If you’re still calling the Middle Ages the “dark ages,” I’ve got some bad news for you. You’ve been lied too. The Western medieval period was a time a flourishing art, literature, and thought. It was given then term “dark ages” by Enlightenment era thinkers to help contrast their age from others. Now there is a burgeoning group of historians who seek to return the Middle Ages to its rightful place in history, as the period when Western culture, particularly English and French culture began to gel.
For myself, I had a childhood fascination with knights and kings and queens. I remember looking in the back of my seventh-grade world history textbook and seeing the short section on the Middle Ages and getting giddy at the thought of finally learning about real knights, kings, and queens. We never got there. We spent about a semester learning about Ancient (ie. Greek, Roman) history, then another semester learning Asian history, the latter half was spent on the Middle East. I was heartbroken, although I did spend much of that summer reading age appropriate (librarian recommended) books on the samurai of Japan. But I never lost that childhood love of knights and their ladies.
As an adult, I didn’t know where to start. I searched my local library and jumped in, blindly. I had too. American classrooms don’t make room for Medieval history. In high school, we spend four year rehashing the same historical ground – American Revolution, Civil War, Progressive Era, WWII. In that order, spending fewer and fewer classroom hours with the first two and increasingly spending time with the last. American schools have made WWI into a footnote at this point.
College wasn’t any better. I took a world history class and we still spent more time with WWII in England than we did in WWI, the actual war England stakes more of their cultural identity on. You see, in America, we study world history, as long as you agree that the world began sometime around 1925.
So why should we bother with medieval history? Perspective.
As Americans we’ve grown up in a time of extreme peace and plenty, but this is the exception, not the rule. Historical perspective is a powerful thing. It can comfort you when times are hard, give hope when things are bad, and remind you that you’re standing on the shoulders of giants. The greatest lesson is a simple one: the more things change, the more they stay the same. You’ll find that the men and women who lived in the Middle Ages are more like you than you think. They lived, some of them lived greatly, some of them still have hold of our cultural conscious.
The Medieval period is an underrepresented part of the American historical diet. I have doubts that the American school system will ever change that, therefore, it falls onto the individual (as it should) to take their own education into their own hands. Within the pages of these books you may begin to see what I see, that Western Culture began to come to maturity during the Middle Ages.
This list is in no particular order.
A Distance Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century – Barbara Tuchman
This was the book I landed on when I first jumped into the pool of medieval history. Of those on the list it’s probably considered the most prestigious. As a history book it’s easy to read and that’s probably because it follows the life of a real medieval figure, Enguerrand de Coucy VII, a French knight and nobleman. There is a melancholy bent to the book, it covers the 14th century (1300-1400), in this period the Black Death would circle Europe, the Catholic Church would face her Babylonian Captivity, and the crusaders would be completely routed at Nicopolis. The book present events from a French perspective, but Tuchman ventures into England and Italy. In retrospect, Tuchman isn’t kind to her subjects, but the 14th Century was full of mediocre leadership and pointless death—so not quite dissimilar to our own time. Hence the title, Distant Mirror.
The Great Mortality – John Kelly
I can’t think of a more appropriate book to read right now. If you’re terrified of COVID-19, this book will bring you back down to earth with a heaping dose of perspective. The Black Death is a cultural touchstone, something you know of, but don’t know of. It colors our culture even now: we avoid things like the plague; it may have inspired ring-around-the-rosy; danse macabre remains a popular artistic movement; and plague doctors continue to be a standard in creepy. John Kelly writes the plague as a living, breathing beast, circling Europe like a noose. It strikes the old and the young, the rich and the poor, reminding us that Death recognizes no nationality or class, no race or religions. Death is the only true equal opportunist.
The Greatest Knight: The Life of William Marshal, the Power Behind Five English Thrones – Thomas Asbridge
History should be fun, or at least no boring. The Greatest Knight is written in a way that might be called swashbuckling. In my head, William Marshal is played by a dashing Errol Flynn, who would have brought charm and daring to the character. William Marshal is an English knight and his story is a rags to riches tale of hard work, courage, and honor. At five years old, William faced the gallows for his father’s treachery, but the King Stephan couldn’t go through with it and thus, William, the younger son of a minor noble, rose to power to become the sword and shield, friend and confidant to five Plantagenet Kings. He is a true masculine hero, the knight my childhood self longed to meet.
The First Crusade – Thomas Asbridge
It’s a testament to Thomas Asbridge that he’s on this list twice. He is an excellent writer and one of those rare, honest historians presenting more facts than opinions. He has a passion for his subject matter, particularly the Crusades, the most misrepresented period of medieval history. The First Crusade is a glimpse into the first and most successful crusade. It, perhaps without even meaning to, busts most, if not all of the myths surrounding the crusades including the pernicious lie that idle seconds sons attacked hapless Muslims for land and riches. Within the pages you’ll be introduced to heroes whose names have too long been tarnished, their courage alone entitles them to your attention.
God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades – Rodney Stark
Yeah, okay, so its not a “history” book so much as it is a case study. But it traces the sociological roots of the Crusades following a historical timeline, so I’m leaving it here. Most importantly, as a case study, it explains why and how the Crusades were undertaken. It does have an opinion, Stark is making the case that the Crusades were a response to increase pressure from the Muslim world starting with the Muslim conquest of Spain, the destruction of the Holy Sepulcher, and the fact that Muslims were in no way hapless and innocent, but a battle-hardened people just as capable as Western armies. If you read one book about the Crusades, read this one.
Robert the Bruce: King of Scots – Ronald McNair Scott
Consider this book the written sequel to Braveheart. Robert the Bruce is the kind of figure Americans ought to be studying. A man fighting for the freedom of his nation, sacrificing everything, loosing it all, and then rising up from that nothing to rule as one of the finest monarchs in Western History – is American in everything but detail. The Bruce, like Washington, faced unimaginable odds; an overwhelming army, better equipped, better paid, better fed, than his—and he still won. At one point, Robert loses his entire army, alone and lost in the highland heather, he retreats to a cave and sees a spider struggling to spin its web. When it succeeds after so many tries, he decides that the King of Scots can do less. Read it and remember the spider.
A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain – Marc Morris
Edward the First is the one-dimensional villain of Braveheart. He conquered Scotland and was nemesis to Robert the Bruce and William Wallace. But that’s only a fragment of his life. He lived adventurously and was the kind of king men followed because they really did love him, not because he granted them lavish gifts of land. He was a man of the law, refuting his father’s game of favoritism; men could approach him and hope for real justice. That doesn’t mean he was perfect, in the same way the Bruce wasn’t perfect either—no man is—but he began the tradition of English law, of heeding it, respecting it, and fulfilling it.
Marriage and Family in the Middle Ages – Frances and Joseph Geis
After a list consisting of heroes, villains, and gruesome plagues, why include a book on something so mundane? The Geis’ specialize in medieval normalcy, their books range from Everyday Life in a Medieval City to Everyday Life in a Medieval Castle to A Medieval Family: The Pastons of Fifteenth-Century England. I chose this one because it’s my favorite. Medieval people were just like us, they lived, got laid, married, had children, faced hardships, enjoyed gain, argued with their wives, fought with their husbands, disciplined their children, cried at their weddings, loved their grandkids, and died. Fair warning, the Geis’ can be dry, but the mundane normally is.