“Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.” Around the same time William Shakespeare wrote that line, the “Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading to the East Indies,” better known as the East India Company, was taking shape. During the two and a half centuries of its existence, the EIC would become one of the most powerful private-run institutions on the planet, gaining a monopoly on “two thirds of the trading World,” and accruing a reputation that Edmund Burke would refer to as “a state in the guise of a merchant.” In The Anarchy (Bloomsbury, $35), his new history of the EIC, William Dalrymple offers something of a revisionist view. Without underplaying the company’s excesses, Dalrymple puts them into a wider context, showing us, with engrossing storytelling, how the EIC’s malfeasance affected actual lives, especially across caste divides. He also richly evokes the company’s heyday through detailed scenes of military conflict, political intrigue, and even some swashbuckling action. At a time of renewed suspicion of corporate power, Dalrymple’s story is rich, nuanced, and, above all—riveting.
Every chapter in Medieval Bodies (W.W. Norton, $29.95) could be its own book, but art historian Jack Hartnell does a fantastic job of presenting facts, analysis, and context in a way that is both detailed and succinct. This book is more than just a look back at medieval medical practices; it connects arts, stories, and religious thought of the era to paint a rich picture of how bodies and their functions were perceived at the time. Hartnell successfully demonstrates that the Middle Ages were quite far from the mistaken idea that they were purely a time of darkness, pain, and poor dental hygiene. He is a great advocate, versed in both art history and the scientific practices of the time. The volume is also richly illustrated, making it one of the most beautiful and unusual histories published this year.
After the success of The Templars, Dan Jones—my favourite British historian—is back with yet another captivating and astonishing history lesson. In The Crusaders: The Epic History of the Wars
for the Holy Lands (Viking $30) he takes us back a millennium, exploring the reasons behind, and retelling the events of, the biggest conflict between Christianity and Islam in history. Jones has a way of recounting the story as if he was there, making the centuries fall away into a vivid, immediate painting of that distant era. He quickly pulls you into the narrative and you find yourself immersed in the lives of crusaders, slaves, royals, and ordinary people from both sides of the wars. Well researched and brilliantly told, informative and entertaining, Crusaders will have you turning the pages, and it will make you wonder: have we learned anything in the centuries since the events he chronicles, or are we just repeating the past, fighting the same wars for the same reasons?