Jonathan Sumption

Jonathan Sumption is an author, medieval historian and former Supreme Court judge

Not as bad as the French

This is a long book, but its argument can be shortly stated. Anthony Julius believes that anti-Semitism is a persistent and influential theme in English history, which is all the more dangerous for being unacknowledged by most anti-Semites and concealed behind a facade of complex, subtle and hypocritical social convention. He sustains the argument over

Weighed in the balance

We sanctify some expressions, and in the process empty them of meaning. ‘Democracy’, ‘freedom’ or ‘equality’ are all used in ways that beg more questions than they answer. As Orwell pointed out, those who reject the concepts have a habit of appropriating the words. And so it is with the ‘rule of law’. At a

Tensions in the European Union

Perry Anderson was an editor of the New Left Review in the days when there was a New Left, and a pro-European Marxist at a time when this seemed a contradiction in terms. Since then, the opinions of this characteristically English rebel have been softened by years passed in the sociology departments of American universities.

Poisonous relations

‘The Axis powers and France,’ declared Marshall Pétain and Hitler at Montoire in October 1940, ‘have a common interest in the defeat of England as soon as possible.’ Why this should have been so is one of the many interesting questions to which this book offers no satisfactory answer. ‘The Axis powers and France,’ declared

The peace to end all peace

The first world war was the last major conflict to be brought to an end in the traditional fashion, with a formal treaty of peace. Or, rather, several treaties of peace, one for each of the defeated belligerents. They were all negotiated in Paris, but named after the various royal palaces in which the signing

Concentrating on sideshows

It is becoming difficult to say anything new about Churchill as a war leader. The basic facts about the conduct of allied strategy have been known for many years. Diaries and memoirs, and the occasional loose anecdote, still dribble into the public domain, adding spice but nothing fundamental to our knowledge. What remains is analysis

The human element

Writing in 1792, in the aftermath of the French revolution, Jeremy Bentham famously dismissed all talk of the rights of man as mere rhetoric. Justice, he said, was concerned with rights and duties, and they were the creatures of law. There could be no rights without law to express them, he said, no justice without

Pointless but necessary

For 20 years after the war, the Resistance was the presiding myth of French society. No one would say that now. A generation that never experienced occupation and respected no icons, began to ask awkward questions. The claim of the résistants to have made a serious contribution to the military balance was the first thing

Doomed to despotism

Khomeini’s Ghost, by Con Coughlin The Life and Death of the Shah, by Gholam Reza Afkhami The fall of the Shah of Iran at the beginning of 1979 took the world by surprise. A self-confident autocrat, supported by a large, American trained and equipped army and a ubiquitous and powerful security service, he was driven

A slow decline

The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000, by Chris Wickham This outstanding book covers what used to be called the ‘dark ages’. Publishers rarely speak of the dark ages now. It does not sell copies. But the title still encapsulates the conventional view of the period: a civilised empire destroyed

New light on a dark age

Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom, by Tom Holland Millennia, like centuries, are artificial quantities, mathematical nothings. Medieval men may not have shared our obsession with marking the years in round numbers. But they had much the same desire to bring form and structure to a history that might otherwise

The pragmatic approach

‘The Half’ is how actors refer to the half hour before their play begins, when they ready themselves, steady themselves, for their performance. It seems a bit early to be discussing how to survive the 21st century. After all, there are 92 years left in which to do it, years in which we can expect

Dearly beloved Meg

Sir Thomas More was the most dedicated of Henry VIII’s Chancellors before becoming the most famous of his victims. Sir Thomas More was the most dedicated of Henry VIII’s Chancellors before becoming the most famous of his victims. Nearly 30 years ago, John Guy wrote what is still the best biography of this fascinating and

Ruthless but ineffective

Gideon may or may not have overcome the Midianites by superior intelligence. The Book of Judges is a little obscure about that. But there is still something in the old adage that espionage is the second oldest profession. The rules of the game were set out more than six centuries ago in the advice given

Our new puppet-masters

This book is about large-scale organised crime. The Sicilian mafia was the prototype which gave its name to a whole class of criminal activity. Hence Misha Glenny’s title. But he is not much concerned with these declining mastodons of the international crime scene. The focus of the book, and its main strength, is its coverage

From one extreme to the other

Decolonisation has not been a happy experience for Africa. But nowhere in the continent has it been as disastrous as in Algeria. The country had once been the most successful of France’s colonies. Before the war, it was rich in resources and heavily subsidised by France. The educational system worked moderately well. It had produced

Triumph of the clerks

To the outside world, France has always seemed monolithic. The richest and most powerful of Europe’s nation-states until the 19th century, intellectually and artistically insular at most times, intensely nationalist throughout, the French have been fascinating neighbours but never easy ones. Yet until the revolutionary wars of the 1790s, few of its inhabitants felt truly

From outsider to insider

V. S. Naipaul is one of the more striking figures of the great Indian literary diaspora. Yet he was not born in India and has never lived there. His family were originally impoverished high-caste peasants from the region of Gorakhpur. His grandfather migrated to Trinidad as an indentured servant at the end of the 19th

Boos and hurrahs

The problem about contemporary history is that we know both too little about it and too much. The archives of the state are closed to the public for 30 years, leaving us dependent on those famous sources of myth and misinformation, political diarists, memoir writers and journalists. At the bottom end, a history of our

Coping with a continent

Has there ever been a better time to be alive than the 18th century, provided that one were rich, healthy, literate and European? One would not necessarily have to be a Duke of Newcastle or a Prince-Bishop of Würzburg, although either would be nice. Many of the things which make life agreeable for humbler mortals