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Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

Extraordinary Popular Delusions Book CoverBy Charles Mackay
Review by Jane (History)

If you ask most history students what they like about the subject it is very likely that their answer will involve some sort of rambling (there is always rambling with history students) about the sheer volume of stuff that there is to explore in the past.

In my view, no other book expresses the eclectic nature of history better than Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. An early study of crowd psychology, each chapter focusses on a different historical “fad” or mania that took the world by storm. These range from alchemy to duels, haunted houses to murder through poisoning, prophecies to — my personal favourite — facial hair. Although at first this may not sound like the most serious of historical topics Mackay very quickly puts this idea to rest, revealing how changing contemporary politics and religion had a profound impact on the moustaches and beards men sported.

After years at school learning about the French Revolution and the American Civil War this book came as such a welcome addition. That is not to say that war and revolution are not important and interesting parts of history, I just found it so refreshing (and maybe even fun) to discover the psychology behind the weird and wonderful things that you would never come across in a classroom. After reading a chapter you are guaranteed to have discovered something new, even if it is a slightly unconventional fact about the poison of choice in the Tudor court.

The best part is that each chapter presents a drastically different topic from the one before. As there is little sense of chronology to the book you can really just choose a chapter at random depending on what sounds appealing to you. You definitely don’t have to make a huge commitment or feel guilty about not reading them all. I promise however much you read you will find something that makes you laugh or makes you want to read further into a topic, maybe even both!

In summary, this book is essentially the (slightly) more academic version of Horrible Histories. I can feel Mackay rolling in his grave at this comparison but I stand by it. Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds may not be narrated by a talking rat, but it is fun and easy to read while also interesting, enlightening, and manages to cover a lot of important staples of social and cultural history.

Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay
ISBN-10 : 149036188X
ISBN-13 : 978-1490361888

Try checking the availability of this book at your school or local library or explore second hand bookshops and websites. You may also wish to purchase from either Amazon or Blackwell’s.

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