Best books on the middle ages?
March 14, 2009 5:04 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for the best books about life in the middle ages. I am keeping the question as open as possible but I do have a few areas of specific interest.

I am interested in the day to day thought processes and beliefs of people of any nationality in the middle ages. Specifically their reactions to things like illness, death, weather/nature, the hunt/harvest, strangers and the belief systems and rituals involved in those reactions. Ideally the subject would be the uneducated peasant. Serious works of wider scope on medieval life are also welcomed if there are elements of sociology etc. I'm not interested in books focussing on cookery, costumes etc alone.
posted by fire&wings to Media & Arts (25 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
The Middle Ages was a good read for me.
posted by leotrotsky at 5:19 PM on March 14, 2009

Not sure if you would consider well researched fiction but 'Pillars of the earth' certainly brings the period to life.
posted by koahiatamadl at 5:25 PM on March 14, 2009

I haven't read it, but I heard an extract from this book on a podcast and really enjoyed it.
posted by different at 5:25 PM on March 14, 2009

A Distant Mirror by Tuchman is literate, clear and written for an intelligent layman. A more accademic work is The Civilizing Process
posted by shothotbot at 5:31 PM on March 14, 2009

The Ties that Bound is excellent. Barbara Hanawalt uses death records to get a look into the lives of ordinary people. Another is Local Religion, which is sort of too late for your needs, but does a lot of comparison work with medieval traditions. It's a fantastic book though, really gives you some details about what it might have been like to be there.
posted by Hildegarde at 5:42 PM on March 14, 2009

A World Lit Only By Fire. It's often a bit more biased against the Middle Ages in general than I think is fair, but it's considered a standard text.
posted by Vic Morrow's Personal Vietnam at 5:48 PM on March 14, 2009

A History Of Private Life.
posted by bingo at 6:26 PM on March 14, 2009

Can we maybe get a timeframe here? "The Middle Ages" could be defined as narrowly as five centuries or as broadly as fifteen, depending on who you ask and when.

Unfortunately, you aren't going to get a ton of books on the uneducated classes in pre-modern Europe, because they were by definition illiterate. Hard to leave much for historians to read that way, you know? How are we supposed to know what uneducated peasants thought about death/illness/meteorology/whatever when they left no documents for us?

How about Women in Medieval Western European Culture?

Or The Place of the Dead: Death and Remembrance in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe
Settlement of Disputes in Early Medieval Europe? The authors there point out that we really don't have much in the way of legal documents before AD1086, making detailed study of society rather difficult.

How about The Experience of Power in Medieval Europe, 950-1350?

As I hope you can see, our knowledge of history before AD1000 is pretty sketchy. We've got a better idea of what happened before AD500 than between AD500 and AD1000, because the Romans kept records, and Europe had gotten around to it again after the turn of the millennium, but in the middle there we're running a little dry. There are lots of books being written on the Late Medieval period (approx. AD1100-1300) and tons on the early modern period (approx. AD1500-1700), but before that? Gets a lot harder, especially the sort of day-in-the-life stuff you're looking at.
posted by valkyryn at 6:38 PM on March 14, 2009

HS Bennett's Life on the English Manor covers the day to day life of English commoners from 1150-1400
posted by supermedusa at 6:59 PM on March 14, 2009

You could also consider reading some of Geoffery Chaucer's works, his portrayal of the common people of that era is sometimes a little caricatured, but not entirely inaccurate.
posted by fearnothing at 7:13 PM on March 14, 2009

Huizinga's The Waning of the Middle Ages is a classic that still glows with beauty and power.
posted by WPW at 7:35 PM on March 14, 2009

cosign History of Private Life
perhaps something by Georges Duby, such as - The Age of the Cathedrals
posted by citron at 8:02 PM on March 14, 2009

It's a novel, so perhaps not exactly on the mark, but I highly recommend The Name Of The Rose by Umberto Eco. It's the most somplete, "lived in" picture of the middle ages I've ever come across.
posted by raygan at 8:15 PM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

If well informed period fiction would be interesting, read some novels by Umberto Eco.

Umberto Eco is a medievalist and semiotician with a large and broad knowledge of how people thought during this time, which is reflected well in the novels Baudalino, The Island of the Day Before, and In The Name of the Rose. Imagine if The DaVinci Code actually reflected some knowledge about medieval thought and was well written, and you have his novel Foucault's Pendulum.
posted by idiopath at 8:17 PM on March 14, 2009

I can't compare this one with any others, but I enjoyed The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium. It's a pretty easy read, but informative. And it goes through an entire year, month by month, which I thought was helpful to understanding not only a typical day, but how things would vary throughout the year.
posted by number9dream at 8:59 PM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Since number9dream beat me to recommending the absolutely excellent Year 1000, I'll recommend a different one.

