Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Cambridge Histories

After I finished reading The Age of Agade I got curious about later Mesopotamian history: the third dynasty of Ur, the Babylonian and Assyrian empires, etc. So I looked for recent, high-quality books about these on Amazon. There didn't seem to be any, but after a few searches I noticed a volume of Cambridge Ancient History in my results. And then I remembered sitting years ago in the main room of the Central New York library - one of the grandest, most beautiful rooms I've ever been in - reading little bits of multi-volume Cambridge histories. You could take them from the shelves around the perimeter without putting in a request. And I thought "that's what I should read and review on my blog!"

These are enormous scholarly publications, probably the largest ones on their topics in English. Some of them cost hundreds of dollars per volume on Amazon, but of course people have already uploaded free scans of many of them to the Internet.

I'm not any better at following up on my plans than the average person, but right now I have a lot of enthusiasm for reading history, so I'm thinking of checking out some of these books. I don't yet know what series I'll start with. I'll decide once I finish the book I'm currently reading, which was not published by Cambridge.

I'll put up links to some of the series, starting with the ones I'm most interested in. Most Cambridge history volumes seem to be between 600 and 1000 pages long.

The Cambridge History of Japan in 6 volumes.

The Cambridge History of Science in 8 volumes.

The New Cambridge History of Islam in 6 volumes.

The Cambridge History of Christianity in 9 volumes.

The Cambridge History of Judaism in 4 volumes, from the Persian period to the late Roman-Rabbinical period. Obviously an incomplete work.

The Cambridge History of China in 15 volumes, plus a separate volume on the that country's earliest history.

The Cambridge Ancient History in 19 volumes.

The Cambridge Medieval History in 8 volumes

The New Cambridge Modern History in 13 volumes.

Some people would be tempted to read Ancient, Medieval and Modern Histories together in a grand sequence of 40 large volumes, but I wouldn't recommend that. The first 4 volumes of Cambridge Ancient History were published in the 1970s. A lot of archeological discoveries have been made since then, so this stuff is obsolete. 5 volumes were published in the 1980s, which isn't much better. I would think that once you get to classic-era Greece, most of the sources become literary, stuff that's been known for centuries. Those volumes shouldn't have aged much.

The Cambridge History of Iran in 8 volumes.

The Cambridge History of Classical Literature in 2 volumes (Greek and Latin).

The Cambridge History of Egypt in 2 volumes (640 AD to 1517 AD and 1517 AD to the end of the 20th century).

The New Cambridge History of the Bible in 4 volumes.

The Cambridge History of Scandinavia in 2 volumes.

The Cambridge History of Latin America in 12 volumes.

And so on. Here is a list of all the Cambridge series.

Pasting all these links made me think about what periods I enjoy reading about the most. I think the European Dark Ages is my favorite historical topic. It's hard to say why. Civilization reached a bottom in the 7th and early 8th centuries and then started a slow recovery. There's some mystery in that. And I like reading about the simple beginnings of something that later became great.

I love the later Middle Ages too, for reasons that I described at the end of this book review. The reason that I didn't put the Cambridge Medieval History at the top of the above list is that I already know a lot about that period. I know much less about the histories of Japan, science and the major religions, so I'm more likely to start with those.


  1. Commendable!

    There's still no substitute for mastery of historical topics than sitting down with big, fat tomes.

    What do you think about doing the Byzantine Empire?

    1. There is a Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire:

      1 volume from 2009, more than 1,200 pages, 24 chapters, 15 of which were reprinted from the Cambridge Ancient and Medieval Histories. The others are original. One reviewer complained that the chapters that were copied from the Ancient and Medieval Histories didn't focus on the Byzantine Empire as much as he would have liked:

      If you want to read and review the Cambridge Byzantine History, I'll do it too. It would be fun to compare impressions. Whenever I finish reading a book, I want to talk about it with people, and comparing reviews could work like that.

      I'm downloading a big torrent collection of Cambridge Histories now.

    2. There's also a 3-volume Cambridge History of Russia, but I'm assuming that the best Russian histories were written in Russia and in Russian.

      I don't know if there've been any comprehensive multi-volume histories after Solovyev and Klyutchevsky, but there's obviously a lot of stand-alone books dealing with specific periods and personalities, which go into much more detail than any 3-volume treatment could.