Best audio resources about the Medieval world?
November 18, 2010 5:46 AM   Subscribe

I'm almost finished with the audiobook version of A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, and I'm not ready for it to be over. I want to learn more about the Middle Ages and Renaissance. What should I listen to next?

I'd like to find great audiobooks, podcasts, lectures etc. on European or world history (ideally Middle Ages/Renaissance), but have no idea where to start.

The more range/depth, the better. It would be nice to find resources that address the lives of the common people, but engaging treatments of nobles etc. would be fine too.

The audio aspect of this is pretty important - I don't enjoy reading about history, but I have a much higher tolerance for dryness/detail when I'm listening to it. However, if there is a particularly amazing print resource I should know about, please do mention it.

Thanks AskMe for making me a more well-rounded person!
posted by Knicke to Education (17 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I've read the book rather than listened to it (so no idea about narration quality), but I seriously love Agincourt.
posted by Coobeastie at 6:23 AM on November 18, 2010

Best answer: I can't remember if I've listened to the Middle-Ages lectures, but in general, I've had great experiences with The Teaching Company.
posted by grumblebee at 6:31 AM on November 18, 2010

Best answer: I thoroughly enjoyed In a Distant Mirror. While I think it was Tuchman's only book on the middle ages, you might, if you liked Distant Mirror, get into her other books as well. Guns of August is a fascinating account of the time leading up to WWI, and how insanely avoidable it could have been, and Stilwell and the American Experience in China is a great book about the U.S.'s half assed attempt to prop up the increasingly corrupt Kuomintang government during WWII. Again, not middle ages, but the same author, and both books are fantastic.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:39 AM on November 18, 2010

Best answer: A World Lit Only By Fire
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:17 AM on November 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I can't remember if I've listened to the Middle-Ages lectures, but in general, I've had great experiences with The Teaching Company.

I'm listening to Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Rise of Nations right now and it is excellent, would make a great next chapter
posted by xetere at 7:20 AM on November 18, 2010

Best answer: For insight into the lives of commoners, what about fiction? "Pillars of the Earth" by Ken Follett or "Down The Common: A Year In The Life Of A Medieval Woman" by Ann Baer were really good, I thought. The first is available audio; the second is not.
posted by CathyG at 8:23 AM on November 18, 2010

Best answer: Connie Willis' Doomsday Book?
posted by dpcoffin at 9:37 AM on November 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I second The Teaching Company; all their courses are very well-done and most (those that aren't highly visually-dependent, like art history lectures) are available in audio formats--generally CD and download formats, though they may still sell some in audiocassette format.

I'm currently listening to Dorsey Armstrong's Medieval World (she's good, but this seems to be more of an intro course). My favorites are Philip Daileader's Early Middle Ages, High Middle Ages, and Late Middle Ages. Anything done by Kenneth Harl is great too; he seems to be sort of a pan-Mediterranean guy who can do anything from the Greeks/Romans to the Italian Renaissance, but he does not do the "common man" type of history you seem to be looking for, while Daileader and Armstrong are better at that.

I also second the suggestion of good historical fiction. You can't beat Kristin Lavransdatter or anything written by Anya Seton. My personal favorite authors (and I have a fairly high standard of authenticity, being a librarian and medieval reenactor) include Nicole Galland, Alison Weir, Barry Unsworth, and Thomas Costain.

By total chance, the book I read after A Distant Mirror was In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella Haasse, which picks up almost exactly at the same time and place that A Distant Mirror leaves off. It rambles a bit and some of its characters are just a bit too "drama queen", but it introduced me to Charles of Orleans, a really remarkable historical figure. (You could go on from there to study his poetry, maybe!)

One last tip: if the audio versions of some of the books you seek are rare or too expensive (or you just can't figure out whether there is an audio version), try your public library. If they don't have it, they can get it on interlibrary loan.
posted by gillyflower at 10:56 AM on November 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Definitely check out Lars Brownworth's 12 Byzantine Rulers podcast.

His new series, Norman Centuries, is also very good.
posted by charlesv at 11:01 AM on November 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It's print, but I can not recommend The Secret Middle Ages enough. (You'll want to track down the soft cover edition or get it from a Library though since the hard cover version is apparently worth as much as one of your kidneys. The best way I can describe it is to say, you know how most medieval history is kings and popes and knights and monks and paintings of saints? This is almost exactly not like that. Instead it's pilgrimage badges for brothels and all kinds of symboism that they're not going to mention in a high school or college class.

