Ages and into the Early Modern period around 1500, I naturally gravitate to non-fiction books that engage with the shifting interests and values of that era, and my own books include similar efforts to discuss visual art in relation to religion, literature, politics, and wider contemporary cultural movements. Among my own books I would cite: Rubens, Velázquez, and the King of Spain (with Aneta Georgievska-Shine); Europe Views the World, 1500-1700; and the forthcoming Art and Dis-Illusion in the Long Sixteenth Century.

I wrote...

Europe Views the World, 1500-1700

By Larry Silver,

Book cover of Europe Views the World, 1500-1700

What is my book about?

Europe Views the World examines the wide diversity of images that Europeans produced to represent the wide variety of peoples and places around the globe during and after the so-called 'Age of Exploration.' Beginning with the medieval imagery of Europe’s imagined alien races, and with an emphasis on the artists of Northern Europe, Larry Silver takes the reader on a tour across continents, from the Americas to Africa and Asia. Encompassing works such as prints, paintings, maps, tapestries, and sculptural objects, this book addresses the overall question of an emerging European self-definition through the evidence of visual culture, however biased, about the wider world in its component parts. 

The books I picked & why

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Life and Fate

By Vasily Grossman,

Book cover of Life and Fate

Why this book?

This is an epic exposition about Russia during World War II at the height of the German invasion, culminating in the crucial turning point of the Battle of Stalingrad.

Like Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Life and Fate (and Grossman’s more focused volume, Stalingrad), the unfolding plot centers on an extended family’s responses to these traumatic events. Grossman was a war correspondent (perhaps more vividly captured in his Stalingrad) who also was one of the first to visit concentration camps, so his novel has both wide sweep and richly observed details about its title’s human condition.

The Books of Jacob

By Olga Tokarczuk, Jennifer Croft (translator),

Book cover of The Books of Jacob

Why this book?

Another book of epic ambition but an unlikely subject: a messianic Jewish religious leader in 18th-century Poland.  The author’s prodigious research fuses with her writer’s ability to bring individuals as well as the movement to life.  This historical fiction lacks Grossman’s eyewitness foundations but vividly captures the values and lifestyles of its central figure, Jacob Frank, and his avid followers against the background of Catholic Poland and Ottoman Islam and will challenge modern readers with a vanished world of values and actions. 

Autumntide of the Middle Ages

By Johan Huizinga, Diane Webb (translator),

Book cover of Autumntide of the Middle Ages

Why this book?

One of the great works of historical recreation, which reads like a novel but is based on a voluminous study of texts, art, and history. Huizinga recreates the violent tenor and pervasive Christian spirituality of late medieval life, as well as a corresponding chivalric secular side, lived out by French and Burgundian nobility.

Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England

By Keith Thomas,

Book cover of Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England

Why this book?

An unlikely complement to Huizinga tracing the overlap between magical beliefs in religion as well as astrology and the emerging accusations of witchcraft. Deeply immersed in research about 16th-17th century England, this book offers a form of historical anthropology for baseline views of the strange ideas that drove spiritual life.

A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599

By James Shapiro,

Book cover of A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599

Why this book?

A brilliant combination of biography and history during the amazing moment of creation of some of the Bard’s greatest plays (Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and even Hamlet). These varied dramas played out against the sensitive moment in London of an aging, heirless Queen Elizabeth I after the Armada and Irish wars but also at the formation of the East India Company.  Shapiro’s (and Shakespeare’s) sequel, The Year of Lear. Shakespeare in 1606, deserves attention, as does the vivid historical fiction, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, told from the viewpoint of Stratford village and Bard’s family during the era of the lingering Black Death.

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