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Feel free to go medieval on this question
May 18, 2014 3:57 PM   Subscribe

I am seeking recommendations of fiiction set in medieval times - but, I'm not interested in mysteries, stories focusing on kings/queens/knights/battles etc, or fantasy. Rather, I'm looking for accurate depictions of people living in that era-- their lives, struggles, adventures. I've read the Ken Follett trilogy and enjoyed the first 1.5 books. Really liked Noah Gordon's The Physician. What are you favorites?
posted by ecorrocio to Media & Arts (33 answers total) 85 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm sorry to suggest something that is non fiction but I wanted to learn about the day to day living of the period and got this on audio book -The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century.

I am not a big fan of audio book but I loved this - and loved it as an audio book.

And interestingly, Canterbury Tales is referenced often and probably a great companion book.
posted by beccaj at 4:10 PM on May 18 [5 favorites]


If you like science fiction-esque stories you might like Connie Willis's Doomsday Book. It's about modern day time travel but a good chunk of it takes place during the 14th century and the plagues.
posted by jessamyn at 4:11 PM on May 18 [16 favorites]


Down The Common will be unlike any other book you've read.
posted by anastasiav at 4:13 PM on May 18 [1 favorite]


The Great Maria by Cecelia Holland is pretty amazing. It's about a robber baron's daughter who would be Queen!
posted by spunweb at 4:17 PM on May 18


Hild by Nicola Griffith is maybe marginal by your criteria -- it does have kings and queens in it, though as more peripheral characters, and there's no explicit fantasy element but it might be fantasy depending on how you look at it... BUT I have not read any book that gets so well into the psychology of the era, and the details of women's work and the gift economy, and the religious conflicts of 7th century Britain. And it's beautifully written.
posted by Jeanne at 4:25 PM on May 18 [6 favorites]


Ach, I came here to recommend both Time Traveller's Guide and Hild, but it's been done! Both excellent, with the caveats given above.

They're children's/YA books, but the classics Catherine, Called Birdy and The Midwife's Apprentice are both great examples of what you're looking for. More recently, I liked The Wicked and the Just a lot.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 4:29 PM on May 18 [1 favorite]


Came in to recommend Hild, so I'll second Jeanne's answer. The subject is a member of a royal entourage, so there's some court and Kings and Queens, but it's very much not that kind of story.
posted by Sara C. at 4:31 PM on May 18 [1 favorite]


Norah Lofts. Many of her books are out of print but that just means you can buy them used for less. I learned about her in a Five Books interview with Alison Weir. Lofts has a number of books about ordinary people in medeival England and her style is delightfully readable.
posted by janey47 at 4:43 PM on May 18 [1 favorite]


Also science fiction (not fantasy) is Eifelheim by Michael Flynn.

It is about aliens arriving in a medieval village. The premise may not sound like it fits what you're after, but really much of the book focuses on the everyday lives of the villagers and the priest and how they make sense of these very alien creatures (demons? angels?) in a time when people believed the sun revolved around the earth.

Give it a try.
posted by brookeb at 5:01 PM on May 18 [3 favorites]


Seconding Doomsday Book. It isn't particularly futuristic or technology-oriented -- the time-travel is more a device allowing contemporary-ish Oxford social scientists to prepare for and experience trips to the 14th century, in the manner of old-school anthropologists.

(Also, Nicola Griffith is brilliant at defining lives/struggles/adventures via a web of transactions, and thereby giving you a rich vicarious experience of worlds. Haven't read Hild, but only because I hadn't known it existed. Must go find now.)
posted by feral_goldfish at 5:46 PM on May 18


Gary Jenning's Raptor is a fantastic and extremely well researched historical adventure novel, set in early Medieval Europe (be warned, it is violent). I also quite enjoyed Judith Merkle Riley's A Vision of Light (the first novel in a trilogy), which is told from the perspective of a woman. Another novel with a female protagonist that I liked is Donna Woolfolk Cross' Pope Joan. A Vision of Light and Pope Joan both deal with issues faced by women in the Medieval period without being heavy-handed, and will be especially interesting if you enjoy religious history. Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead is a relatively quick read but also a lovely Medieval tale with Vikings and loads of adventure. It takes inspiration from Beowulf and there is a movie based on it called The Thirteenth Warrior. You may not like the fantasy elements - but that said I strongly dislike the fantasy genre and nonetheless found the book wonderful as a history lover.

Regarding the suggestions from other posters above, I did read The Doomsday Book but unfortunately found it too slow moving for my tastes - however I do agree it is beloved by many and you may enjoy it as well. The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England is not fiction but is great fun to read and will give you the information you are looking for. If you decide you want more non-fiction about everyday Medieval folk, The Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England, by Barabara Hanawalt, is excellent.
posted by partly squamous and partly rugose at 6:13 PM on May 18


Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy (1920-22), set in medieval Norway.

Julia O'Faolain's Women in the Wall, involving politics and anchorites.

Hella S. Haasse's In a Dark Wood Wandering, about Charles d'Orleans.

Sylvia Townsend Warner's The Corner that Held Them, a mock medieval chronicle of the goings-on at a convent.