There are portions of The Decameron out there as audio books. Rather than being history, it's a medieval work where a group of people hiding out in the countryside, trying to avoid a plage spend their days telling tales. Ten people, ten days, so one hundred stories. The thing is, the tellers are of widely different character, so you get off color jokes, romances, tragedy, heroism and shaggy dog stories. It gives you insight into a culture that was in some ways, a lot like ours and in some ways, very different.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 11:57 AM on November 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wow, thanks everyone! Best answers for all. :) Seriously, this all looks great. Thanks also for the fiction rec's - I didn't ask for those just because there's so much appallingly bad historical fiction out there, but those you suggested seem doable.

Looks like I have a LOT of ILL forms to submit - just as well, as the kid's librarian I need more practice with those.
posted by Knicke at 2:49 PM on November 18, 2010

Best answer: Seconding that Lars Brownworth Norman history podcast. It's intermittent, but definitely worth the wait.
posted by immlass at 3:09 PM on November 18, 2010

Best answer: Wolf Hall has been a big bestseller in Britain recently. A 'nonfiction novel' about Thomas Cromwell and England's separation from Rome. I enjoyed it.
posted by Marlinspike at 4:58 PM on November 18, 2010

Best answer: I actually really dislike A World Lit Only By Fire-- the author's bias towards religious conservatism is too apparent, I think. (Check out his opinions on Savonarola, for example.)

I loved Christopher Hibbert's The Rise And Fall of the House of Medici and John Julius Norwich's 3-volume History of Byzantium (here's the first), though.

I couldn't find an audiobook of the Hibbert; an audiobook of the Norwich definitely exists but Amazon only has it on cassette.

It looks like Blackstone do an audiobook in two volumes of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. Assuming they've got someone decent reading it, it's a book I'd highly recommend: tales of knighthood from a man who knew firsthand what it was about, and spun tales of King Arthur amid the fractious days of the Wars of the Roses.

Speaking of the Wars of the Roses, if you want a Renaissance guide to those, Shakespeare's three Henry VI plays are all on this CD with-- holy shit-- David "10th Doctor" Tennant as the King. Richard III, the direct "sequel" to the Henry VI plays, is one of the most entertaining plays Shakespeare ever wrote.

Have fun with these!
posted by Pallas Athena at 5:27 PM on November 18, 2010

Best answer: Sorry I'm late to the party, but this is totally the kind of stuff I love to listen to. I saw this question while I was at work today but didn't get a chance to respond until now.

For a non-fiction, popular-history approach similar to Tuchman's, you might want to try The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer. Thomas B. Costain wrote a series of books in the 1940s and 50s about the 12th and 13th centuries in England which are also really well done -- although I'm sure he's taken a lot of liberties, it's still a fun read/listen:

The Conquering Family, about the early Plantagenets (Henry II, Richard I, etc)

The Magnificent Century, about Henry III and the rebellion of Simon de Montfort

The Last Plantagenets, about Edwards I-III and Richard II.

(All my links here are to Audible downloads.)

These books, along with Tuchman's, are the ones I kind of default to when I want to listen to something but nothing else appeals. But I'm weird like that.
posted by That's Numberwang! at 10:13 PM on November 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I actually really dislike A World Lit Only By Fire-- the author's bias towards religious conservatism is too apparent, I think. (Check out his opinions on Savonarola, for example.)

I kind of chuckled when I read that. I am listening to it right now - it reads/sounds a bit like a scandalous Debbie Downer episode: this is bad, so is this, and this? terrible. There is also this bad thing over here, as well as this over there. When one takes into account all of these, one should keep in mind that this thing over here is terrible and behind it is something that is really horrible. Also: Corrupt illiterate priests around every corner.
posted by Tchad at 4:28 PM on November 19, 2010

After I posted my answer above I realized I missed one of the Costain books.The Three Edwards is about Edwards I-III. The Last Plantagenets is about Richard II and the Peasants' Revolt. Go Wat Tyler!
posted by That's Numberwang! at 6:27 PM on November 19, 2010

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