ASK A HISTORIAN – Suggested Reading & Select Bibliography


If you’ve enjoyed this book, and you’d like to know more about the subjects covered, here are some reading recommendations you might like. I’ve tried to prioritise things which are affordable, accessibly written, and available without a university library login, but sometimes the only sources I consulted were academic journal articles or PhD theses. Happy reading!


  1. Did Anne Boleyn Have Three Nipples? My History Teacher Said This Was Used As Evidence Of Witchcraft Against Her At Her Trial
  • Stephanie Russo, The Afterlife of Anne Boleyn: Representations of Anne Boleyn in Fiction and on the Screen
  • Susan Bordo, The Creation of Anne Boleyn: In Search of the Tudors’ Most Notorious Queen

 2. Is It True That A Dead Pope Was Put On Trial?

  • John Julius Norwich, The Popes: A History
  • Chris Wickham, Medieval Rome: Stability and Crisis of a City, 900–1150 (this book is more scholarly in tone)
  1. Who Was The Richest Person That Ever Lived And What Made Him Or Her So Rich? 
  • John Kampfner, The Rich: From Slaves to Super-Yachts: A 2,000-Year History (this is more of a satirical, journalistic sweep through the story of modern oligarchs and how they compare to History’s wealthiest people, but it has some enjoyable stories)
  • Modern biographies of Mansa Musa tend to be a bit sensationalist, and repeat debunked myths, so may I instead recommend François-Xavier Fauvelle’s book The Golden Rhinoceros: Histories of the African Middle Ages which is very readable
  • Greg Steinmetz, The Richest Man Who Ever Lived: The Life and Times of Jacob Fugger
  • Philip Beresford & William D. Rubinstein, The Richest of the Rich: The Wealthiest 250 People in Britain since 1066this is a little dated now, but it was compiled by a History professor and the editor of the ‘Sunday Times Rich List’.
  1. Are You Fed Up With People Saying “Atlantis Proves Aliens Are Real”?
  • Ronald H. Fritze, Invented Knowledge: False History, Fake Science and Pseudo-religions
  • Stephen P. Kershaw, A Brief History of Atlantis: Plato’s Ideal State



  1. When was the first joke book written and were there any funny ones in it?
  • Mary Beard, Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up
  • Jim Holt, Stop Me If You’ve Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes

      6. When was the first Monday?

  • Eviatar Zerubavel, The Seven Day Circle: The History and Meaning of the Weekthis is scholarly stuff, but interesting 
  1. What conditions did the Windrush generation meet when they arrived in the UK?
  • David Olusoga, Black and British: A Forgotten History
  • Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People In Britain
  • Amelia Gentleman, The Windrush Betrayal
  1. When did birthdays start being a thing people celebrated or even remembered?
  • Katheryn Argentsinger, ‘Birthday Rituals: Friends and Patrons in Roman Poetry and Cult’ in Classical Antiquity, Oct., 1992, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Oct., 1992) – sorry, properly academic, this one!


  1. How Did Women Manage Their Periods Before The 20th Century?
  • Elissa Stein, Susan Kim, Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation
  • Sara Read, Menstruation and the Female Body in Early Modern England – an academic book, and pricey too, but really interesting
  • Look up Professor Helen King for lots of interesting work on ancient ideas of medicine and women’s medicine – she blogs and broadcasts regularly, even if her academic writing is harder to access
  1. Has Hay-Fever Always Been An Allergy, Or Do We Only Suffer From It Now That We Live In Cities?
  • Mark Jackson, Allergy: The History of a Modern Malady
  1. Did European People Really Eat Ground-Up Mummies?
  • Richard Sugg, Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires, The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians
  1. What Is The Strangest (And On The Surface Most Incredulous) Medical Procedure That Turned Out To Be Medically Sound?
  • Charles G. Gross, A Hole in the Head: More Tales in the History of Neuroscience
  • Harold Ellis, A Brief History of Surgery
  1. 13. Apart From The Modern Age, In Which Period In History Would We Have Been Best Able To Deal With A Zombie Causing Virus?
  • Neil Price, The Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings


  1. Who Was the First Vegetarian?
  • Colin Spencer, Vegetarianism: A History
  1. How Old Is Curry?
  • Lizzie Collingham, Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors
  • Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Exotic England: The Making of a Curious Nation

 Who Invented Meringue and Why?

  • Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food

 How Did Early Humans Discover How to Make Bread?

  • William Rubel, Bread: A Global History


  1. I’m A Zoologist And We Like Dinosaurs A LOT. But These Are ‘Prehistoric’. So, When Did ‘History’ Begin?
  • Chris Gosden, Prehistory: A Very Short Introduction
  • H. Carr, What Is History?a definitive classic, but a little dry
  • Helen Carr & Suzannah Lipscomb (editors), What Is History Now? – a new book featuring thoughtful essays from lots of eminent public historians
  1. Who Names Historical Periods? And What Will Future Historians Call Us, Given That ‘Elizabethan’ Is Already Taken?
  • Helen Carr & Suzannah Lipscomb (editors), What Is History Now? – a new book featuring thoughtful essays from lots of eminent public historians
  • Jacques Le Goff, Must We Divide History Into Periods?

