The best books that take a fresh approach to medieval philosophy

Peter Adamson Author Of Medieval Philosophy: A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Volume 4
By Peter Adamson

The Books I Picked & Why

Medieval Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction

By John Marenbon

Book cover of Medieval Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction

Why 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.


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The Cambridge History of Medieval Philosophy

By Robert Pasnau

Book cover of The Cambridge History of Medieval Philosophy

Why 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.


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Medieval Trinitarian Thought from Aquinas to Ockham

By Russell L. Friedman

Book cover of Medieval Trinitarian Thought from Aquinas to Ockham

Why 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.


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

By Cecilia Trifogli

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

Why 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.


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Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women

By Caroline Walker Bynum

Book cover of Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women

Why 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.


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