Down with the King!
February 12, 2016 9:39 PM   Subscribe

I want some Medieval historical fiction, but with a catch - no royalty!

I'm having trouble finding historical fiction that takes place during the Medieval period that doesn't focus on royalty. I loved The Doomsday Book, and really enjoyed The Pillars of the Earth, Hild, The Name of the Rose and the Kristin Lavransdatter books. I'm currently reading Company of Liars and enjoying it so far.

I know that the Medieval period spans about 1000 years, and I'm more interested in the early period, before it gets too Renaissance-y, but I'm not picky about a particular time. I'm also mainly looking for a more European setting, but I'm open to any really excellent books that are set elsewhere during this time period. Just no queens/kings/princes/princesses/international politics.
posted by brittanyq to Writing & Language (26 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
A little late in your time frame but I think you'd like Plague Land by S D Sykes. There is a lord of the manor but very little in the way of royalty. Another similar plague-riddled book is Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. Again, late in the timeframe but I suspect if you liked Doomsday Book (I did too, very much) you'd like this.
posted by jessamyn at 9:44 PM on February 12, 2016 [5 favorites]

It's been ages since I read it, but I enjoyed The Town House by Norah Lofts. It's the first (and best) book in a trilogy that stretches to the 1950s.
posted by maudlin at 9:53 PM on February 12, 2016

Look into the Cadfael mystery series. Not sure if you enjoy whodunnits like I do, but I've enjoyed those I've read. He's a monk who's a detective essentially, I remember them as pretty good.
posted by Carillon at 10:13 PM on February 12, 2016 [8 favorites]

Seconding Ellis Peters Brother Cadfael series.
posted by BoscosMom at 10:45 PM on February 12, 2016 [4 favorites]

Pestilence by William Owen Roberts.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 11:23 PM on February 12, 2016

Bernard Cornwell's Grail Quest series might fit the bill. Cornwell's descriptions of battle are fascinating.
posted by My Dad at 11:34 PM on February 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner, a beautifully written novel about everyday life in a 14th-century convent
posted by thetortoise at 11:43 PM on February 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Gargantua and Pantagruel.
Actually written in that era.
posted by boilermonster at 11:53 PM on February 12, 2016

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro. His writing style is spare and very simple; I thought the beginning chapter was a stylized prelude, but it kept going and turned into the whole amazing book. It's not at all like genre fiction. It's allegorical, a bit, and if you think about it it will reward you.
posted by amtho at 3:14 AM on February 13, 2016

The Owl Killers and Company of Liars by Karen Maitland. They're not high literature but they're nice enough reads. Company of Liars focuses on a group of travellers trying to escape the plague, The Owl Killers is set in a medieval village. There are supernatural elements, but it's not fantasy by any means... rather it's like she gives the beliefs of medieval people a (slightly more) prominent role to illustrate the fact that they had a big impact on daily life back then.

I'm not explaining it very well. You'll have to see for yourself. :)
posted by Skyanth at 5:18 AM on February 13, 2016

Some of the answers to this previous question may be relevant.
posted by misteraitch at 5:56 AM on February 13, 2016

The Wake was recently discussed over on Fanfare, and is exactly what you are describing. The narrator is obsessed with status and position, and is perhaps a bit delusional about his own status, but none of the characters are royalty and it skips all the "great houses" stuff that clutters up so many books.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:31 AM on February 13, 2016

The Name of the Rose is a murder mystery set in the 1300s.
posted by DrGail at 6:57 AM on February 13, 2016

Sharan Newman's Catherine LeVendeur series.
posted by JuliaJellicoe at 7:11 AM on February 13, 2016

Have you considered The Decameron? Since it'll be a translation it's surprisingly easy to read and since it was written in the 1300's it's guaranteed not to be too renaissancey. It's a bunch of little short stories, sometimes with a moral, sometimes with a punchline, but if you like the period, you're likely to derive some enjoyment from it.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:30 AM on February 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

The King's Hounds series by Martin Jensen is about a former nobleman turned hired sword and a fallen monk turned illuminator who travel England in the wake of King Cnut's victory over the Anglo-Saxons and solve crime. In the first book they spend some time at the Witengamot and talking to Cnut, but in the later books it's all monks and farmers and market towns and a few thegns.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:46 AM on February 13, 2016

2nding jessamyn's suggestion for Year of Wonders. First thing I thought about when I read your question. It follows people in a village as they deal with the plague, and there are lots of nice descriptions of their homes' interiors, their daily routines, their clothing, etc. The only nobility really mentioned in the book is almost us vs. them in nature; the villagers are at odds with what the local manor lord is trying to do and there are some characterizations of that family as seen by the townspeople.
posted by witchen at 8:16 AM on February 13, 2016

Oh, and this isn't fiction per se (although a lot of it is batshit bonkers non-factual, entertaining speculation about women's medicine and that type of thing): Penguin published an anthology of secular writings about women from around that period. It's really enjoyable.
posted by witchen at 8:18 AM on February 13, 2016

Zoe Oldenburg, The World is Not Enough and The Cornerstone. Petty nobility at home and in the Crusades. Gorgeously written in parts.
posted by Cocodrillo at 8:24 AM on February 13, 2016

I will 2nd The Name of the Rose, but also add A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman.
It's not fiction, but, to her credit, Tuchman sought out the lowest (socially) standing person for whom there was a continuous written record in order to write a history that, specifically, was not about royalty. She's a great writer, and this book is justifiably famous for all of the reasons.
posted by OHenryPacey at 9:35 AM on February 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Just no queens/kings/princes/princesses/international politics

How about a dead king's mistress? She mostly bankrolls the project of William Golding's The Spire.
posted by BWA at 10:33 AM on February 13, 2016

Judith Merkle Riley's books A Vision of Light and In Pursuit of the Green Lion. There's a third, The Water Devil, but for a while it was harder to find and I've only read it once. I love all her books (especially The Oracle Glass), but those are set outside the period you're asking about. There is a strain of the supernatural in the books, some more than others, but they are always rooted in the time period, and her heroines are so well-drawn. They don't have modern attitudes that read strangely against the backdrop of the time period, but Margaret, the heroine of the two books I'm recommending, is just a wonderful blend of practicality and humor and determination and faith.
posted by PussKillian at 11:06 AM on February 13, 2016

Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis (time travel to medieval English village).
posted by languagehat at 11:33 AM on February 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Maybe Noah Gordon's The Physician. It's not about a king, although the protagonist's path does cross a Persian prince's at one point. I have to say that while I read the whole book and found it interesting, the idea that anyone in 11th century Europe or Persia would have voluntarily disguised themselves as a Jew was never convincing to me - I found the whole thing kind of fundamentally poorly thought out - but it was an interesting and fun read.
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:22 PM on February 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Morality Play is set in an unnamed village in England in the fourteenth century. There's the local lord, but no royalty.
posted by Adridne at 9:50 AM on February 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

There was this previous thread too: Where does a reader go after Edith Pargeter's Heaven Tree Trilogy?. And I think there was another one, where the poster commented that (s)he was studying Tudor royalty and therefore didn't want to read about them in fiction.
posted by paduasoy at 3:09 PM on February 14, 2016

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