    20. What Are Some Of The Greatest ‘Lost Texts’ From History That We Know Existed, But Haven’t Survived?

  • Stuart Kelly, The Book of Lost Books, An Incomplete History of All the Great Books You Will Never Read 
  1. What’s Your Favourite Historical “What If?” – Asked by Dave
  • Mark Millar, Superman: Red Sona classic comic book, asking what would have happened if Superman had crash-landed in Soviet Ukraine instead?
  • Catherine Gallagher, Telling It Like It Wasn’t: Counterfactual Imagination in History and Fiction
  • Richard J. Evans, Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History – not the easiest to read, but Evans is a powerful thinker


  1. Why is the Devil a goat?
  • Robert Munchembled, A History of the Devil: From the Middle Ages to the Present

 23. When and Why did we Start Keeping Hamsters as Pets?

  • Michael R. Murphy, ‘History of Syrian Golden Hamster’, inI. Siegel, The Hamster: Reproduction and Behaviour
  1. How Much Horse Faeces And Urine Was Created Per Day In London During The Reign Of Henry VIII, And What Was Done With It All?
  •  Peter Edwards, The Horse Trade of Tudor and Stuart England
  • Leona J Skelton, Sanitation in Urban Britain, 1560-1700
  • Hannah Velten, Beastly London: A History of Animals in the City

 25. When and where were seeds first sold in packets, and by whom? What did people use before then?

  • Roderick Floud, An Economic History of the English Garden
  • Peter Frankopan, The Silk Roads
  • Amy Bess Williams Miller, Shaker Herbs: A History and a Compendium
  • Thomas J. Mickey, America’s Romance with the English Garden
  • Malcolm Thick, ‘Garden seeds in England before the late eighteenth century – II, The Trade in Seeds to 1760’ 
  1. Are there any trees in history that have had a big impact/funny stories? –
  • Simon Wills, A History of Trees
  • Jonathan Drori, Around The World in 80 Trees


  1. What are some of the strangest qualities ever considered signs of great beauty and why?
  • Gretchen E. Henderson, Ugliness, A Cultural History
  • Umberto Eco, On Beauty: A History of a Western Idea – written by one of the great intellectuals of the 20th century, it’s not an easy read but it is fascinating
  • Rebecca M. Herzig, Plucked: A History of Hair Removal 
  1. Why do Greek statues have small penises?
  • David M. Friedman, A Mind of its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis
  • Paul Chrystal, In Bed with the Ancient Greeks
  1. When did high heels come into fashion and why are they found mainly on women’s shoes?
  • Elizabeth Semmelhack, Shoes: The Meaning of Style 
  1. Which beauty treatment ended up becoming the most dangerous or deadly?
  • Sarah Jane Downing, Beauty and Cosmetics – 1550 to 1950
  • Elizabeth Haiken, Venus Envy: A History of Cosmetic Surgery
  • Sander L. Gilman, Making the Body Beautiful: A Cultural History of Aesthetic Surgery


  1. Who Invented Maths?
  • John Stillwell, Mathematics and Its History: A Concise Edition
  • Eleanor Robson and Jacqueline Stedall (eds), The Oxford Handbook of the History of Mathematics – pretty academic stuff, this…
  • This is a great website:
  • You may also enjoy the writing of Alex Bellos, who has the knack for making maths lively for the uninitiated

      32. When were mirrors invented and did people know what they looked like before then?

  • Mark Pendergrast, Mirror Mirror, A History of the Human Love Affair with Reflection
  • Sabine Melchior-Bonnet, The Mirror: A History 
  1. Who first had the idea of actually going to the moon or another planet? Did they have any idea how? 
  • Barbara J. Shapiro, John Wilkins, 1614-72an old book that you might need to get second hand, but it’s a good study of his ideas
  • John Wilkins, A discourse concerning a new world & another planet in 2 bookes you can read this online 
  1. How can you tell that the earliest Stone Age tools are actually tools, and not just rocks?
  •  John C. Whittaker, Flintknapping: Making and Understanding Stone Tools


  1. China is massive. If the Emperor died, or a new law was passed, how long did it take for news to reach everyone? 
  • Mark Edward Lewis & Timothy Brook, China’s Cosmopolitan Empire (History of Imperial China): The Tang Dynasty
  • Timothy Brook, ‘Communications and Commerce’ in The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 8: The Ming Dynasty, Part 2: 1368-1644 ) Denis C. Twitchett, Frederick W. Mote) 
  1. Did Genghis Khan plant trees wherever he went?
  • Peter Frankopan, The Silk Roads
  • John Man, The Mongol Empire: Genghis Khan, his heirs and the founding of modern China
  1. Why is Italy called Italy?
  • Vincent Cronin, Italy: A History
  • Charles L. Killinger, The History of Italy
  • David Gilmour, The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, its Regions and their Peoples 
  1. How did the modern boundaries of African nations come to be?
  • Paul Nugent, Boundaries, Communities and State-Making in West Africa – a chunky academic publication, but the most up-to-date scholarship
  • Steven Press, Rogue Empires: Conmen and Contracts in Europe’s Scramble for Africa – a bit too reliant on the European sources and perspective, but worth a read
  • See also academic articles by Camille Lefebvre and Anthony Asiwaju


