Archbishop Pole by John Edwards (Ashgate, £75). As the last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Reginald Pole had a tragic destiny. Edwards has written a life that does full justice to his subject’s complex ecclesiastical and political roles, both as a Plantagenet nobleman and a cardinal. Although focusing particularly on Pole’s last years, between 1556 and 1558, when he served as Mary Tudor’s archbishop, Edwards also explores his life of exile on the Continent, his relationship with his dangerous benefactor, Henry VIII, and his wish to combine the Church’s tradition along with needful reform.
The Lost World of Byzantium by Jonathan Harris (Yale, £25). Interest in the eastern Roman Empire, once so dismissed and ignored by Western Europeans, has never been great. Harris brings the subject to life with this lively history of the empire from the days of Constantine the Great to the fall of the city that bears his name in 1453. Byzantium was at once mysterious and familiar, the home of Christian iconography but also a land where eunuchs held sway. Inhabitants were forever at risk from the Steppe horsemen who threatened them. Byzantium is now a fascinating lost civilisation.
Heading South to Teach by Kim Tolley (University of North Carolina, £20). In 1815, Susan Nye Hutchison headed across the Mason-Dixon Line. A Northern farmer’s daughter, she embarked upon a teaching career in North Carolina and Georgia which included some notable challenges to the status quo – chiefly establishing a school at which slaves were taught to read. There were challenges – from periods of poverty to coping with “an abusive wastrel” of a husband – but Hutchison’s passion and commitment to ignoring oppressive social conventions rarely dimmed.
Bede’s Temple by Conor O’Brien (OUP, £65). O’Brien explores the image of the Jewish temple in Bede’s writings. The temple is positioned as one of the keystones of Bede’s exegetical career: a rich source of meaning that allowed exploration of themes as diverse as Christ, the Church, the cosmos, the historical process and, above all, the trope of unity. No one had paid such attention to the topic before and it sat perfectly in the context of Bede’s work – the hive of scriptural reflection at Wearmouth/Jarrow.
Mors Britannica by Douglas Davies (OUP, £30). This extraordinary anthropological study analyses the ways in which modern Britons conceptualise and ritualise death. The book ranges widely – funeral forms, memorials, the disposal of bodies, the expression of grief – and acknowledges the increasingly confused cultural landscape in which we have to make meaning out of death: traditional religious devotion competes with both secularism and new forms of spirituality. The book is heavy on theory but it is crammed with data and observations that will appeal to a wide readership.