Iain Pears: An Instance of the Fingerpost (1998).
This murder mystery is set in Oxford during the 1660s and combines four successive but conflicting narratives. Along the way we are introduced to the foreign intrigues and the scientific advances of the day, in which the discover (and dangers) of blood transfusions is one of the more vital. The title comes from an observation of Francis Bacon about the power of crucial clues or "fingerposts" (Wegweiser). The historical details, including many actual seventeenth-century figures, are very well done. This is a novel of ideas in which the basic mystery is the very nature of truth itself. My wife and I read it aloud to each other with mounting pleasure.
Govind Sreenivasan: The Peasants of Ottobeuren, 1487-1726: A Rural
Society in Early Modern Europe (2004, paperback 2007).
This is social history of a very high order. Sreenivasan examines the question of economic change over 250 years, a time when agricultural technology did not change much but when the structural conditions of life and organization changed dramatically. Based on the deep records of the Benedictine monastery in Upper Swabia, the book follows the marriages, births, and economic relations of villagers as they coped with the devastation of the Thirty Years' War and rearranged their lives in a more commercial direction. The author succeeds brilliantly in breathing life into these records.
Constantin Fasolt: The Limits of History (2004).
Fasolt argues that the very practice of modern history is political at its core, relying upon a few assumptions (such as the sharp distinction of past from present) that serve (so he argues) as a protection of our freedom and agency, our ability and obligation to make changes. The book places Hermann Conring (1606-1681), a polymath professor at Helmstedt, at the center. In his political histories, Conring argued that the German empire was not the successor to the Roman empire and was, therefore no longer subject to Roman law or a Roman emperor. Fasolt argues that in drawing this conclusion, Conring revealed the political assumptions that underlie all the various forms of modern history. Here is philosophy of history, teaching by examples, of a very high order.
Isabel V. Hull: Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the
Practices of War in Imperial Germany (2005, paperback 2006).
In this book Hull argues that the peculiarly brutal tactics of the German imperial army during World War I had their origins in the disastrous and genocidal campaign of the German army against Herero rebels in Southwest Africa. Because of the German imperial constitution, the German military operated without any serious check >from civil authorities, and as a result, the army developed an organizational and military culture that aimed at the all-out destruction of enemies, including civilians. In pursuit of a crushing victory and in appealing in 1918 for a suicidal "Endkampf," the German High Command lost sight of political objectives. In addition to being an enlightening history, Hull's book has implications for today.