Rather than a full shadow panel who all read all the books, and not entirely like a classic blog tour where lots of people read the same book, I’ve been honoured to take part in the blog tour celebrating the shortlist of the Wolfson Prize, which awards £40,000 to the best new work of non-fiction in the UK. Here’s some information on the prize:

From a major new biography of Oscar Wilde, to an entirely fresh take on Queen Victoria as Empress of India, and from a history of the human impact of the Holocaust, to an exploration of the role of birds in the Ancient World, the books shortlisted for the most prestigious history prize, and most valuable non-fiction prize in the UK, each combine excellence in historical research with readability.

The Wolfson History Prize 2019 shortlist is: Building Anglo-Saxon England by John Blair, Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice by Mary Fulbrook, Trading in War: London’s Maritime World in the Age of Cook and Nelson by Margarette Lincoln, Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words by Jeremy Mynott, Oscar: A Life by Matthew Sturgis, and Empress: Queen Victoria and India by Miles Taylor

… and you can find out more here.

I was sent a lovely hardback copy of Jeremy Mynott’s “Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words”, published by Oxford University Press, and here I am, next up on the blog tour (see below my review for a list of all the participants and their books – I’ve been sharing all the reviews on Twitter through the week).

Jeremy Mynott – “Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words”

“Confiding” is a term used in birdwatching for the behaviour of a bird which will allow the approach of humans to observe it. That blue tit blithely feeding off the peanut hanger as you potter about on the patio, the robin on your fork handle or the heron you run past on the canal are all confiding. I can extend the metaphor to this book, in which an acknowledged expert on the relationship between humans and birds takes a gentle, close and approachable look at how birds were seen, experienced and written about by the Greeks and Romans. Packed full of illustrations and quotations, if it doesn’t have the hard-hitting nature of some of the books on the list, it’s hugely engaging and teaches us an awful lot about birds, humanity and the ancients, speaking perhaps more softly than some, with a wry smile and a little joke here and there.

Mynott is both a classical scholar and a writer on birds, and his love and deep knowledge of both areas shine through in this fascinating and rather wonderful book. From the preface, where he describes the variety of birds to be found in Athens and Rome to the epilogue, which pulls together feelings on the environment ancient and modern and shows how our experiences of nature are both different and similar, we follow a well-ordered and clear path through an exploration of the way birds were markers of the seasons, time and weather; their exploitation as a natural resource to farm and eat; birds as pets and entertainment (including a flamingo zoo!); their examination as the objects of wonder and then science; their appearance as symbols and in dreams; and their role as messengers between people and the spiritual dimension. He states early on that his aim is

using birds as a prism through which to explore both the similarities and the often surprising differences between early conceptions of the natural world and our own. (p. vi)

and he also describes an aim to contribute to the cultural history of birds and to introduce those not experienced in the classics to this time in Western history. I think he achieves these aims very well.

Through the book, references and often substantial quotations are pulled from over 100 classical authors, all of which have been translated anew by the author for the book. The structure is really clear, although he’s at pains to point out that there are other ways to structure the material and, indeed, other material that could be brought in.

Mynott is also at pains to ensure that we don’t map our modern views and attitudes directly onto those of the Greeks and Romans in a like-for-like way, as this is impossible. He starts off by explaining the Greeks were the first to describe the concept of nature, but is clear this doesn’t mean quite the same as our conception. He is academic, precise and intelligent, but never talks over the heads of his readers – although there is much for anyone with an interest in trying to work out which bird is being referred to where or in the struggles of translation. One example of the former will suffice – he spends quite a lot of time trying to work out what actual species Catullus’ girlfriend Lesbia’s “sparrow” actually was. He is clear that the Ancients probably had a closer relationship to nature than many of us do, with so many species and their behaviours being mentioned suggesting that audiences were familiar with a wide range of birds.

He is also careful to note that what we  might see as superstition or over-reliance on augury and religion is not necessarily so different from our need to wear certain clothes and engage in particular behaviours on specific days of the year, and there are some lovely examples of bird-related folk sayings that are still in use today – and probably “believed” to the same degree. Arguments for the value of the natural world are examined in their context and also against modern ideas.

The author never seems to mind a mystery – in fact, he highlights and embraces them. Why is the sport of falconry hardly mentioned in Ancient texts, and why are butterflies almost never written about, even though both appear in illustrations? Mynott examines the various theories put forward but accepts that there is no actual answer, and I like him even more for that. He is definitely a guide rather than a lecturer.

The end of the book holds one more smile for the avid birdwatcher. A lovely illustration of a confiding bird in an identifiable plant is described as a “little brown job” whose actual species cannot be identified. A lovely little in-joke, but again benign and inclusive.

Thank you to Ben from Midas PR for arranging for a copy of the book to be sent to me for an honest review.