Before the year 1000
April 26, 2012 9:41 AM   Subscribe

What do I read to learn about pre-medieval England?

I think I've got a handle on the middle ages. I've read a ton of fiction and non-fiction (The Year 1000, Daily Life in Medieval England, Pillars of the Earth, Name of the Rose, etc.), and I have a picture in my mind.

But what about earlier? What should I read to get up to speed on Europe from approximately AD 0 to AD 1000? I'm interested in the transitions into and out of Roman occupation, Celtic and Druidic stuff, Charlemagne, development of villages and kingdoms, early Viking invasions, early Christianity, and (maybe most of all) daily life.

I'm interested in non-fiction and fiction. I'm reading for pleasure, so I'd like the non-fiction to be easy on the endnotes, and geared for the masses rather than academia (unless the writing is really gripping). I want fiction that skews as closely as possible to history (as we understand it). By that, I mean that I'm interested in a history of the Battle of Roncesvalles, but not the Song of Roland. The writing has to be good. I'm mostly interested in England, but I would happily read a great book about Druids in Germany or Charlemagne or late Roman expansion.
posted by freshwater to Media & Arts (25 answers total) 63 users marked this as a favorite

From a trans-European perspective, the best introductory text to the period remains Peter Brown's peerless The World of Late Antiquity: AD 150-750, although it's over forty years old now.
posted by hydatius at 9:52 AM on April 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

A bit old, and more focused on Europe (although does address England), but a really approachable discussion of the origins of the feudal system and medieval society:

Origins of the Medieval World

Also, this is more specific to a particular (very small) location, but gives you great insight into the world of the Norse peoples, how they thought about themselves, and the struggle for power in the North sea at the start of the last millennium:

The Orkneyinga Saga
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:53 AM on April 26, 2012

I'd recommend the whole book but Davies Vanished Kingdoms covers Strathclyde and thats a good starting point to explore the other kingdoms at that time.
posted by vacapinta at 9:55 AM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have always felt that Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave (fiction) captured the feel of life in 5th cent. Britain with wonderful texture and detail
posted by supermedusa at 10:07 AM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is a podcast and not a book, but you should check out The History Of Rome Podcast.

Right now he's in the later Roman Empire, after the East and West have split from each other (the 5th century AD), so it's especially relevant to how Roman Europe became Medieval Timey Europe. But even as far as the beginning the Christian era and the reign of Diocletian, things start to happen that pave the way for what Europe would become.
posted by Sara C. at 10:07 AM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley.

An absolutely wonderful retelling of "The Matter of Britain" from the point of view of the women in the story. It was her (MZB's) masterpiece!
posted by Hanuman1960 at 10:18 AM on April 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

That said, it doesn't hew that closely to actual history, and there are a few non-fictional characters who are portrayed in a way that is downright irresponsible by historical standards.

But it's a fun read and definitely thought provoking.
posted by Sara C. at 10:30 AM on April 26, 2012

The Circle Cast is another retelling of the story of Morgan le Fay, King Arthur's half sister. It goes into some detail about the ways of life of post-Roman Britain and pre-Christian Ireland.

The website for the book also has links to resources like Butser Ancient Farm, a research project that aims to recreate an Iron Age farm.
posted by musofire at 10:43 AM on April 26, 2012

For fiction Bernard Cornwell has his Saxon Series, and The Arthur Books. Whilest being fiction his Saxon Series stays close to known historical events and geographical locations.
posted by adamvasco at 10:56 AM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

....also Boudica, Queen of the Iceni.
posted by adamvasco at 11:02 AM on April 26, 2012

The Inheritance of Rome is quite good.
posted by shothotbot at 11:25 AM on April 26, 2012

"Chanson de Roland" in French
"The Song of Roland" in English. of course...

This is truly an amazing heroic poem that descibes the epic Battle of Roncesvalles. It's a bit biased in favor of Charlemagne, but it's worth the read. . . .

Oh yeah, and when I say "epic", I'm talkin' old school "epic"!!
posted by WestChester22 at 12:01 PM on April 26, 2012

The book you're looking for is Robin Fleming's Britain After Rome: The Fall and Rise, 400-1070. It's up to date (published in 2010) and takes account of recent archaeological discoveries like the Staffordshire Hoard. It's academically rigorous, but very accessible (in common with the other volumes in the Penguin History of Britain, it's written without footnotes). Best of all, Fleming has a remarkable ability to draw out the human meaning of archaeological discoveries: take the following two passages, chosen almost at random:

The spines and shoulders of Poundbury's men were those of people engaged in heavy work from early adolescence to what passed in the fourth century for old age. Their joints showed the wear of digging and lifting, of driving carts and working ploughs. Women, for their part, lived with aching knees. The state of their legs suggests that they spent long hours squatting, probably while grinding corn at rotary querns. Men and women, therefore, were set apart by the labours they performed each day and by their small physical agonies.

Ironwork and pots were not cherished by the rich but were, rather, the unconscious and necessary objects of everyday life. Nails, for example, seem like such trivial things, but once they were gone Britain became a harder place. They grew scarce in the 370s, and by the 390s nails for coffins and hobnailed boots were simply no longer available, so the British slipped in the mud and buried the people they loved directly in the cold, hard ground.
posted by verstegan at 12:07 PM on April 26, 2012 [17 favorites]

For once, I get to say, why yes, IAA(E)H (I am an English Historian - or rather, a historian who looks at English History).

Feel free to read The Mists of Avalon to enjoy a good story, but it's TERRIBLE history. I love MZB, I love history -- they do not mix well.

If you want to learn actual history, you should stick with well researched popular history, not novels (even if Ken Follett does a pretty good job and I've know a medieval historian who assigned The Pillars of the Earth as a text - but then she asked the students to write an essay about one aspect of history that he got wrong).

