Medieval European history is a vast and ever-growing field, so coming up with a top ten book-list is no small task. To make the job manageable, what follows is a “top ten” of quite a particular kind of book.
To start off with, I’m not including textbooks or popular syntheses. There are of course shelf-loads of these, and many are absolutely brilliant (and have been very influential); but listing them would be an entirely different exercise. So these books are all research monographs, which make original arguments based on the author’s own engagement with the sources.
But they’re not typical academic monographs: they’re books I think A level students (and others) might enjoy as well as profit from, and that don’t require lots of background knowledge. I’m also only including books available in English, which again rules out a great many works.
Finally, this is a very personal list: they’re books that for different reasons, and at different times, have been important for how I think about medieval European history. Every medieval historian would certainly come up with a different set, but these are books that have changed my mind. Perhaps they might change yours…
1. Janet Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: the world system, AD 1250-1350 (1991)
The book traces trade networks promoted by the Mongol empire stretching across Eurasia and which flourished up until the Black Death struck. It may not be the easiest read on this list – but this remarkably bold book was years ahead of its time in showing how global connections mattered, centuries before industrialisation.
2. Robert Bartlett, The Hanged Man. A story of miracle, memory and colonialism in the Middle Ages (2004)
A brilliant piece of detective work, based on accounts of the hanging of a Welsh man named William de Cragh around 1307. This fabulous and evocative piece of microhistory brings out the interconnections between politics, society and religion in medieval society, and does so in stylish prose.
3. Heinrich Fichtenau, Living in the Tenth Century. Mentalities and Social Orders (1991)
This is actually a translation of a book originally written in the Austrian author’s German in 1984. The translation lightened the apparatus, but preserved the freshness of the approach. The book is organised thematically, drawing on contemporary classifications and ways of thinking in medieval Europe’s perhaps most neglected century. It’s guaranteed to make you think differently not just about the tenth century, but about the Middle Ages in general.
4. John Hatcher, The Black Death: an intimate History (2008)
When the eminent economic and social historian John Hatcher retired, he set about writing a book about the Black Death that he’d long wanted to – one where he drew on imagination to fill out his own peerless knowledge of the documentary record for the impact of the Black Death on medieval England. It’s a superb book which combines empirical mastery of the sources with admirable historical sensitivity to fill out what it might have been like to live in a Suffolk village at a momentous, and terrifying, time.
5. Rodney Hilton, Bond Men Made Free. Medieval Peasant Movements and the English Rising of 1381 (1977)
A classic and still unsurpassed study of the famous Peasants Revolt, inspired by the 1960s protests that affected many UK universities, including Hilton’s Birmingham. It’s no wonder that it was re-issued as recently as 2003. There have been plenty of studies on the topic since, but this general overview still definitely repays reading.
6. Maureen Miller, Clothing The Clergy. Virtue and power in Medieval Europe, 800-1200 (2014)
In a beautifully produced, richly illustrated and superbly original piece of scholarship, Miller draws on an unusual kind of evidence – the changing clothing of priests and clerics – to illuminate (and to analyse) enormous shifts in Western European culture, from the soberly dressed origins of Christianity through to the jewel-laden papal monarchy. It’s a medieval history book that I found hard to put down.
7. R.I. Moore, War on Heresy. Faith and Power in Medieval Europe (2012)
With this book, Moore wanted to write something that might appear in airport bookshops, driving out the Dan Brown-esque nonsense that’s usually to be found there. It’s a book about the way in which a campaign to root out a perceived social problem ironically ended up generating it (a process whose modern parallels Moore does not shy away from). A future classic.
8. Eileen Power, Medieval People (1924)
A book published over 90 years ago in a list made in 2017? But Power’s Medieval People, giving potted biographies of six ordinary(ish) medieval individuals, is still fresh; and it’s no coincidence that it’s been translated into French just in the last few years. I recently set my students one of its chapters (on a Frankish peasant named Bodo), and in an end of year survey, they described it as one of the most memorable things they’d read at university. Find out for yourself (it’s so old, it’s out of copyright!).
9. Jean-Claude Schmitt, Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and Dead in Medieval Society (1999)
Modern society is, generally speaking, uncomfortable with death. But in this wonderful book, originally published in French in 1994, Schmitt shows how people in medieval society thought about matters differently – and how ghosts were essentially a problem of people who refused to be forgotten. A modern must-read of cultural history.
10. Christopher Tyerman, How to Plan A Crusade. Reason and Religious War in the High Middle Ages (2015)
It’s tempting to see the Middle Ages as irrational – and there’s a long tradition of doing exactly that. But in this book, Tyerman shows how reason could often be harnessed towards ends that seem to us deeply unreasonable, in this case holy war. Behind all the ideology was, in fact, a great deal of very practical organisation: and tracking this down shows a very different side to the period.
Charles West lectures in early medieval history at the Department of History at Sheffield. You can follow him Twitter @Pseudo_Isidore.
Image: Medieval text written by Alexander Nequam, 1157-1217, abbot of Cirencester, given to Jesus College [via Flickr]
Our “Best Books” feature asks a historian to recommend the most important books to read in order to get started in their subject area. We think these occasional posts will be of interest to a wide variety of readers, but perhaps especially useful to school teachers and A-level students who are looking for the logical place to start with a new topic. All of these blogs will appear here, as they’re posted.