Wolfson History Prize Blog Tour 2021 – Ravenna

Its that time of year again! The winner of the Wolfson History Prize 2021 will be announced on Wednesday 9 June 2021 in a virtual ceremony – and I’m extremely proud to be back as part of the Wolfson History Prize Blog Tour for 2021.

The Wolfson History Prize

First awarded by the Wolfson Foundation in 1972, the Wolfson History Prize remains a beacon of the best historical writing being produced in the UK. It is also the most valuable non-fiction writing prize in the UK, with the winner receiving £40,000, and the shortlisted authors receiving £4,000 each. Over £1.3 million has been awarded to more than 100 historians in the prize’s 49-year history. Previous winners include notable historians such as Mary Beard, Simon Schama, Eric Hobsbawm, Amanda Vickery, Antony Beevor, Christopher Bayly, and Antonia Fraser.

Wolfson History Prize Blog Tour 2021

I’m so proud to be back for the Wolfson History Prize Blog Tour this year as this year’s shortlist is a mix of personal narratives and sweeping historical studies, with topics such as working motherhood, protection of knowledge, and forgotten narratives all reflecting the relevance of history writing to life today.

After featuring shortlisted nominee The History of The Bible on the blog last year, this year I chose to read Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe by Judith Herrin . Its a great book that uses the latest archaeological discoveries to bring to life the early Middle Ages and the dazzling cultural hub of the city of Ravenna in Northern Italy. Tracing the lives of Ravenna’s rulers and inhabitants, Herrin shows how the city became the meeting point of East and West, and the place where different cultures came together to shape Europe.

Review – Ravenna

I’m not going to lie – Ravenna isn’t the type of history book I usually go for. I have never really been drawn to Byzantium history. But I had seen A LOT of good stuff about this book on Twitter, including the fact it has already won the Duff Cooper Prize for 2020, and I decided to step outside my comfort zone and give it a go.

Ravenna is a city in modern day Northern Italy. From 402 AD until 751 AD, Ravenna was first the capital of the Western Roman Empire, then that of the immense kingdom of Theoderic the Goth and finally the centre of Byzantine power in Italy. It was THE place to be – the cultural and political hub of early medieval Europe.

I really enjoyed the fundamental angle of the book – telling the story of a transformational and ever-changing time and geography through the lens of one city, its buildings and people. I personally found this approach made the subject matter more accessible for me.  I also liked the ‘positive spin’ and reframing of the historical narrative – Ravenna argues that the fifth to eighth centuries should not be perceived as a time of decline from antiquity but  as one of great creativity – the period of ‘Early Christendom’. These were the formative centuries of Europe.

The book is comprehensive and sweeping in scope, but at the same time evidently immaculately researched and detailed. In fact, if I had to level any criticism at this book, its that it may be a bit too detailed in places for the non-academic reader such as me. I think it would also have helped if I was more familiar with the time period, as the author assumes a certain degree of knowledge in places, but that is my personal issue! But if you want a definitive and authoritative history of the fascinating city of Ravenna, this is it.

I came out the other end of this book questioning why I had never heard about this fascinating place before, and why Ravenna wasn’t more popular in terms of historical travel. The book is beautifully illustrated with specially commissioned photographs of the spectacular and jaw-dropping mosaics that still exist in the city, mostly in early Christian buildings that make up a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For me, this solid history book has well and truly put Ravenna on the map.

Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe by Judith Herrin (Allen Lane) is shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize 2021. Follow the blog tour on Twitter by searching the hashtag #WolfsonHistoryPrize and following @WolfsonHistory – or alternatively visit www.wolfsonhistoryprize.org.uk

About the Wolfson Foundation

The Wolfson Foundation (www.wolfson.org.uk) is an independent charity with a focus on research and education. Its aim is to support civil society by investing in excellent projects in science, health, heritage, humanities & the arts. Since it was established in 1955, over £1 billion (£2 billion in real terms) has been awarded to more than 14,000 projects and individuals across the UK, all on the basis of expert peer review. The Wolfson Foundation is committed to supporting history and the humanities more broadly. In the past 10 years, awards across the UK of more than £20 million have been made to support postgraduate scholarships in the humanities at universities, over £17 million to historic buildings, and some £30 million to museums and galleries.

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