Katrina Gulliver

When the local wizard was the repository of all wisdom

What do you do when one of your possessions goes missing? Search behind the sofa cushions? Ask other members of the household where they put it? If you lived in Renaissance England, there’s a chance you would have consulted a local magician for advice, especially if the lost item was of value. In the absence

Not everything in the garden is lovely

While I was reading Most Delicious Poison, I visited a herbal garden in Spain which features the plants grown by the Nasrid rulers of Granada hundreds of years ago. They cultivated myrtle for its medicinal uses and jasmine for its fragrance. How did they know of myrtle’s properties? Some ancient ancestor must have figured it

Would we welcome bears in Britain again?

In April this year, a jogger in the Italian Alps was mauled to death by a brown bear. This was reported as the first bear killing in Italy in modern times. But it probably won’t be the last. Bears have been reappearing in northern Italy as part of a rewilding project in the last two

Mass poisonings in a small town in Hungary

There is a small town in Hungary called Nagyrév. With a population of 800, it seems unlikely to make the news. But a century ago it turned out to be the centre of a murder ring, and suddenly it became the focus of news-paper reports across the world. The unlikely setting made the story. It

Don’t ask a historian what history is

E.H. Carr’s 1961 book What is History? has cast a long shadow over the discipline. I recall being assigned to read it as a teen-ager, and it has prompted multiple reconsiderations over the years — as acknowledged by the editors in their introduction to this book. Reappraisals and conferences on ‘What is History?’ are launched

The South Sea Company’s bonds were never meant to be a scam

In Money for Nothing, Thomas Levenson brings us into the story of the South Sea Bubble by writing about the development of the mathematics of odds and prediction. These advances were the beginnings of actuarial science: an understanding of risk that underpins insurance. We start with Isaac Newton and his role in attempting to stabilise

Harlequin ladybird, fly away home

I was shocked some years ago to discover, as I scratched bites on my ankles on holiday on Maui, that mosquitoes are not native to Hawaii. They first arrived in the 1820s, in barrels of water from a visiting ship. Of course, the climate was perfect for them, and they settled in very happily. But

The cruellest sea

‘Below the Forties there is no law, and below the Fifties there is no God.’ Most sailors know some version of this saying, referring to the dangerous waters more than 40º south of the equator. In Wild Sea, Joy McCann focuses on these waters with a history of the Southern Ocean. The ocean surrounds Antarctica,

The healing art

In this unusual book, part memoir, part history, Clare Hunter offers a personal meditation on the textile arts. Sewing and its associated skills have been coded as female, and the expertise required to master them has been trivialised. Hunter describes how when women demonstrate intricate embroidery or stitching, a man can be guaranteed to crack

Stitches in time | 11 October 2018

I recently read a book in which the author, describing rural life in the early 19th century, casually mentioned clothing as being ‘all made in the home’. I laughed. Anyone who has ever tried to sew anything (let alone make an entire family’s wardrobe by hand) would not be so cavalier about the amount of

When voters lose faith

If social media manipulation has influenced elections, and dark money has influenced our elected representatives, then we are already on the road to unfreedom, as Timothy Snyder, the well-known historian of Russia, argues in his new book. He sees threats to democracy in Europe and America as following the Russian model of oligarchic takeover: ‘The

Not all bunk

This book reminded me of Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland — but where Andersen thinks only Americans have lost their minds, David Andress thinks everyone has. I can’t say I disagree, being a subscriber to the Hourly Outrage, also known as Twitter. Andress refers to Brexit, Donald Trump’s election and Marine Le Pen’s rise in French politics

On with the new

I grew up knowing 1947 as the year of my father’s birth, in a black-and-white faraway time. I was told about rationing and petrol coupons, as yet another chapter in the long book of ‘how good you have it now’ — along with chilblains, measles, castor oil and walking ten miles to school neck deep

Ratings war

Planning for the ‘war of the future’ is something generals and politicians have been doing for the past 150 years. The first and second world wars were the most anticipated conflicts in history. Military strategists and popular novelists all published the wars they envisioned in the decades before. Whether in the spycraft of Erskine Childers

The fruits of imperialism

Imagine yourself a middle-class person in England in the 1870s. You sit down to drink a cup of tea while reading The Spectator. It probably doesn’t cross your mind, but in your hand you hold products from around the world. Your tea is from Ceylon, the sugar in it from Jamaica, and your porcelain cup