Sinclair McKay is enthralled by superb histories that chart mankind’s flirtation with global disaster.

A daily diet of unspeakable violence makes curious historians of us all; was the world always like this? The beheadings, crucifixions and dismemberments being broadcast from the lands between Syria and Iraq are often called "medieval"; but as Peter Frankopan demonstrates in The Silk Roads (Bloomsbury $32.99), this is unfair.

There was a time, more than 1000 years ago, when people of that region were visionary in their religious tolerance, the Muslims from Arabia most insistent that devout Jews and Christians "have nothing to fear or regret".

Frankopan's breathtaking and addictively readable study - arguing that the trade routes between the Mediterranean and China, all those merchant convoys of exquisite silks and rare spices, were the true beating heart of the world, and soon will be again - inverts received wisdom. We find that early Christianity made stronger headway in the east than in Europe, with nomads getting crosses tattooed on their foreheads. And later, the Mongol forces of the wild steppes under Ogodei, the Great Khan - for all their clothes made of stitched field mice, and their habit of casually emptying their bowels "without a thought for those they were talking to" - were canny politicians as well as terrifying warriors. Thanks to mineral wealth, we will be hearing more of Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan in years to come.

The horrors of Islamic State can't help but recall the religiously authorised carnage of the Crusades. In How To Plan A Crusade (Allen Lane $70), Christopher Tyerman delves into the complex layers of desire that lay behind the fighting. There is a deeper story about the rise in Britain of both class structure and bureaucracy (in the early medieval period, scrupulous record-keeping arose for those "taking the Cross"). The geo-political tsunami of Islam's rise provoked Europe's march away from feudalism: just as theatre-going today is apparently a measure of middle-classness, so by the 13th century embarking on a crusade had become a social aspiration for bakers, blacksmiths, physicians and tailors.


Funnily enough, Geoffrey Chaucer's The Man Of Law's Tale, written in around 1386, makes mention of Syria (or "Surrye"). Chaucer himself - spy, courtier and civil servant overseeing the lucrative Wool Exchange near London's Tower - inhabited a febrile and corrupt society. In The Poet's Tale (Profile $27.99), Paul Strohm explores the world that Chaucer observed - from the Peasants' Revolt to the tyranny of Richard II. From this atmosphere of unease and economic insecurity somehow sprang Chaucer's wit and sly forbearance, as well as the English language in its modern form. Strohm's is also a thrillingly immersive portrait of 14th-century London: in his dark, slit-windowed apartments at Aldgate, Chaucer was daily deafened by the peals of innumerable church bells, the music of London.

Mary Beard's SPQR (Profile $55) is a wholly mesmerising epic. Whether analysing the creation myth of Romulus and Remus, or the development of the Roman calendar, or detailing the intense violence and rape by which the city state grew, Beard is a brilliant guide to this alien culture. Anyone who imagines they are familiar with the Romans should be prepared to think again; each chapter is rich in detail, from citizens' private letters to analyses of sanitation. Rome, in conquering the world, ushered in an era of mass migration.

"People could, as never before on this scale, make their homes, their fortunes or their graves thousands of miles away from where they were born," writes Beard.

Conversely, the idea of a global threat that respects no borders has never stopped haunting us. In Britain in the 1980s, incineration by the nuclear missiles of two rival empires seemed only a matter of time. During his first presidential term, Ronald Reagan was portrayed as a warmonger; in The End Of The Cold War (Macmillan $58.95), Robert Service presents precisely the reverse: a naturally intelligent, good-humoured, well-balanced strategist who wanted to see all threat of nuclear war removed.

The narrative tension in Service's account is extraordinary, right up until the day in 1989 when East German citizens dared to hack at the Berlin Wall. When Reagan and the equally intelligent Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev began their tentative summits in 1985, they had the firepower between them to destroy the world. How did two men from opposing ideologies talk humanity away from the precipice of destruction?

By sharp contrast, there was a madcap combination of greed and ignorance hanging over the early decades of British dominion in India, from the 18th century onwards. Ferdinand Mount has a dog in this fight, as they say: members of his family, the Lows, were among those who set about establishing this jewel in Britain's imperial diadem. And in The Tears Of The Rajas (Simon & Schuster $45.99), the Lows seem far from imperial monsters; transplanted from lowland Scotland, they are instead witnesses to monstrosity, and some harrowing episodes - the Afghan retreat and the savagery of the Indian Mutiny. Wrongdoers were lucky, Mount records, if their execution sentence was to be "blown away"; rather than a slow hanging, they were strapped to a cannon, which then fired. So comprehensively destroyed were the victims that their heads frequently shot off into the air.

The British in India - when not plundering its wealth - at least built proper railways. Back in Britain, Simon Bradley's ingenious and terrifically funny study, The Railways (Profile $55) shows how the coming of the locomotive illuminated Britain's national character. There is class conflict, sex, violence and a fabulously comprehensive exploration of the latrines, corridors and restaurant cars of trains (in the 50s, there was even a special commuter train with a mocked-up Tudor tavern).

A subject that inspires strikingly similar levels of nerdishness is the short reign of Richard III. David Horspool, having attended the recent reinterment of the kingly bones, considers the monarch's reputation in his lifetime and through subsequent ages in Richard III (Bloomsbury $45). From the princes in the tower to the grief Richard suffered at the death of his son, it is absorbing and authoritative.

It also proves that artists rather than kings are the masters of history: no amount of documentation that Horspool could ever unearth will supersede the gloating horror of Shakespeare's Richard III.

In the gripping 1606: William Shakespeare And The Year Of Lear (Faber $45), a follow-up to his 1599 (2006), James Shapiro draws parallels between James I's nervy accession and the Gunpowder Plot with Shakespeare's bleak masterpiece, King Lear, and its themes of divided kingdoms and poisoned

inheritance. London in 1606, so colourfully conveyed by Shapiro, was a city of plague and witchcraft, its king a student of demonology. It took the clear gaze of the playwright to shape the neurosis of the age into an immortal work.

It is 1215, on the other hand, that is set under Dan Jones' microscope in his wonderfully engaging Realm Divided (Head of Zeus $49.99), exploring all aspects of British life in the year of the Magna Carta: from sieges to silk, wine to mathematics.

His book is packed with moments that make you stop in your tracks. Archbishop Stephen Langton was not only crucial to the Magna Carta crisis, observes Jones, but also "spent time at the University of Paris organising the books of the Bible into the chapters by which they are still divided today".

For those of us still hazy about the reigns of George IV or King Stephen, there is always Kings And Queens (Square Peg $48) by Andrew Gimson, a fast-paced refresher with rococo detailing. Never mind Edward II's horrid demise with a red-hot poker; who knew that as an effort to understand his people, he got craftsmen to teach him how to thatch houses?

Not all history is about enduring violence.