Shakespeare’s Juliet famously asks, “What’s in a name?” Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, asks what some twenty objects can tell us about the manners and mores of Shakespeare’s Restless World (Viking, $36). Ranging from a communion goblet to a silver medallion to a peddler’s trunk of miscellaneous fabrics, these artifacts offer a trove of illuminating details about Elizabethan history, politics, and culture. In a simple wool cap, MacGregor finds an icon of social stability. A nine-inch, two-prong iron fork recovered at the Rose Theater showed its owner’s continental savvy as well as the importance of concessions to a playhouse’s bottom line. Similarly, MacGregor reads a history of imperial and otherworldly powers in an obsidian “mirror” that belonged to the Aztecs before it was John Dee’s, and notices personal security issues in the rapier and dagger that were standard accessories for young men going out on the town. As he did so brilliantly in A History of the World in 100 Objects, MacGregor lets material culture tell us how much of the past we haven’t lost.
Ancient Celtic culture didn’t go away when the Romans conquered Gaul in 50 B.C.—it only settled in more firmly, waiting to be noticed. Graham Robb, the intrepid cyclist behind The Discovery of France, noticed. His attention was caught by the way hill forts and other remnants of sites sacred to the pre-Roman tribes who populated Europe seemed to be aligned with the path of the solstice sun. Coincidence? Was he reading too much into the landscape? Robb set off along the Via Heraklea for a closer look at this “Druidic blueprint”; he reports his findings in The Discovery of Middle Earth (W.W. Norton, $28.95), a book of travels, history, and many “grand and rugged tales.” Blending—as the Celts did—science and myth, legend and solid geographical fact, Robb presents the hard and soft evidence to redeem the Celts from simplistic images as a pack of bloody and barbaric tree-worshippers (though, yes, Druid is derived from dru, meaning “oak”). Along with the evidence on the ground, irrefutable testimony to Celtic engineering and mathematical skills, Robb cites the Druids’ sophisticated communication and education systems and their remarkably accurate calculation of Pi. Delving as deeply into place names as into places, Robb revives the tradition of the Irish Dindsenchas, “the lore of place names”; fascinating in itself, this facet of the book also demonstrates the vitality of old practices.
The Irish Potato Famine took the lives of thousands, caused a mass migration, and fueled a revolution. But how did it happen? John Kelly's The Graves Are Walking explores the period of the famine, the savage political climate and the brutal racism, that made such an event possible. Kelly's writing is swift and aggressive as it analyses how science was leaping forward discoveries but not practice as bacteria allowed the British to nearly destroy a people. Kelly unflinchingly examines how the Irish/ British class has shaped our world and what events as devastating as this have done to our perception of being human.