Wolfson History Prize 2023 shortlist announced

05 September 2023
The six-book shortlist explores themes that are relevant to current world events, spanning centuries and continents, political and personal histories.

Shining a light on books that 'combine excellence in research with readability for a general audience', the Wolfson History Prize is now in its 51st year. Billed as 'the most valuable history writing prize in the UK', each year's awards give out a total of £75,000: the winner receives £50,000, and each of the five shortlisted authors receives £5,000. 

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The overall winner of the Wolfson History Prize 2023 will be revealed at a ceremony in central London on Monday 13 November 2023.

The 2023 shortlist

Spanning centuries and continents, political and personal histories, the Wolfson History Prize 2023 shortlist takes readers from the plague-ridden streets of fourteenth-century Europe to the densely populated alleyways of Dickensian London, travels to the court of eighteenth-century China and the underground resistance movements of Nazi-occupied Europe, and journeys through the history of African and Caribbean people in Britain, via the history of the book itself.

The books shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize 2023 are:

  • African and Caribbean People in Britain: A History by Hakim Adi (Allen Lane)
  • The World the Plague Made: The Black Death and the Rise of Europe by James Belich (Princeton University Press)
  • The Perils of Interpreting: The Extraordinary Lives of Two Translators between Qing China and the British Empire by Henrietta Harrison (Princeton University Press)
  • Resistance: The Underground War in Europe 1939-1945 by Halik Kochanski (Allen Lane)
  • Vagabonds: Life on the Streets of Nineteenth Century London by Oskar Jensen (Duckworth Books)
  • Portable Magic: A History of Books and their Readers by Emma Smith (Allen Lane)

A major new history that transforms understandings of Britain's past, African and Caribbean People in Britain: A History by Hakim Adi charts a course through British history with an unobscured view of the actions of African and Caribbean people. Starting with the Libyan legionaries who patrolled Hadrian's Wall and the 'Black Tudors' who served in the land's most eminent households, the book spans the long history of African and Caribbean people in Britain, while highlighting their many vital contributions to our collective achievements like universal suffrage, victory over fascism and the NHS.

An exciting history of books and their power over us, Portable Magic: A History of Books and their Readers by Emma Smith explores the unexpected and unseen consequences of our love affair with books. Portable Magic dismantles the myth that print began with Gutenberg, reveals how our reading habits have been shaped by American soldiers, and proposes a new definition of a 'classic'. It illuminates the ways in which our relationship with books is more reciprocal - and more turbulent - than we tend to imagine.

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Resistance: The Underground War in Europe, 1939-45 by Halik Kochanski is a sweeping, original history of occupation and resistance in war-torn Europe. It is the first English-language history of resistance to study the whole of Europe, from the Balkans to Norway, uncovering powerful, human stories of resistors who have often been overlooked, such as Jewish and female fighters. Resistance delves into the diverse strategies employed by ordinary people as they challenged occupying forces, revealing their remarkable achievements and the formidable challenges they faced amid oppression.

The Perils of Interpreting by Henrietta Harrison is an impressive new history of China's relations with the West, told through the lives of two language interpreters in the eighteenth century. Uncovering the lives of two overlooked figures at the Qing court, The Perils of Interpreting offers an empathic argument for cross-cultural understanding in a connected world.

The World the Plague Made: The Black Death and the Rise of Europe by James Belich sheds new light on one of history's greatest paradoxes: that the human tragedy of the plague brought about  cultural and economic renewal on a scale never before witnessed. The World the Plague Made is a panoramic history of the global expansion of Europe, and how this was intertwined with other peoples throughout the world. 

A compelling, moving and unexpected portrait of London's poor from BBC New Generation Thinker Oskar Jensen, Vagabonds: Life on the Streets of Nineteenth-century London brings the Dickensian city vividly to life. From beggars and thieves to musicians and missionaries, porters and hawkers to sex workers and street criers, Jensen unites original research, first-hand accounts and testimonies to tell their stories in their own words.

Wolfson History Prize judges

Celebrated historians Mary Beard and Sudhir Hazareesingh joined the judging panel this year, working alongside fellow judges Richard Evans, Carole Hillenbrand, Diarmaid MacCulloch, and chair David Cannadine to narrow down the very best history writing in the UK from the past year to a shortlist of six books, from which one winner will be selected. 

David Cannadine, Chair of the Wolfson History Prize judges said: 'This year's shortlist demonstrates the enduring power of history writing to shed light on the past, and also to bring new perspectives, empathy and nuance to our understanding of the present. The six titles cover a wide range of themes, from inequality to war and occupation and the effect of previous pandemics. Each book is commended because it is beautifully crafted, grounded in meticulous research and full of fascinating stories of people and places.'

For further information on the prize, visit the Wolfson History Prize website.

(Report and image copyright Wolfson History Prize)