The best books that take a fresh approach to medieval philosophy

Why am I passionate about this?

I'm a professor of philosophy in Munich who has been working on various aspects of medieval philosophy for nearly three decades. My own research is on philosophy in the Islamic world but I've always been fascinated by philosophy in medieval Christian Europe. What I find most interesting is the way medieval philosophy constantly overturns our expectations: we imagine that this was a deeply conservative and highly controlled society where it was almost impossible to explore new ideas. Yet, it was an incredibly diverse and innovative time in the history of human thought. Thanks to my History of Philosophy podcast project I had the chance to delve deeply into medieval philosophy in Latin Christendom.


I wrote...

Medieval Philosophy: A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Volume 4

By Peter Adamson,

Book cover of Medieval Philosophy: A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Volume 4

What is my book about?

A lively introduction to six hundred years of European philosophy, from the beginning of the ninth century to the end of the fourteenth century. The medieval period is one of the richest in the history of philosophy, yet one of the least widely known. Adamson introduces us to some of the greatest thinkers of the Western intellectual tradition, including Peter Abelard, Anselm of Canterbury, Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, and Roger Bacon. And the medieval period was notable for the emergence of great women thinkers, including Hildegard of Bingen, Marguerite Porete, and Julian of Norwich. Original ideas and arguments were developed in every branch of philosophy during this period – not just philosophy of religion and theology, but the foundations of mathematics and natural science, and more.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Medieval Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction

Peter Adamson Why did I love this book?

This is an engaging and wide-ranging survey of the topic written by one of the leading scholars of philosophy in medieval Latin Christendom. Marenbon actually wrote some earlier general introductions which were also very good. But I recommend this one because he casts a broader net, by looking at medieval philosophy not only in Christian Europe but in the Islamic world too.

By John Marenbon,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Medieval Philosophy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For many of us, the term 'medieval philosophy' conjures up the figure of Thomas Aquinas, and is closely intertwined with religion. In this Very Short Introduction John Marenbon shows how medieval philosophy had a far broader reach than the thirteenth and fourteenth-century universities of Christian Europe, and is instead one of the most exciting and diversified periods in the history of thought.

Introducing the coexisting strands of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish philosophy, Marenbon shows how these traditions all go back to the Platonic schools of late antiquity and explains the complex ways in which they are interlinked. Providing an overview…


Book cover of The Cambridge History of Medieval Philosophy

Peter Adamson Why did I love this book?

A deep dive into medieval philosophy with chapters by many of the leading scholars in the field. It’s arranged by philosophical topic rather than chronologically or by figure. But it also has a very detailed list of medieval philosophers providing their dates and indications for further reading. This is only one of several useful appendices: also included are lists of medieval translations of philosophy between different languages. So again this book invites readers to go beyond the usual suspects of Latin scholasticism like Abelard, Aquinas, Scotus, and Ockham.

By Robert Pasnau,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Cambridge History of Medieval Philosophy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Cambridge History of Medieval Philosophy comprises over fifty specially commissioned essays by experts on the philosophy of this period. Starting in the late eighth century, with the renewal of learning some centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, a sequence of chapters take the reader through developments in many and varied fields, including logic and language, natural philosophy, ethics, metaphysics, and theology. Close attention is paid to the context of medieval philosophy, with discussions of the rise of the universities and developments in the cultural and linguistic spheres. A striking feature is the continuous coverage of Islamic, Jewish,…


Book cover of Medieval Trinitarian Thought from Aquinas to Ockham

Peter Adamson Why did I love this book?

A prejudice people have about medieval philosophy is that it is all about theology, and theology isn’t philosophy (or isn’t philosophically interesting). There are two answers to be given here: first, medieval philosophers thought about lots of things apart from theology, like logic, physics, ethics, and so on. But also, when they did theology the results could be philosophically fascinating! In this case, discussions of the Trinity turn out to involve explorations of such topics as the nature of relations and the philosophy of mind (because one idea was to understand the Trinity as being akin to interrelations between aspects of human psychology). Other topics worth looking at to show how philosophically rewarding theology could be would be the eucharist and angels.

By Russell L. Friedman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Medieval Trinitarian Thought from Aquinas to Ockham as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

How can the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit be distinct and yet identical? Prompted by the doctrine of the divine Trinity, this question sparked centuries of lively debate. In the current context of renewed interest in Trinitarian theology, Russell L. Friedman provides the first survey of the scholastic discussion of the Trinity in the 100-year period stretching from Thomas Aquinas' earliest works to William Ockham's death. Tracing two central issues - the attempt to explain how the three persons are distinct from each other but identical as God, and the application to the Trinity of a 'psychological model',…


Book cover of Oxford Physics in the Thirteenth Century: (Ca. 1250-1270) Motion, Infinity, Place and Time

Peter Adamson Why did I love this book?

