Any nerd who wants to read about medieval history (and I applaud you) is probably raising a questioning eyebrow right now and saying “Well, wait a minute: what CONSTITUTE the medieval period?” Okay, so that’s a great question. This is the oft-maligned Middle Ages, which Wikipedia definitively defines as the 5th to 15th centuries. So from the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 to sometime in the 1400s, no one is so picky. It used to be called the Dark Ages, which has fallen out of favor because it’s gross and false.
Learning was kept quite alive, thank you very much, especially in the East (the Islamic golden age was 8th to 14th century). While “the Middle Ages” still involves some sort of in-between, filler period, it’s a bit better than the previous title. All this to say that medieval history encompasses the end of the domination of Rome until the beginning of the Renaissance. And so many things happened!
So here is a starting list of excellent books to read on medieval history and the Middle Ages:
A distant mirror: the calamitous 14th century by Barbara W. Tuchman
What made the 14th century so calamitous? Just a little thing called the Crisis of the Late Middle Ages, starting with the Great Famine of 1315-17 and including the Black Death (you may have heard of it). Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tuchman bases the story of this ravaged century on the life of French nobleman Enguerrand de Coucy. It’s an absolute classic and a must-have for medieval stories.
A world lit only by fire: the medieval spirit and the Renaissance: portrait of an era by William Manchester
Do you like a quick glimpse of an era? Here is. The latest edition of this best-selling text is beautiful and offers a digestible version of a long and complicated period of history. Take it with a grain of salt, though: Manchester was a historian, but more importantly a historian who focused on the 20th century, and some of his interpretations have been questioned.
Saladin: The Sultan Who Defeated the Crusaders and Built an Islamic Empire by Richard Man
SALADIN. Or Salah ad-Din. The leader who stopped the Crusades in their tracks. Founder of the Abbuyid dynasty, he led his army to many victories, including the capture of Jerusalem in 1187 at the Battle of Hattin. He united seemingly disparate groups of people, demonstrated generosity and tolerance, and was an iconic figure in the Middle Ages.
Queen Isabella: Treason, Adultery and Murder in Medieval England by Alison Weir
Queen Isabella, also known as “that princess in Brave Hearthas been decried over the centuries as a heartless she-wolf. This biography examines her with a compassionate lens, examining her difficult life and what might have led her and rebel Roger Mortimer to invade their own country. Check this out if you’re looking for a read on medieval women’s history that will stick with you.
The Crusades seen by the Arabs by Amin Maalouf
Using primary Arabic sources, Maalouf tells the story of the crusades to the side the West does not often see: that of the East. It follows the story from its beginnings in the 11th century (the first crusade was launched in 1095) until the 13th century. To change your perspective and learn something you probably weren’t taught in school, check out this story.
Byzantium: the surprising life of a medieval empire by Judith Herrin
Attention to the Middle Ages tends to focus either on the Islamic world or on Christian Western Europe. But what about the Byzantines? Scholar Herrin guides you through Byzantium from the founding of Constantinople (now Istanbul) until its fall in 1453 when it was captured by the Ottomans. Readers will discover the Hagia Sophia and Byzantine art, as well as the Imperial Court. Expand your knowledge of medieval history with a stay in the Byzantine Empire.
The Adornment of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain by Maria Rosa Menocal
If you want a book that works hard to disabuse you of the idea that the medieval period was indeed a “dark age”, then this cultural exploration of medieval Spain (or “al-Andalus”) will do it. While the notion of an Andalusian paradise is debated, Menocal examines Toledo’s libraries, linguistics, famous people of the time, and Christian and Muslim kings working together.
The House of Wisdom: How Arab Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance by Jim Al-Khalili
Do you remember when I was talking about the Islamic golden age? Well here it is. Al-Khalili covers the scientific and technological advancements made by the early Arab scientists who translated the ancient Greek script and not only preserved this knowledge and wisdom, but carried it forward. With the conquest of Spain in the 12th century, they brought this knowledge west. If you are interested in medieval history around mathematics, astronomy, physics, etc., this book is for you.