Any world history book reccomendations for the medieval period?
September 11, 2015 2:11 PM   Subscribe

My undergraduate degree was in medieval history, and I still enjoy reading about the period. But I've a very narrow geographic range to what I've read about - mainly western Europe, with some on eastern Europe and the Middle East. I'd like to broaden my range with some good books about what was going on in the rest of the world from about 500CE to 1500CE.

I'm not particularly looking for overviews or surveys - this is very much reading for pleasure rather than getting some grand historical perspective. I'd like some recommendations for good, enjoyable writing that's based on solid research.

I realise that in some places there aren't written records for at least parts of this period, but I'm more than happy to read about archaeology. I'm very happy reading weighty academic textbooks as long as they're interesting - I'm currently part way through An Environmental History of Medieval Europe and finding it fascinating. At the same time, I've enjoyed well-researched popular books like Juliet Barker's Agincourt. In terms of fields of history, I'll read anything interesting, be it social history, political, military, biography, or whatever.

Thanks in advance!
posted by Vortisaur to Society & Culture (18 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Bartlett's The Making of Europe is an absolute must-read.
posted by General Malaise at 2:18 PM on September 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Europe and the People Without History by Eric R. Wolf may be of interest to you, though it is focused on the transitions at the end of the period you mention. Originally published in 1982, it seems to be out in a new edition. I found it fascinating reading, and it is focused on the interaction of the world with European expansion over the period 1400-1800.
posted by lathrop at 3:23 PM on September 11, 2015

I'm told Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror is on point, but I haven't read it yet.
posted by uberchet at 3:41 PM on September 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Agree with uberchet that Barbara Tuchman's "A Distant Mirror" is a wonderful book.
I must reread again myself!
posted by lungtaworld at 4:10 PM on September 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

"The Devil's Horsemen" is an excellent book about the Mongols. As you know, the rise of the Mongols over a period of about a century resulted in a mammoth shift in the course of history, but if you read about them from the point of view of Europe, they seem more like a plague than a culture.

They actually were very complex and interesting, and their astounding conquests were no accident. The Mongol empire at its height was the largest empire in the history of the world.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:24 PM on September 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

I loved Philip Daileader's Great Courses series on the Middle Ages. As far as I know it's only available as an audio book. It is significantly less expensive if you buy it through an audible account. This is the series that converted me into thinking: wow, the Middle Ages are fascinating.

Equally fantastic: Sharyn Eastaugh's 127-episode podcast (and counting) History of the Crusades. This is Mike Duncan-levels of amazing; she deserves far wider acclaim than (I think) she's received.

John Julius Norwich has a dry style and his books can be dense, but they are packed with information. Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy and A Short History of Byzantium are both worth a look.

I'm still waiting for a great book on Venice during the Middle Ages. In the meantime, Roger Crowley's City of Fortune is passable. It focuses a bit too much on the broad outlines rather than the nitty gritty drama for my tastes, but it's the best I've found to date.
posted by kanewai at 4:41 PM on September 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Okay, I'm gonna focus on Asia and the Muricas here. Haven't personally read all of these, none in entirety, oops, but maybe take a look at:

the biography of Hideyoshi by Mary Elizabeth Berry, or many other popular books on the samurai - I think there are loads of good ones

Salt: A World History, by Mark Kurlansky, and other books about the history of things - spices, etc.?

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, by Jack Weatherford, or other books about the Mongols and such?

Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900, by Alfred Crosby

The Ecological Indian: Myth and History, by Shepard Krech

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, and/or Ancient Americans: Rewriting the History of the New World, both by Charles Mann?

Controversial: 1421: The Year China Discovered America, by Gavin Menzies. Nay?

More academic: Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350, by Janet L. Abu-Lughod

Obligatory blah blah about librarians.
posted by pos at 5:12 PM on September 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: When Asia Was the World might be a bit thinner/lighter/more popularized than what you're looking for. But it sets exactly the dates you mention as its boundaries, and what makes it reasonably focused and engaging rather than being way too general is that most chapters focus on specific memoirs or travel narratives. Here's a review from The Journal of Asian Studies.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 5:13 PM on September 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

I also came to suggest A Distant Mirror.
posted by guster4lovers at 5:17 PM on September 11, 2015

Best answer: The World of the Shining Prince, Ivan Morris (Heian-period Japan, around 800-1200 CE).

China's Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty, Mark Edward Lewis (around 600-900 CE).
posted by wintersweet at 5:27 PM on September 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

(I think Menzies' 1421 has been pretty thoroughly discredited, FWIW.)
posted by wintersweet at 5:29 PM on September 11, 2015

Is it worth the read precisely for that reason though? I guess either way it's not something Vortisaur's looking for. Good point, wintersweet.
posted by pos at 5:42 PM on September 11, 2015

Might be a bit too early for you, but I adore John Julius Norwich's Byzantium (three books). Really excellent historical writing.
posted by Go Banana at 6:16 PM on September 11, 2015

The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:07 PM on September 11, 2015

Anything that David Abulafia writes is interesting.
posted by BWA at 8:10 PM on September 11, 2015

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for the reccomendations - I already have Byzantium on my radar (I've read a reasonable amount about the earlier history, and I've got The Fall of Constantinople waiting to be read. The books on Asia and the Americas look great, and I'm looking forward to reading them.

In case anyone is still reading this thread - are there any recs for Africa? It seems rather missed out here.
posted by Vortisaur at 11:57 AM on September 13, 2015

Best answer: Well, there are Cambridge Histories of Africa, I'd start there for bibliographies if nothing else. For a general background, you could try Medieval Africa, 1250-1800
posted by BWA at 7:41 PM on September 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'm adding this in case other people are looking at this question - I've just been pointed to the recommended reading page for the 'Defining Global Middle Ages Research Network' which has books on just this topic.
posted by Vortisaur at 2:02 AM on December 8, 2015

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