"History is written by the victors. Art is written by the people."
That's my own quote. It describes my feelings lately on history. It's a common phrase that history is written by the victors and the successful. But not only is history very one-sided, it also generally suffers from two things: 1) the blessing/curse of hindsight and 2) being written by someone who wasn't there. The result is probably not very indicative of what life was really like. These histories also have a tendency to not only present, but form opinions on the events. What inevitably occurs then is that while reading the history one acquires someone else's opinion of that moment in history rather than forming their own.
Art is completely different. Art by its very nature is connected to the life and events and morality and beliefs of a people. A novel is more than a story, a painting is more than a picture, a film is more than a movie, a song is more than music. The style of a painting relates the pain or joy or opulence or poverty of an era and tell you much more than whatever the subject actually is. The form of a story conveys the emotions in the author's voice as much as a character's dialogue. The wedding of music and lyrics combine to create powerful interpretation of the musician's lifetime. The themes of a film and the manner at which the filmmaker goes about presenting them speaks volumes of the society in which s/he dwells.
I think perhaps one of the best ways to learn about a period in history, then, is to go out and experience the art of that time. A history book might be an easy way to have it all compiled, but then it also comes pre-judged. The more novice one is in regards to art criticism and historical knowledge, the more pure a conclusion they would reach. Read a book and some poetry, wander through an art gallery, soak in the music, engage in a film. Use as many and as varied sources as you can find. Then come to your own conclusion. Are there similar themes, styles, trends that transcend the different forms of art? How does the art from two different countries of the same period compare (like "A Tale of Two Cities" vs. "Les Miserables")? How does art from your own country evolve over time? Even without knowing any of the actual historical events, you might be surprised how accurate your reconstruction is. Art is powerful. Art speaks to the soul. Art is the touch of one person on another's life.