This book is perhaps aimed more at specialist scholars but I wanted to suggest it nonetheless because it does such a good job of getting across three important points about medieval philosophy. First, it is not about theology but physics so shows the thematic range of medieval philosophy. Second, it is mostly about works by philosophers who are anonymous: Trifogli talks about commentaries on Aristotle with no names attached to them. It turns out there are many, many such works and they tend to be overlooked even though they are innovative, simply because we have no name to put to the ideas. Third, it’s clear throughout the book that these commentators were responding to philosophers from the Islamic world, especially Ibn Rushd (Averroes). So it illustrates the relevance of cross-cultural contacts for medieval thought.

By Cecilia Trifogli,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Oxford Physics in the Thirteenth Century as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This volume deals with the reception of Aristotle's natural philosophy in Oxford between 1250 and 1270. It examines a group of ten unedited commentaries on Aristotle's Physics.
This book consists of four main chapters devoted respectively to the concepts of motion, infinity, place, and time. Topics included are the question about the nature of motion, the discussion of the actual infinity in numbers, the relation between Aristotle's concepts of place in the Physics and in the Categories, the debate about the reality and the unicity of time.
This book offers a comprehensive philosophical analysis of a hitherto unexplored phase of…


Book cover of Holy Feast and Holy Fast

Peter Adamson Why did I love this book?

This choice might surprise you: it’s a famous book in medieval studies circles but not the sort of thing a historian of philosophy would usually pick up. But its exploration of the role of the body in writings by female medieval authors is foundational for understanding what is sometimes called “affective mysticism.” That topic expands our sense of what medieval philosophy could be. Other scholars whose work is worth checking out on this topic include Amy Hollywood and Christina Van Dyke.

By Caroline Walker Bynum,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Holy Feast and Holy Fast as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the period between 1200 and 1500 in western Europe, a number of religious women gained widespread veneration and even canonization as saints for their extraordinary devotion to the Christian eucharist, supernatural multiplications of food and drink, and miracles of bodily manipulation, including stigmata and inedia (living without eating). The occurrence of such phenomena sheds much light on the nature of medieval society and medieval religion. It also forms a chapter in the history of women. Previous scholars have occasionally noted the various phenomena in isolation from each other and have sometimes applied modern medical or psychological theories to them.…


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By Susan Tate Ankeny,

Book cover of American Flygirl

Susan Tate Ankeny Author Of The Girl and the Bombardier: A True Story of Resistance and Rescue in Nazi-Occupied France

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Susan Tate Ankeny left a career in teaching to write the story of her father’s escape from Nazi-occupied France. In 2011, after being led on his path through France by the same Resistance fighters who guided him in 1944, she felt inspired to tell the story of these brave French patriots, especially the 17-year-old- girl who risked her own life to save her father’s. Susan is a member of the 8th Air Force Historical Society, the Air Force Escape and Evasion Society, and the Association des Sauveteurs d’Aviateurs Alliés. 

Susan's book list on women during WW2

What is my book about?

The first and only full-length biography of Hazel Ying Lee, an unrecognized pioneer and unsung World War II hero who fought for a country that actively discriminated against her gender, race, and ambition.

This unique hidden figure defied countless stereotypes to become the first Asian American woman in United States history to earn a pilot's license, and the first female Asian American pilot to fly for the military.

Her achievements, passionate drive, and resistance in the face of oppression as a daughter of Chinese immigrants and a female aviator changed the course of history. Now the remarkable story of a fearless underdog finally surfaces to inspire anyone to reach toward the sky.

American Flygirl

By Susan Tate Ankeny,

What is this book about?

One of WWII’s most uniquely hidden figures, Hazel Ying Lee was the first Asian American woman to earn a pilot’s license, join the WASPs, and fly for the United States military amid widespread anti-Asian sentiment and policies.

Her singular story of patriotism, barrier breaking, and fearless sacrifice is told for the first time in full for readers of The Women with Silver Wings by Katherine Sharp Landdeck, A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell, The Last Boat Out of Shanghai by Helen Zia, Facing the Mountain by Daniel James Brown and all Asian American, women’s and WWII history books.…


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