By Danièle Cybulskie
If you’ve found yourself on Our Site, chances are you already have a deep and (hopefully) abiding love for the Middle Ages, as I do. Maybe, though, you’re just at the beginning of this love affair with the past, or you know someone who is, and you’re looking for a place to get a good overview of the period before you dive right in. In that case, here are a few books which will give you a foothold on the Middle Ages as you begin your journey.
1. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Middle Ages by Timothy C. Hall
This is definitely the simplest on the list, and it’s geared to people who work best with short nuggets of information. As the title suggests, it’s the basics, with sections literally called “The Least You Need to Know”. Still, it’s a good jumping-off point, as there are sections on major thinkers and movements. I’d recommend this book as a starter for high-school students who might be interested in the Middle Ages. Once they read a little about something that interests them, they can go from there.
2. The Medieval World: An Illustrated Atlas by National Geographic (edited by John M. Thompson)
This is a gorgeous, gorgeous book, as one expects from National Geographic. The pictures encompass medieval paintings, sculptures, books, and archaeological finds, and are accompanied by handy maps and timelines. What is also great about it is that, while it is definitely Eurocentric (like the other books on this list), it zooms out at certain points to illustrate what was going on across the world at the same time. This is a good thing for contemporary context, and also highlights medieval Europe’s place as only one piece of the world’s history. If, like me, you want a detailed, close-up look at some of the objects historians talk about, this is a good place to start.
3. Medieval Lives by Terry Jones and Alan Ereira
I’ve mentioned this book before, but it’s worth mentioning again, simply because it’s very readable and candid, and also a little sarcastic in places – everything you need in a history book. Jones and Ereira divide the book into occupations/stations in life, although sadly, there is only one entirely devoted to women: “Damsel”. Still, Medieval Lives takes down a lot of popular myths (such as the “flat Earth” myth), so it’s a good place to start learning about the Middle Ages.
4. The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century by Ian Mortimer
This is, by far, the most specific of the books on the list, simply because if you’re going to time travel, you need a definite spot to end up. The Middle Ages were not the same all over the world, and not the same from the beginning to the end of the period. Mortimer, then, picks fourteenth-century England as his landing spot, and proceeds to go into lots of detail. This is a good book to get people hooked on the Middle Ages, as it answers questions that everybody asks, like: “What did it smell like?” and “Did people bathe?” It’s laid out like a travel handbook, with sections on “What to Wear” and “Where to Stay”, and is a goldmine of cocktail conversation facts, as well as serious scholarship.
5. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
While this is not a history book, it is such a thorough look at everyday life that it is an excellent place to start learning, or to keep learning, about medieval England. Almost every history book on the period references Chaucer because Chaucer references everything going on around him. Rather than starting out with Beowulf (although it, too, is a great read), starting with Chaucer gives a budding historian a look not only at societal roles, but also at language itself (just as English was getting to be centre-stage), and humour. Because Chaucer was writing for contemporary audiences, readers can get a clear picture of what was meant to make people laugh, and also what popular views might have been on some contemporary professions. While there are a million editions of The Canterbury Tales out there, look for one with thorough footnotes – some of Chaucer’s jokes are over our heads without some context. Reading it in Middle English is best, but there’s nothing wrong with reading a modern translation, if you’re starting out.
I hope this list, from the very simple to the very thorough, gives you or someone you know a good start on the journey into the Middle Ages, and that the journey is a long, and endlessly interesting one.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist