Bringing new stories from history to light, and challenging readers to rethink accepted historical narratives, the topical Wolfson History Prize shortlist explores themes that are pertinent to current world events.
Spanning centuries and continents, political and personal histories, the Wolfson History Prize 2023 shortlist takes readers from the plague-ridden streets of fourteenth-century Europe to the densely populated alleyways of Dickensian London, travels to the court of eighteenth-century China and the underground resistance movements of Nazi-occupied Europe, and journeys through the history of African and Caribbean people in Britain, via the history of the book itself.
Celebrating books that combine excellent research with readability, the books shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize 2023 are:
African and Caribbean People in Britain: A History by Hakim Adi (Allen Lane)
The World the Plague Made: The Black Death and the Rise of Europe by James Belich (Princeton University Press)
The Perils of Interpreting: The Extraordinary Lives of Two Translators between Qing China and the British Empire by Henrietta Harrison (Princeton University Press)
Resistance: The Underground War in Europe 1939-1945 by Halik Kochanski (Allen Lane)
Vagabonds: Life on the Streets of Nineteenth Century London by Oskar Jensen (Duckworth Books)
Portable Magic: A History of Books and their Readers by Emma Smith (Allen Lane)
A major new history that transforms understandings of Britain’s past, African and Caribbean People in Britain: A History by Hakim Adi charts a course through British history with an unobscured view of the actions of African and Caribbean people. Starting with the Libyan legionaries who patrolled Hadrian’s Wall and the ‘Black Tudors’ who served in the land’s most eminent households, the book spans the long history of African and Caribbean people in Britain, while highlighting their many vital contributions to our collective achievements like universal suffrage, victory over fascism and the NHS.
An exciting history of books and their power over us, Portable Magic: A History of Books and their Readers by Emma Smith explores the unexpected and unseen consequences of our love affair with books. Portable Magic dismantles the myth that print began with Gutenberg, reveals how our reading habits have been shaped by American soldiers, and proposes a new definition of a ‘classic’. It illuminates the ways in which our relationship with books is more reciprocal – and more turbulent – than we tend to imagine.
Resistance: The Underground War in Europe, 1939-45 by Halik Kochanski is a sweeping, original history of occupation and resistance in war-torn Europe. It is the first English-language history of resistance to study the whole of Europe, from the Balkans to Norway, uncovering powerful, human stories of resistors who have often been overlooked, such as Jewish and female fighters. Resistance delves into the diverse strategies employed by ordinary people as they challenged occupying forces, revealing their remarkable achievements and the formidable challenges they faced amid oppression.
A History Today Book of the Year, The Perils of Interpreting by Henrietta Harrison is an impressive new history of China’s relations with the West, told through the lives of two language interpreters in the eighteenth century. Uncovering the lives of two overlooked figures at the Qing court, The Perils of Interpreting offers an empathic argument for cross-cultural understanding in a connected world.
A Spectator and Prospect Book of the Year, The World the Plague Made: The Black Death and the Rise of Europe by James Belich sheds new light on one of history’s greatest paradoxes: that the human tragedy of the plague brought about cultural and economic renewal on a scale never before witnessed. The World the Plague Made is a panoramic history of the global expansion of Europe, and how this was intertwined with other peoples throughout the world.
A compelling, moving and unexpected portrait of London’s poor from BBC New Generation Thinker Oskar Jensen, Vagabonds: Life on the Streets of Nineteenth-century London brings the Dickensian city vividly to life. From beggars and thieves to musicians and missionaries, porters and hawkers to sex workers and street criers, Jensen unites original research, first-hand accounts and testimonies to tell their stories in their own words.
Celebrated historians Mary Beard and Sudhir Hazareesingh joined the judging panel this year, working alongside fellow judges Richard Evans, Carole Hillenbrand, Diarmaid MacCulloch, and chair David Cannadine to narrow down the very best history writing in the UK from the past year to a shortlist of six books, from which one winner will be selected.
David Cannadine, Chair of the Wolfson History Prize judges said: ‘This year’s shortlist demonstrates the enduring power of history writing to shed light on the past, and also to bring new perspectives, empathy and nuance to our understanding of the present. The six titles cover a wide range of themes, from inequality to war and occupation and the effect of previous pandemics. Each book is commended because it is beautifully crafted, grounded in meticulous research and full of fascinating stories of people and places.’
Paul Ramsbottom, Chief Executive of the Wolfson Foundation said: ‘The Wolfson Foundation supports education and research across a wide range of sectors. For over 50 years the Wolfson History Prize has been part of this mission, championing books that are carefully researched and well written.
‘A common theme in this year’s shortlist is an exploration of how people and societies in the past have confronted fundamental, global issues: books with a distinct resonance for today’s challenges and preoccupations. We are delighted to share the 2023 shortlist, and celebrate books that bring new evidence, subjects and opinions alive for a wide audience.’
Shining a light on books that combine excellence in research with readability for a general audience, the Wolfson History Prize is now in its 51st year. The most valuable history writing prize in the UK, awarding a total of £75,000: the winner receives £50,000, and each of the five shortlisted authors receives £5,000.
The overall winner of the Wolfson History Prize 2023 will be revealed at a ceremony in central London on Monday 13 November 2023.
African and Caribbean People in Britain: A History by Hakim Adi
‘A comprehensive history of African and Caribbean people in Britain and the vital role they played in the struggle for equality. An epic narrative and a timely book.’
The World the Plague Made: The Black Death and the Rise of Europe by James Belich
‘Ambitious and meticulously researched. This book has an extraordinary range and argues that the plague created the conditions that led to modern Europe. A pertinent read in the wake of a more recent pandemic.’
The Perils of Interpreting: The Extraordinary Lives of Two Translators between Qing China and the British Empire by Henrietta Harrison
‘Global history impressively combined with engaging biography. This is the fascinating story of how the British Empire and Qing China saw each other in the 18th century, told through the lives of two interpreters.’
Vagabonds: Life on the Streets of Nineteenth Century London by Oskar Jensen
‘Evocative, personal and moving. This book uses first-hand accounts to evoke the streets of 19th-century London. Richly woven with the voices of the city’s poorest and most resilient residents.’
Resistance: The Underground War in Europe 1939-1945 by Halik Kochanski
‘Unveiling lesser-known acts of defiance, this is a remarkable history of pan-European resistance to the Nazis. Through diverse sources and captivating storytelling, it presents a compelling exploration of this critical era.’
Portable Magic: A History of Books and their Readers by Emma Smith
‘Anyone who loves books will enjoy this one. Witty and wise, it delves into the magic of books and the stories across time of the people who read and write them.’
Over the past 51 years, the annual Wolfson History Prize has championed the finest history writing by authors and historians including Simon Schama, William Dalrymple, Amanda Vickery and Clare Jackson. Previous winners of the Wolfson History Prize include Antony Beevor for Stalingrad, Antonia Fraser for The Weaker Vessel: Woman’s Lot in Seventeenth-Century England and Mary Fulbrook for Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice. The 2022 prize was won by Clare Jackson for Devil-Land: England Under Siege, 1588-1688.
The Wolfson History Prize is run and awarded by the Wolfson Foundation, an independent charity with a focus on research and education.