Something else that you should know is that our historical knowledge of northern Europe before 1000 can be limited: we have very few surviving texts. Pre-Christian religion is a topic which is especially difficult to research because almost all (all?) of our surviving texts were themselves written by Christians or by other outsiders (many of whom were writing based on rumour and hearsay). Archeology is amazing when it comes to things like agricultural history, but working out what people thought from physical remains is extremely difficult. Furthermore, I would be extremely wary of non-academic histories of pre-Christian religion because the neo-pagan world has a lot of badly researched material out there (which is important to them and their religious identity, but it's bad history).

For pre-christian religion, my academic go-to would be Ronald Hutton. He is someone who is very interested in both pagan and neo-pagan religions, but also an excellent historian. I haven't read his book on pagan religion, but I have read his Stations of the Sun and he had good evidence and wasn't afraid to say that "we just don't know." But he's is also very readable.

Francis Pryor has several good books of popular archeology. I have his Britain in the Middle Ages: an archeological history and I've enjoyed it, but I think it might be confusing if I didn't already know the basic political history (as it concentrates on archeology).

For the basic history, I have always liked the Oxford History of Britain (which itself should be renamed the History of Modern England and sometimes other places that became part of the UK). Again, it's quite readable and aimed at a history undergraduate audience.

on preview: I want verstegan's recommendation.
posted by jb at 12:08 PM on April 26, 2012 [10 favorites]

My two suggestions: The Ornament of the World by Maria Rosa Menocal; and The Abacus and the Cross by Nancy Marie Brown. The former is about Muslim Spain in the 7th century on, and the latter is about Pope Sylvester. Both are non-fiction, and focus on times up to and including the year 1000. I believe there is some discussion in The Abacus and the Cross about England, but it's not the central part of the book.
posted by Janta at 12:10 PM on April 26, 2012

Response by poster: Amazing answers so far! I will best answer as I read.

I will say, though, that I didn't like the Mists of Avalon, because of what jb said, and because I thought the writing was schlocky.

I want to both learn the actual history (hence the non-fiction) and to get a feel of the day to day (hence the fiction).
posted by freshwater at 12:33 PM on April 26, 2012

I just got a copy of The Beginnings of English Society by Dorothy Whitelock. i haven't read it yet, but I am a huge fan of Pelican history books, and this looks really good.

To my delight, it appears that you can read The Beginnings of English Society online at
posted by kristi at 12:56 PM on April 26, 2012

Pedant would like to point out that about half the period you're interested in would be classified as "Early Medieval" and not "Pre Medieval"! I'm a fan of big meaty academic works, but one I would reccomend for people who aren't (with a big caveat) is The Anglo-Saxons edited by James Campbell It has a lot of thematic stuff, and it's full of pictures and photos that really help you get a feel of things. The big caveat is that it's now very out of date; I'd read and look at this for a 'feel' and then follow it up with something which brings you up to date (though I haven't read it, verstegan's recommendation sounds ideal).

Rather than going for fiction which tries to recreate the period why don't you read stuff that was written at the time (in translation, of course)? Beowulf is a great read; The Dream of the Rood is a truly beautiful piece of poetry. The Anglo-Saxon World is a good modern translation collection.
posted by Coobeastie at 1:14 PM on April 26, 2012

I finally read your entire question and see that England is not a hard and fast requirement, so I will second Menocal's The Ornament of the World. What a terrific read!
posted by trip and a half at 2:14 PM on April 26, 2012

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Egil's Saga. It's a real Norse saga, dealing with people from the 9th century. What they chose to say and how they chose to structure it was just essentially different from what I'm used to from Modern history and literature.

It tells the story of Norsemen sailing and settling in Norway and Iceland. To pull the essentials from Wikipedia:
The story goes on to tell the tales of Egill's voyages to Scandinavia and England and his personal vendetta against King Eric Bloodaxe. There are also vivid descriptions of his other fights and friendships, his relationship with his family ... The two handsome Þórólfrs die heroic deaths, while their brothers Skallagrímr and Egill both die in old age after spitefully burying their wealth in the wilderness....
The characters are ambitious and imperfect, and we see how their greed and anger lead to feuds and death. I really enjoyed it.
posted by benito.strauss at 5:09 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sarum by Edward Rutherfurd is long (900+ pages) but so worth the time investment. The book follows many generations of 4 (5?) families, from the Stone Age to Modern Times. The pre-medieval parts of the book were exceptional.
posted by Nickel Pickle at 6:40 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Jack Whyte's Camulod Chronicles (about 9 or 10 books) taught me more about the Roman occupation of Britain that I ever thought possible that I would want to know. It starts about the time the Romans left Britain and follows the post-occupation era. He takes the Arthur/Merlin legends and weaves them into Roman, British and European history. He includes some discussion of religious beliefs, including early Christianity, Mithrism (sp?) and Druidism. Invasion by Saxons, Angles, Dane, Irish, Scots, and Picts are included.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 11:19 PM on April 26, 2012

The Varanger series by Cecelia Holland. Because Vikings.
posted by spunweb at 1:37 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

The "History" half of Kenneth H. Jackson's Language and History in Early Britain is fascinating to read, covering the Roman occupation to the Anglo-Saxon conquest, from the perspective of the ancient Britons. I am not a historian, so I don't know how outdated-or-not the history is (the book is over 50 years old by now) but the Language half is still considered fundamental in Celtic linguistics. The History part draws pretty heavily on the evidence from Language, not so much from archaeology. It's a big tome but Jackson has a dry and enjoyable neo-Victorian writing style which kept my interest all along the way.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 12:09 AM on May 11, 2012

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