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Introducing the Wolfson Prize 2017 Shortlist: Part Two

Posted on 4th April 2017 by Martha Greengrass

In the second part of our guide to The Wolfson History Prize Shortlist for 2017, authors Sasha Handley, Lyndal Roper and Matthew Strickland introduce their shortlisted works exclusively for Waterstones.

Sleep in Early Modern England by Sasha Handley

My book emerged from a combined personal and professional interest in sleep. Sleep is, undoubtedly, one of my favourite activities but as a practicing historian I was also struck by how little we know about sleep’s complex history: its practice and perception. Almost every other facet of daily life, from eating, drinking and smoking to sex, shopping and sociability, has acquired its own historians. Sleep’s history, by contrast, remains shrouded in relative darkness even though it consumes almost one-third of a human’s lifetime. I wanted the book to address this absence and to encourage others to turn their gaze more intently towards sleep to uncover new and rich insights into the lives of our ancestors. During the process of research, I have learned just how important different cultural, material and environmental conditions are in shaping our approach to sleep and its daily practice.

I am delighted and flattered in equal measure to receive a nomination for this year’s Wolfson History Prize. Many of my favourite authors, from Keith Thomas and Evelyn Welch to John Brewer and Alexandra Walsham, feature in the list of previous winners. I am thrilled to follow in the footsteps of those who have done so much to shape the historical thinking of their fellow historians and the wider public.

Martin Luther by Lyndal Roper

I grew up in a new suburb in Melbourne, Australia where for five years, my father was a minister in the Presbyterian Church. We lived in a new-build manse. Nothing could be done to the house, no furnishings chosen, without the congregation’s involvement, one of whom opined that ‘you don’t need carpets to do the work of God’. I saw what it cost my parents to live family life in public. So I wanted to find out where the ideal of the pastor’s family came from, and to understand the man who had invented it, Martin Luther.

Writing the book has taken me to Wittenberg, Weimar, Wernigerode, Erfurt and many other towns in the former East Germany. Nothing about Luther was as I expected, from the mining town in which he grew up to his visceral, deeply disturbing anti-Semitism. And as a life-long feminist, I had to come to terms with Luther’s profoundly conservative views on sexual difference. Cleverness, he once said, is a garment that does not suit women; their wide hips destine them to sit at home and keep house. 

I am honoured to be short-listed for the prestigious Wolfson Prize.

Henry the Young King, 1155-1183 by Matthew Strickland

Two of the sons of Henry II, Richard the Lionheart and King John, are familiar figures, the one as a great warrior and crusading hero, the other as a scheming tyrant whose oppressive rule was finally curbed by Magna Carta. Yet their elder brother Henry, known as the Young King following his coronation in 1170 during his father’s lifetime, is all but forgotten, despite the fact that before his premature death in 1183 aged only twenty-eight,  he was the principal heir to Henry II’s great empire and had a glittering international reputation as a courtly, chivalric figure, fêted as the darling of the tournament circuit of northern France.

I became intrigued by this ‘lost Plantagenet’, and by the fact that for thirteen years, England and the Angevin lands had two kings, in theory – but not in practice - of equal authority. Why had Henry II been the first ruler since the Norman Conquest to have his son crowned while he yet lived? Why did this experiment in co-rulership go so disastrously wrong, resulting in the Young King heading a major rebellion in 1173-4 which shook his father’s rule to the core? The more I researched young Henry’s life, the more I became unconvinced by the assessment of previous historians who had dismissed him as a mere cipher, charming and handsome to be sure, but shallow, irresponsible and worse, an ungrateful son and a second Absalom. Instead, he emerges as a charismatic figure of central importance in the politics of the Angevin lands from his earliest childhood, who was groomed for kingship but even after his coronation was consistently denied real power by his father. Yet his short life was remarkable:  he had been married at the age of only five to the daughter of the king of France, brought up in the household of Thomas Becket, schooled in arms by William Marshal, the greatest knight of his age, gained glory and praise for his exploits in the tournament and, at the time of his death, was on the verge of wresting Aquitaine from his brother Richard, with whom he had a bitter rivalry. In this study,

I have sought to bring the Young King back to the centre stage of the Plantagenet world which he occupied in life, and through his career to explore the nature of kingship, rebellion and chivalric culture in the later twelfth century.

I was amazed and delighted to be shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize. I feel very honoured to have been selected.

The overall winner will be revealed at a reception at Claridge’s on Monday 15 May 2017. For more information about the Wolfson History Prize follow @Wolfsonfdn or visit http://www.wolfson.org.uk/history-prize

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