  1. Why Did the Ashanti People Keep a Golden Stool? – Asked by Nana Poku
  • D. McLeod, The Asanteout of print and a bit dated, but worth a look
  • My BBC podcast You’re Dead To Me has an episode about the Asante featuring the museum curator and art historian Dr Gus Casely-Hayford and the British-Ghanaian comedian Sophie Duker
  • You can see beautiful examples of Asante stools in the online collections of many major museums 
  1. Why are there so many penises shown on the Bayeux Tapestry, although mainly for horses? – Asked by Pat 
  • David Musgrove & Michael Lewis, The Story of the Bayeux Tapestry: Unravelling the Norman Conquest
  • Carola Hicks, The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiece 
  1. What is the least consequential, but most famous battle that’s entered the public consciousness? — Asked by Iain
  •  Anne Curry, Agincourt: A New History
  • Juliet Barker, Agincourt: The King, the Campaign, the Battle
  • Stephen Cooper, Agincourt, Myth and Reality 1415-2015 
  1. A boyhood question to which I never received a satisfactory answer… How did knights in full armour satisfy their need to go to the toilet? 
  • Christopher Gravett & Chris McNab, The Medieval Knight – suitable for younger readers too
  • Donald Larocca, How to Read European Armor (Metropolitan Museum of Art) – an art historian’s guide to the history of how armour evolved


  1. When was sign language first used in the UK, and when was the first hearing aid created? – Asked by Danalar
  • Gerald Shea, The Language of Light, A History of Silent Voices
  • Jaipreet Virdi, Medicalizing Deafness: Aural Surgery in Victorian Britain
  • Katie Booth, The Invention of Miracles: Language, Power, and Alexander Graham Bell’s Quest to End Deafness
  • Marc Marschark and Patricia Elizabeth Spencer (Edited), The Oxford Handbook of Deaf Studies, Language, and Education 
  1. How did empires from different continents communicate? Were there translators? – Asked by Thomas

·      Frances Karttunen, Between Worlds: Interpreters, Guides, and Survivors

·      Ruth Rowland, Interpreters as Diplomats: A Diplomatic History of the Role of Interpreters in World Politics

  • Lucas Christopoulos, ‘Hellenes and Romans in Ancient China’, Sino-Platonic Papers, Number 230, August 2012, pp. 44
  • Rachel Mairs. “‘TRANSLATOR, TRADITOR’: THE INTERPRETER AS TRAITOR IN CLASSICAL TRADITION.” Greece & Rome, vol. 58, no. 1, 2011
  • Kayoko Takeda & Jesus Baigorri-Jalón (editors), New Insights in the History of Interpreting


  1. Where do names for places in other languages come from? For example, London vs Londres, Munich vs München – is there an official system in place? 
  • John Everett-Heath, Place Names of the World: Historical Context, Meanings and Changes
  •  Adrian Room, Placenames of the World: Origins and Meanings of the Names for 6,600 Countries, Cities, Territories, Natural Features, and Historic Sites 
  1. How do we know what people’s accents and languages sounded like in the past?
  • Melvyn Bragg, The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language
  • David Crystal, The Oxford Dictionary of Original Shakespearean Pronunciation
  • Joshua C. Kendall, The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture
  • Sidney Allen, Vox Latina 2nd ed: A Guide to the Pronunciation of Classical Latin


  1. Which popular historical films are the most accurate and do you get annoyed when you know how wrong they’ve got something?
  • Alex von Tunzelmann, Reel History: The World According to the Movies 
  1. What did the Flintstones get right about the Stone Age?
  • Rebecca Wragg Sykes, Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art
  • Roland Ennos, The Wood Age: How One Material Shaped The Whole Of Human History
  • Francis Pryor, Scenes from Prehistoric Life: From the Ice Age to the Coming of the Romans: One Million Years of Life in the British Isles 
  1. Why do we care so much about the Tudors in England? Asked by Nick 
  • Cliff Davies, ‘Is Tudor England a myth?’, University of Oxford, 

  • Basil Glynn ‘The Tudors’ in The British Monarchy on Screen, (ed. Mandy Merck)


  1. Which people from history would you hire for an Ocean’s Eleven-style heist?
  • Henry ‘Box’ Brown, Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown
  • Simon Sebag Montefiore, Young Stalin
  • Maria Rosa Menocal, The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain
  • Joseph Needham, Heavenly Clockwork: The Great Astronomical Clocks of Medieval China – an old book in reprint, rather dated but full of fascinating technical info
  • Bennetta Jules-Rosette, Josephine Baker in Art and Life: The Icon and the Image – there are countless books about this extraordinary woman, but they are all unreliable. This is a better attempt to analyse her life and how she portrayed herself
  • An essay on Mary Jane Richards (Mary Bowser) by the novelist who wrote about her
  • Michael Keevak, The Pretended Asian: George Psalmanazar’s Eighteenth-century Formosan Hoax
  • Russell Braddon, Nancy Wake: World War Two’s Most Rebellious Spy