History books themselves have their own history. History has always been a subject that interests people, and it was always a reasonably large proportion of whatever the available media of the day was. And as parchment gave way to paper, and paper in turn became a mass market commodity more and more people were able to afford to indulge their interest in what had gone on in the past. So the popular history book intended for just anyone who was curious about the past started to appear in the 1930s and by the 1950s was an established genre.
One of the giants of popular history was Thomas Costain whose books sold in huge quantities. I think I missed out growing up because I have a feeling my teenage self would have loved them. The style of writing is the key. This is history written as a story.
So what you get out of this history book is basically a rather old fashioned view of history – but that is in itself quite interesting. How people in the fifties thought about history tells us quite a lot about what they believed in general. They were interested in character and had a much clearer idea of what was right and wrong than we do. So when a medieval king fiddles the system to his advantage, Thomas Costain regards this as a personal failing of the king involved.
It is worth exploring this one a bit. The king in question was Henry III and his modus operandum was to swear to comply with requests from this subjects for concessions. And once he had done so, he would apply to the pope and get the agreement annulled. This annoyed his subjects and in their exasperation they turned to Simon de Montfort. He proceeded to get parliament going, setting up history for several centuries of progress in the direction of democracy.
So basically the formula is that history is full of characters, and it is legitimate to invent stuff you don’t know to fill in the human side of things. History has a direction and a purpose and like fiction it always contrives to have a happy ending.
Is this sort of history any use today? I have to say I find it grating to read more than a small dollop at the time. Hearing how pleased William the Marshall was when he finally got home after the wars for a bit of a rest is just annoying when you know there is simply no data on his emotional state. The frequent value judgements are irritating even when the values expressed are ones we still hold, which we often don’t. But it does make things very memorable, so if you want to have an overview of what was happening in the Middle Ages it isn’t a bad option.