A Life Under Russian Serfdom is from a little bit later in history than you were asking (1800s), but it has advantage of being written by an actual serf. Really interesting stuff.

But you definitely need Year 1000 - it's exactly what you're looking for and really well-written. It's one of my favorite books.
posted by EatTheWeek at 11:38 PM on March 14, 2009

Thirding Year 1000 as a start, even if you later wanted more depth. I think it may have had a list of references too.
posted by bystander at 4:38 AM on March 15, 2009

We've got a better idea of what happened before AD500 than between AD500 and AD1000

If you do end up wanting to explore the period between AD500 & 1000 check out Peter Wells' recent Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered - very interesting revisionist history challenging the notion of a "decline" after the fall of Rome. He's an archaeologist so, in lieu of written documents, he utilizes other materials to try & understand what life was like back then - especially for that of the majority of people (i.e., peasants & other non-elites).

Here's a review.

Another fun read is Books, Banks, Buttons: And Other Inventions from the Middle Ages - very entertaining and engaging overview, again using a more material-based approach. Many details of everyday life, and the mindsets that created them, get outlined and explained.
posted by jammy at 7:31 AM on March 15, 2009

"... things like illness, death, weather/nature, the hunt/harvest, strangers and the belief systems and rituals involved in those reactions."

Though most of his work focusses on renaissance and early modern Europe, I'd also like to suggest the work of Carlo Ginzburg - especially Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath, for some potential insight into the subjects above. Here's an interesting interview with Ginzburg.

Another vein of investigation would be to check out the folklore & myths of the period: Medieval Folklore
A Guide to Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs
is pretty comprehensive.
posted by jammy at 8:28 AM on March 15, 2009

One of the co-authors of The Year 1000 also wrote 1215: The Year of Magna Carta, another short, popular history that focuses on daily living, with chapters like School, Family Life, Tournaments and Battles, etc. It's a quick read but has lots of interesting period detail.
posted by mediareport at 9:00 AM on March 15, 2009

I second the recommendation of Carlo Ginzburg, particularly his book, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, which documents the everyday life and worldview of a single peasant through the transcripts of the inquisition that eventually killed him. Ginzburg is a proponent of "microhistory," which focuses on individuals and small-scale history rather than sweeping narratives. Sounds like its what you're looking for, even if it is at the very tail end of your specified time period.
posted by googly at 9:57 AM on March 15, 2009

I'd second A Distant Mirror -- great book! I also enjoyed Friar Felix at Large by H.F.M. Prescott. The back cover begins, "In the year 1480 Friar Felix Fabri set out from a quite priory in Germany on the first of two pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Based on the journals he kept, here is the colorful and unusual story of how he traveled, who he met, and what he saw." I thought it was a thoroughly engaging travelogue/history.
posted by jackmcc at 11:28 AM on March 15, 2009

Out of left field here, as usual, but Catherine, Called Birdy, by Karen Cushman. Aimed at tweens before the term was coined, it brings the middle ages to life in a(n) unique way. And by the way I don't use the word "unique" loosely. I will have to look for The Year 1000. Sounds great. Tuchman's Distant Mirror is one of the many books that give me the "Why couldn't You Finish Me?" look when I tidy up the shelves. But Umberto Eco says keep those unread books around; they're the ones you need. Or was it Nassim Nicholas Talleb? I don't know. My husband reads their books. All I get is hearsay. I am glad to live now. I appreciate indoor plumbing and ice.
posted by emhutchinson at 11:58 AM on March 15, 2009

More fiction, but Down The Common: A Year in the Life of a Medieval Woman by Ann Baer is clearly well-researched and really puts the reader into the head of the protagonist.

Oh, and on preview, seconding Catherine Called Birdy. And, maybe I'm reaching here a little too much, but Doomsday Book by Connie Willis deals in great detail with the Christmas season, as well as the Black Death.
posted by Brody's chum at 12:07 PM on March 15, 2009

A good source for learning about people's lives in their own words is the Paston Letters (Norman Davis (ed.), Paston Letters And Papers Of The Fifteenth Century).
posted by orrnyereg at 2:26 PM on March 15, 2009

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