Book Review

Ask a Historian by Greg Jenner

Why is Italy called Italy? How old is curry? Which people from history would best pull off a casino heist? Who was the richest person of all time? When was the first Monday? What were history’s weirdest medical procedures that actually worked? How much horse manure was splattered on the streets of Tudor London? How fast was the medieval Chinese postal system? What did the Flintstones get right about the Stone Age? Who gets to name historical eras, and what will ours be called in 100 years’ time? How do we know how people sounded in the past? How old is sign language?

In Ask a Historian the author, BBC podcaster, and public historian Greg Jenner provides answers to things you always wondered about, but didn’t know who to ask. Responding to 50 genuine questions from the public, Greg whisks you off on an entertaining tour through the ages, revealing the best and most surprising stories, facts, and historical characters from the past. Bouncing through a wide range of subjects – from ancient jokebooks, African empires, and bizarre tales of medicinal cannibalism, to the invention of meringues, mirrors, and menstrual pads – Ask A Historian spans the Stone Age to the Swinging Sixties, and offers up a deliciously amusing and informative smorgasbord of historical curiosities, devoured one morsel at a time.

One of the things that I love about Hay Festival is that I’ll occasionally come across an absolute gem of a book that might otherwise have passed me by.  Ask a Historian is one such book.  Having enjoyed Greg Jenner’s talk at Hay, I was intrigued by the book and couldn’t resist picking up a copy. 

I’m so glad I did, because Ask a Historian quickly proved to be a whole lot of fun.  During the pandemic, Jenner invited the public to send in the questions that they’ve always wanted answered, and fifty of them were selected for this book.  These questions are loosely organised into twelve sections covering Health & Medicine, Wars & Battles, Food, Animals & Nature etc. and even just scanning through the chapter headings gives an indication of the breadth of topics covered in this relatively small volume.  And because the questions are posed by the public, it’s a wonderfully odd assortment of facts and trivia, all of which Jenner responds to in around 2,500 words. 

Some of my favourite questions of those covered include:

  • Is it true that a dead Pope was put on trial? (Yes!)
  • When was the first joke book written and were there any funny ones in it? (The oldest joke in the world is a fart gag, and so while humans might have come on a long way since then, I’m not sure that our sense of humour has evolved significantly)
  • What did The Flintstones get right about the Stone Age?  (Not a huge amount, but more than you might expect)

It really is a wonderful mix of questions, many of which have never even occurred to me before.  I also like that the questions aren’t always too serious.  There are some that touch upon weightier matters, but many (like the jokebook example above) are just genuinely interesting. 

For each question, Jenner gives a highly informative answer that is written in such a way that those with no knowledge or background in the subject can easily understand it.  Because each answer is relatively brief, the information is – out of necessity – quite high-level at times, but in many cases it was enough to pique my interest and Jenner provides suggested further reading for every single question should you which to explore a topic in more detail.  And each question is written in a slightly irreverent tone – I often found myself chuckling while reading.  During his talk, Jenner came across as a bit of a cheeky chappie, and his writing carries that same personality. 

Ask a Historian is a fantastic book for those who are generally curious.  It’s a wonderful selection of trivia to satisfy all tastes, and it’s a book that is easy to dip into and out of given that each topic has 4-5 questions covered in it.  Highly recommended.

Ask a Historian is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson and is available now in hardback, digital, and audio formats. The paperback is scheduled for release in October.


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