Books That Changed History

  • Christopher Martin

Books That Changed the World, by Fr Michael Collins and others, published by Dorling Kindersley

This book, authored by lead contributor Fr Michael Collins and four others, is Dorling Kindersley's tribute to the book through all its history, ranging from The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Dead to Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung. The former, on papyrus scrolls stretching to 130 feet and six to eight inches deep, are funerary texts in the form of magical and religious spells, and the latter is a pocket size volume 'vying with Bible as the bestselling book of all time', and used by the Communist Party in the 1960s to influence popular opinion and unify the people.

Each of the 80 main books is treated as a physical object, through photographs or illustrations, with an indication of scale, colouring and finish. The chronological ordering is broken down into five periods, each with a short account of supporting titles.

The Book of Kells, presenting the four Gospels, produced on vellum by Irish Columban monks around 800, represents a high point in illuminated manuscripts, in its rich colouring, complexity, symbolism and abstraction. Against that, The Gospels of Henry the Lion, on parchment, coming c1188, seems more quirky and personal. It includes depiction of the never-crowned Henry, and the figure of Archbishop Becket, a gesture of atonement, for Henry II, Henry's father-in-law, was implicated in Becket's murder. Les Très Riches heures du Duc de Berry created by the Limbourg Brothers on vellum c1412-16 was a fine illuminated production, comprising of prayers, Bible verses, and psalms for lay people, 'spanning the divide between the reading culture of books and the viewing culture of visual art'. In the same century the Gutenberg Bible (1455) appears, with versions in both paper and vellum, using mass produced movable type. By 1500, there were 1000 Gutenberg presses operating across western Europe, creating a book revolution.

The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) by Reginald Scot, was considered heretical when published, though Scot was a sceptic belonging to the Church of England and affiliated to a sect called the Family of Love. Illustrated with woodcuts, the book may have influenced Shakespeare's portrayal of the witches in Macbeth. There are chapters concerned with magic tricks. Both conjuring and witchcraft were forbidden by Henry VIII's law of 1542. A counterweight came in the form of the royally-commissioned King James Bible printed in 1611, the widest distributed book ever, with a translation committee of 50 and six billion copies produced, making it one of the world's most influential religious texts. The original was massive, with its words using Gothic and Roman typefaces clearly presented.

Poet and artist William Blake made his engraved and hand-printed Songs of Innocence and of Experience which he published in 1794. He was a committed Christian, but questioned society and the role of the church, was anti-organised religion, and a political radical. He remains highly influential in his poetry and art. In the end Blake was not financially successful, but David Roberts, who produced his own massive portfolio of detailed lithographs The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea and Nubia in a number of editions from 1842 onwards, was a great success with the Victorian public, not least with Queen Victoria herself, the fruit of almost a year of Roberts sketching in the Holy Land.

Das Kapital by Karl Marx (1867) sprawled over nearly 3000 pages in 3 volumes. This Marx laboured on alone. His lifelong friend Friedrich Engels would edit later editions.. 'By the mid 20th century, half the world lived in self-proclaimed Marxist states'. The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer Newly Imprinted, popularly known as The Kelmscott Chaucer was produced by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones (who claimed it will be 'like a pocket cathedral'). In 1896.

Among children's books making an impact in the late 1800s and early 1900s were Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Frank L Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Grimm's Fairy Tales (illustrated by Arthur Rackham) and The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter. Illustrations and selected visual details from these add to this book's appeal.

Books That Changed History is very attractive, wide-ranging, and accessable.

Read more about Fr Michael Collins:

Christopher Martin is a poet and art historian who is currently researching artists and pacifism during the First World War.

Tags: Books, Books That Changed History, Christopher Martin

We Need Your Support

ICN aims to provide speedy and accurate news coverage of all subjects of interest to Catholics and the wider Christian community. As our audience increases - so do our costs. We need your help to continue this work.

Please support our journalism by donating today.