Once there was a lady who lived in... um... Westeros?
July 24, 2012 7:07 AM   Subscribe

I want to read about daily life in the Middle Ages. Particularly daily life in monasteries, but in other places too.

I have an idea for a story kicking around in my head, and I'd like to write it, if only for my own personal satisfaction. Problem is, this story would kinda have to take place in Medieval times, and the more I think about it, the more I realize that my conceptions of Medieval times are actually basically all from fantasy novels, and I don't actually know anything at all about the period. I'd like to fix this, by reading some nonfiction books about the period. (Documentaries would be cool too.)

Exact time and location aren't so important at this point- ideally I'd like a mix of several different times/locations, because then I could choose the most appropriate setting from among them. And I'd like to emphasize that I'm looking for stuff about daily life- in monasteries, among the poor and the rich alike, in cities and in towns, etc. As much variety as possible. My goal is to have a semi-accurate world kicking around inside my head by the time I've read a few of these books.

Also, I am not looking for fiction- I'd like to have a firm basis in actual history first. So, no Name of the Rose or whatever (although I do want to read that at some point!).

posted by showbiz_liz to Education (19 answers total) 51 users marked this as a favorite

A ton of good ideas here in this old AskMe.
posted by Wretch729 at 7:26 AM on July 24, 2012

LIfe in a Medieval City (part of a whole series) by the Gies is pretty good.
posted by bluefly at 7:42 AM on July 24, 2012

This might sound like a strange answer, particularly given what you've said about the Name of the rose. But I would suggest having a bit of a play of an early 90s game called Darklands. It does a pretty reasonable job of capturing the epistemological world of medieval Germany, in that it makes the superstitions real, while still grounding those in socio-cultural reality. And gives you a chance to actually explore some of those day to day things.

It comes from a studio called Micropose that made that approach something of a speciality. They made similar games concerning the age of piracy in the Caribbean and feudal Japan, which also taught me a lot about those contexts.

You might need an old games person though, the expectations put on players were a bit more in those days - I'm happy to help where I can just mail me.
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 8:05 AM on July 24, 2012

The first step is probably figuring out what you mean when you say "Medieval times". What century, specifically? People use that term to mean anything from immediately after the Roman Empire fell (so, like ~600 AD) up to the Renaissance (e.g. 1492).

Also, that expression is going to mean different things in different parts of the world, or even different parts of Europe. There's a huge difference between, say, Winchester in 1050 and Siena in 1450.

Once you figure out what your setting actually is, the above resources will potentially be a great help, as will history books about that time and place. For example if your story has anything to do with the Black Death or life almost anywhere Western European circa 1350, you'll want to read A Distant Mirror, by Barbara Tuchman.

The biggest mistake people make with this kind of writing is a lack of specificity, so getting specific early on in the process will make a huge difference.
posted by Sara C. at 8:07 AM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Everything by the Gieses is pretty good, but I love "A Medieval Family: the Pastons of 15th Century England." This is a well-documented portrait of a family that we might consider to be something like upper-middle class. They were not nobles, but were aspirants to that sort of status. Margaret Paston was a real letter-writing kind of woman, and you learn a lot of details of their everyday life.

Other good ones:

"The Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England"

"Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain 850-1250 AD"

"Common Women: Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England"

"Medieval Children"

Avoid "A World Lit Only By Fire"by William Manchester. It seems like it has more of a point to make - namely, that the Middle Ages sucked and the people living in them were savage idiots - than a history to tell.
posted by palindromic at 8:13 AM on July 24, 2012

This book by Emily Cockayne is a bit out of the time-range, but probably has useful information for giving you an idea of what cities felt like back then. If anything, imagine what this book describes, only perhaps worse and scarier.
posted by vkxmai at 8:24 AM on July 24, 2012

Also, upon rereading your question, I'd recommend that you not limit yourself to settings that are already popular in other works of both fiction and non-fiction. It would be a lot more interesting to read historical fiction about, say, Visigothic Hispania and the beginnings of Al-Andalus, than it would to read yet another vague High Middle Ages knights and maidens sort of thing.

