Peter Ackroyd – Foundation: The History of England from Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors
A very good popular-level history, and the first volume of a multi-part series. If the other volumes are of this caliber, I will enjoy reading them. Foundation contains some traditional kings-and-battles narrative, but Ackroyd is at his best when he turns to Fernand Braudel-style everyday history—how ordinary people worked, what they wore and ate, how they talked and gossiped got along with each other (or not), what games and toys children played with, how adults settled disputes, what were popular fashions and gossips, and so on. Fortunately, this is most of the first half of the book. It is also a good chunk of the second half, which picks up more of the political narrative as sources improve and the monarchy becomes more centralized.
Ackroyd also shares snippets from primary sources ranging from near-graffitos to expense reports to legal decisions. These, used in wise moderation, make long-dead ordinary people come alive again, with names and all, in the reader’s mind. Interesting for its own sake, this kind of history also makes the reader grateful for modern prosperities and freedoms we take for granted; previous generations could only dream of things we moderns take for granted, such as indoor plumbing or reasonably expecting all of our children to survive to adulthood.