Frans G. Bengtsson, The Long Ships, about the adventures of a Viking named Red Orm. (Rather more swashbuckling in this one than the other examples!)
posted by thomas j wise at 7:53 PM on May 18 [2 favorites]


Green Darkness
Katherine
Avalon
all by Anya Seton
posted by pushing paper and bottoming chairs at 8:58 PM on May 18


I really enjoyed Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King. Not sure how terribly accurate it is but it's a decent novel.

Borderline (since its more fantasy than medieval but does take place in an ancient kingdom) but one of my favorite books EVER is How to Become King by Jan Terlouw. Sadly, it's out of print and considered rare (read: super-expensive).
posted by ostranenie at 9:34 PM on May 18


London by Edward Rutherford is a fascinating novel that tracks various families around the city that will become London from Roman times through the 20th century. I can't remember how much of the book is set in medieval times, but at least fair bit of it is.
posted by lewedswiver at 9:46 PM on May 18


I'd agree that The Doomsday Book is great and worth reading in any case, but the plot jumps between the 14th century and just a little into the future. The thing is I think the future characters and plot are far more interesting than the medieval ones.
posted by sevenless at 10:11 PM on May 18


On my to-read list -- so without being able to strictly speaking recommend it:

The Good Men by Charmaine Craig

(Has to do with the Cathars, which is why is on my list.)
posted by bertran at 11:13 PM on May 18


The Gallows Curse by Karen Maitland does have some landed gentry characters, but the two protagonists are a villein and a steward who work on the estate.

I'm never sure whether to characterise Maitland's novels as fantasy or not; some fantastical things happen, but ultimately she's just writing a world where all the freaky shit people believed back then was for real.

If nothing else, you'll come away from it with an immense gratitude for modern medicine.
posted by the latin mouse at 12:49 AM on May 19


Most of Roberta Gellis
posted by brujita at 1:27 AM on May 19


Came here to recommend Karen Maitland also.
posted by mani at 2:21 AM on May 19


Zoe Oldenbourg -- The World is Not Enough, The Cornerstone
posted by Cocodrillo at 3:22 AM on May 19


Seconding Hild and The Doomsday Book, although the latter will break your heart in the best way. (Also, Hild is the first of a trilogy, so there's. ..not a cliffhanger exactly, but I spent a few days feeling a little bereft necause I'd have to wait so long to be in her world again.) I found Down the Common difficult to like, but it is very immersive.
posted by kalimac at 5:26 AM on May 19


Morality Play by Barry Unsworth is an enjoyable and seemingly well-researched short literary novel set in late-mediæval England: note that one of its main threads is a murder mystery of sorts, but there’s more to the story than just that.
posted by misteraitch at 5:41 AM on May 19 [2 favorites]


Seconding Down the Common, if you can find a copy. I copy edited that book (and designed the cover), and it really goes to show how much more imagination it takes to write a slice-of-life historical novel of peasants in that age than the assembly-line fantasy crap. I came here to suggest it, and was really touched that it had already be mentioned.
posted by rikschell at 8:59 AM on May 19 [1 favorite]


You also might find it under the British title "Medieval Woman."
posted by rikschell at 9:03 AM on May 19


Back again, no longer on my mobile device, because I wanted to link to the Five Books interview with Alison Weir that I mentioned above and also to the first book she mentions, which is largely set in medieval England.
posted by janey47 at 10:17 AM on May 19


Not fiction, but I really enjoyed Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror.
posted by lex mercatoria at 11:59 AM on May 19


The Name of the Rose
posted by mcmile at 4:03 PM on May 19 [1 favorite]


crimethrutime.com is a fun website that will help you out.
posted by mearls at 7:51 PM on May 19


I was surprised at how much I enjoyed The Hangman's Daughter.
posted by Roger Dodger at 8:34 PM on May 19


Consider "The Decameron" a collection of 100 shagy dog stories, dirty jokes, heroic adventures and love stories that is set in the middle ages because it was written in the middle ages. In a lot of ways it's a much easier read than Chaucer (except, possibly, Gilbert Shelton's translation of the Miller's tale).
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:32 AM on May 20


Late, but seconding and strongly recommending Kristen Lavransdatter as a amazing, detailed immersive trilogy that follows the live of the protagonist through medieval Norway.

Sigrid Undset wrote the books around 1920, and later received the Nobel prize in literature principally for her historical fiction. Her father was a renowned archaeologist focusing on the medieval period in Scandinavia so the books are *extremely* well - grounded in the realities of everyday life.
posted by foodmapper at 8:49 PM on May 29 [2 favorites]


Another shoutout for some actual source material:
The Icelandic Sagas are a totally fascinating piece of literature. They're the stories of the first people to head to Iceland, mainly people trying to get away from the tyrannical king of Norway. Because of the anti-monarchical bent of all these early people, Iceland had a sort of proto-parliamentary system all the way back in the 12th century. When the country decided to turn Christian in 1200, there was a concerted effort to record the pre-Christian history, and that effort produced the Sagas. There are berserkers, woman vikings, raids on Northern England, tales of bandits banished to wander the Northern wastes, fashionable spears, and so on. They're super great, and unlike anything else that was being written at the time, precisely because there's no focus on nobility at all, really.
posted by kaibutsu at 6:25 AM on June 5


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