Or if you're really set on knights and maidens, at least get specific about where you are and when it is and exactly what is special about that setting. A story about a troubadour in Provence is going to be different from a story about the daughter of a Norman lord.

Other interesting ideas:

Amalfi under the Normans

the settlement of Iceland

Scientists (alchemists? astrologers?) and monks in 15th century Krakow

Aemstelledamm, a prosperous town on the Amstel river during the time of the Black Death.
posted by Sara C. at 8:28 AM on July 24, 2012

It's a little old, but Bark's Origins of the Medieval World has a later chapter addressing the emergence of monasteries in post-Roman Europe. He describes them in terms of a pioneering movement with both spiritual and secular objectives.

Also, working primarily from archaeology and records, Michael Wood's The Story of England has excellent descriptions of changing daily life in the village of Kibworth through a number of historical periods. Episodes 1 and 2 deal with the Iron Age through to the 1300s.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 8:32 AM on July 24, 2012

I wouldn't be that down on Manchester, though I would note that he began the book as a brief discussion of Magellan and got side tracked. It's not really his area of expertise. Which shows in the reading. On the plus side, he is a fine stylist. Anyway, the book is probably too late to be considered medieval in the first place.

Which raises the next question. Do you have a specific period? There were significantly different flavors to the different centuries.

Try Medieval People by Eileen Power.

And pretty much anything by Eleanor Shipley Duckett

For documentaries, Terry Jones, who read medieval history before becoming a python, has a few BBC productions out there. Cheesy as you would expect, but entertaining.
posted by BWA at 8:33 AM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Look into The Plan of St. Gall, a plan for a monastery - the entire compound, not just parts of it - everything from the church to where the pigpens should go.

Emphatically seconding the Barbara Tuchman "A Distant Mirror" as a good read, and "A World Lit Only By Fire" as a massive load of crap.
posted by PussKillian at 8:38 AM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Absolutely second John Cohen's upthread recommendation of the second volume of A History of Private Life (and also see the first volume if it's the very early medieval period you might be interested in). Also perhaps have a look at Chiara Frugoni's A Day in a Medieval City (2006).
posted by hydatius at 8:38 AM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also look in this old AskMeFi
posted by Confess, Fletch at 9:03 AM on July 24, 2012

The Decameron - the stories are fiction but it's medieval fiction. Gives you a peak into their heads as well as their lives.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:38 AM on July 24, 2012

Not a book, but highly relevant: The Early Middle Ages, 284-1000 on Yale Open Courses. The lecturer, Dr. Paul Freeman, often stops to discuss the "mood" of different times and places, in addition to giving the broad background of the time you are interested in. I haven't finished the lectures yet, but there are lectures where he discusses the social and cultural significance of monasteries -- though he hasn't gone through a "day in the life" type of explanation.
posted by anotherbrick at 1:04 PM on July 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Written many years ago but he's a superb writer and it's free on archive.org: Growing Up in 13th Century England by Alfred Duggan.
posted by Abiezer at 6:43 PM on July 24, 2012

They're not short reads, but all three volumes of Fernand Braudel's 'Civilization and Capitalism: 15th-18th Century' provide rich, textured accounts of daily life, culture, and commerce in the period covered.
posted by narcotizingdysfunction at 1:27 AM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

I recently read Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie and I thoroughly recommend it for your purposes. It's a highly detailed reconstruction of life in a southern French village between about 1280 and 1320, with lots of information on the lives, work, houses, food and relationships of the people who lived there, as well as their religious and spiritual ideas. Montaillou was one of the last holdouts of Cathar/Albigensian ideology and the main source for the book is the records of the Catholic bishop who stamped it out. (Luckily for us, he later became Pope and all his documents were preserved in the Vatican archives.)

Thanks for asking this question. I'm interested in a lot of the suggestions you've got as well.
posted by daisyk at 10:14 AM on December 15, 2012

« Older Moving into the place next door   |   iTunes, do your job! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.