Renaissance to world war

23rd June 2000 at 01:00
FLAGSHIP HISTORY - Europe 1450-1661. By Derrick Murphy, Michael Tillbrook and Patrick Walsh-Atkins

ENGLAND 1485-1603. By Derrick Murphy, Alan Keen, Michael Tillbrook and Patrick Walsh-Atkins

BRITAIN 1914-2000. By The Institute of Contemporary British History. Collins pound;16.99 each

A textbook should aspire to be more than a textbook. Of course, an A-level history textbook must provide sound scholarship and give students practical help in acquiring the skills needed to pass their examinations. But to succeed, a textbook has to transcend the limitations of the genre; it must stimulate in young readers a genuine enthusiasm, a positive excitement, for its subject.

The three volumes in the new Flagship series admirably meet the first two criteria. All provide a text densely packed with factual information which is well organised with an eye both to chronological narrative and thematic study.

Excellent bibliographies direct students to further books and articles, though without citing contemporary material. But primary sources do appear in the serviceable exercises at the end of each chapter. Even more helpful are the frequent lessons in historical interpretation, an undertaking dear to the hearts of modern examiners. And readers are constantly assisted by margin definitions - even of familiar words like "overawe" or "home front".

Sadly, however, it is difficult to imagine students enjoying these books. All have three or more authors, whose individual contributions are not identified. So readers never know who has written what, and could not attribute any opinions they found interesting let alone gain inspiration from an author's point of view.

The most readable volume in the trio is Europe 1450-1661. Its opening chapter on the Renaissance and its concluding section on witchcraft provide a strong cultural framework. Of equal value is the chapter on the Reformation which, despite its initial warning that "this is one of the most complex topis" studied at A-level, trenchantly explains why Luther's movement was "a catalyst for vast changes". The authors are usually more guarded in their judgments. They accept, for instance, the revisionist claim that the impact of the Thirty Years War has been exaggerated, even though they show it caused Germany's population to decline by 15-20 per cent.

The authors of England 1485-1603 provide an up-to-date and comprehensive guide to Tudor times, well illustrated by contemporary sources in the text as well as the exercises. It is good to see the last word on Henry VII being voiced by Polydore Vergil rather than by one of those ubiquitous "recent historians". Unhappily, though, the visual sources fail to do justice to an age of glorious portraiture; reproductions are too small and indistinct for students to interpret their significance, as they are required to do. (Yet a whole page is devoted to an illustration derived from Jon Nichol's Evidence book, aimed at younger pupils).

No fewer than nine historians laboured to produce Britain 1914-2000. The result of their endeavours is a text rich in information and well organised to explicate the political, social and economic themes of this popular period. But the members of this committee seem sometimes to have disagreed: for example, a heading asks "Why did the General Strike begin in 1928?" while the subsequent paragraph gives the correct date. Nor does this institutional history convey the spirit of these momentous times. A section about how the Second World War affected people's lives comes to the turgid conclusion that "there is little evidence of upward mobility based on savings and capital accumulation".

It is not with such jargon that sixth-form history teachers will win the battle for numbers against sociology and business studies. Nevertheless, students who do stay the course will find much useful stuff in these volumes.

Vyvyen Brendon is head of history at St Mary's School, Cambridge


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