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?
Timothy Egan's newest book, A Pilgrimage to Eternity (Viking, $28), is part travelogue, part history, and part
religious narrative. As he treads the Via Francigena, an ancient pilgrim route that starts in Canterbury, England,
and ends in Rome, Italy, Egan traces this history of Europe and Catholicism and weaves in his own family's story.
He comes to the route with his eyes open, both to the wonder of the landscape he is walking through—described
in elegant prose that makes me long for the clear air of the Alps and the sun-soaked hills of Italy—and to the truths
that history lays at our feet. Though the book is written with a Twain-esque twinkle, Egan isn't afraid to address
the big questions of faith, violence, and the tumultuous present of our world and institutions. He writes about the
landscape with as much reverence as he does the relics, and addresses history and philosophical musings with
a liveliness and humility that come from placing one foot in front of the other. A Pilgrimage to Eternity is charming,
insightful, beautiful, and leaves the reader with just a little bit of hope that maybe faith and love can help save a
person after all.