The best books that look at medieval Europe as a whole

Robert Bartlett Author Of Blood Royal: Dynastic Politics in Medieval Europe
By Robert Bartlett

Who am I?

I have had an interest in the Middle Ages as long as I can remember. In boyhood, this took the form of model knights, trips to castles, and a huge body of writing about an imaginary medieval country called Rulasia. Later it was disciplined by the study of the real medieval world, in particular by finding an ideal subject for my doctoral dissertation in Gerald of Wales, a prolific and cantankerous twelfth-century cleric, whose writings on Ireland and Wales, on saints and miracles, and on the Angevin kings (Henry II, Richard the Lionheart and John), were the ultimate inspiration for my own books on medieval colonialism, the cult of the saints and medieval dynasties.


I wrote...

Blood Royal: Dynastic Politics in Medieval Europe

By Robert Bartlett,

Book cover of Blood Royal: Dynastic Politics in Medieval Europe

What is my book about?

Throughout medieval Europe, for hundreds of years, monarchy was the way that politics worked in most countries. This meant power was in the hands of a family - a dynasty; that politics was family politics; and political life was shaped by the births, marriages, and deaths of the ruling family. How did the dynastic system cope with female rule, or pretenders to the throne? How did dynasties use names, the numbering of rulers, and the visual display of heraldry to express their identity? And why did some royal families survive and thrive, while others did not?

This history of dynastic power in Latin Christendom and Byzantium explores the role played by family dynamics and family consciousness in the politics of the royal and imperial dynasties.

The books I picked & why

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The Autumn of the Middle Ages

By Johan Huizinga, Rodney J. Payton (translator), Ulrich Mammitzsch (translator)

Book cover of The Autumn of the Middle Ages

Why this book?

Huizinga’s book was first published more than 100 years ago, in 1919, but it retains its value as a sparkling and original evocation of the world of late medieval Europe: its values, its thought, its violence, and – one of its great strengths - its visual arts. This last is not surprising, since the author’s main focus is on the Netherlands and northern France, where oil painting, the realistic portrait, and the landscape began in European art. The book has been translated into English more than once, with significantly different titles: in 1924 as The Waning of the Middle Ages, then – 72 years later! - as The Autumn of the Middle Ages. In 2020 there appeared yet another version - Autumntide of the Middle Ages. The book is ever young.

The Autumn of the Middle Ages

By Johan Huizinga, Rodney J. Payton (translator), Ulrich Mammitzsch (translator)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Autumn of the Middle Ages as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is a portrait of life, thought and art in 14th- and 15th-century France and the Netherlands. Regarded as an historical classic by many scholars, it has also been criticized and incorrectly translated. This edition corrects changes made by other translators to the original Dutch text of 1919. For Huizinga, the 14th and 15th centuries marked not the birth of a dramatically new era in history - the Renaissance - but the fullest, ripest phase of medieval life and thought. However, his work was criticized at home and in Europe for being "old-fashioned" and "too literary". Franz Hopman adapted, reduced,…


Feudal Society

By Marc Bloch,

Book cover of Feudal Society

Why this book?

Marc Bloch was one of the most important historians of the twentieth century as well as a brave and principled man - he joined the French resistance after the German occupation of 1940 and was captured, tortured, and killed by the Gestapo in 1944. Feudal Society first appeared in French in 1939-40 and was quickly recognized as a brilliant introduction to the feudal Europe of the ninth to thirteenth centuries. Besides setting out the power structures of that society, such as the kindred, the fief, and the manor, it pioneered new approaches – one chapter is titled “Modes of Feeling and Thought”. Bloch and his friend Lucien Febvre were co-founders of the journal Annales, which tried to move the study of history away from purely political narrative and towards consideration of long-term perspectives and mentalities, an approach that had a huge influence and is often called “the Annales school”.

Feudal Society

By Marc Bloch,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Feudal Society as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Marc Bloch said that his goal in writing Feudal Society was to go beyond the technical study a medievalist would typically write and 'dismantle a social structure.' In this outstanding and monumental work, which has introduced generations of students and historians to the feudal period, Bloch treats feudalism as living, breathing force in Western Europe from the ninth to the thirteenth century. At its heart lies a magisterial account of relations of lord and vassal, and the origins of the nature of the fief, brought to life through compelling accounts of the nobility, knighthood and chivalry, family relations, political and…


The Making of the Middle Ages

By R.W. Southern,

Book cover of The Making of the Middle Ages

Why this book?

Very early in Southern’s Making of the Middle Ages, when he is discussing the divisions of Latin Christendom, and the various languages that were spoken in western Europe, he tells the story of a monk who travelled from Catalonia to Germany in 1051, reporting the death of count Wilfrid of Cerdaña and requesting from the monasteries and cathedrals he passed prayers to be inscribed on the parchment roll he carried. This roll still survives and it gave Southern the opportunity to paint a concrete and lively picture of the varied world that the monk encountered. It is typical of his ability to enliven a broad picture with a vivid vignette. As an introduction to medieval Europe from the tenth to early thirteenth century, this short book cannot be bettered. Another reason for recommending the book is that Sir Richard Southern was my much-revered teacher at Oxford.

The Making of the Middle Ages

By R.W. Southern,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Making of the Middle Ages as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A distinguished Oxford historian presents an absorbing study of the main personalities and the influences that molded the history of Western Europe from the late tenth to the early thirteenth century, describing the chief forms of social, political, and religious organization.
"A book of rare value."-Sidney Painter, American Historical Review


Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages

By André Vauchez, Jean Birrell (translator),

Book cover of Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages

Why this book?

One of the most exciting areas of research and publication in medieval history over the last few generations has been the cult of the saints. A landmark was Peter Brown’s slim but fundamental The Cult of the Saints (1981), an effervescent essay on the origins of the veneration of saints in the Late Antique period. In the same year a very different book appeared, the French original of Vauchez’s enormous and comprehensive study of Christian saints in Latin (western) Christendom, the heart of which was an analysis of the 71 people who were proposed for papal canonization in the period 1198-1431 (only half of them made it). By limiting himself in this way, Vauchez was able to ask statistical questions, demonstrating that as time went on, canonized saints became more female and more lay, as well as pointing out the geography and chronology of sanctity. A monumental achievement.

Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages

By André Vauchez, Jean Birrell (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is a standard work of reference for the study of the religious history of western Christianity in the later middle ages which, since its original publication in French in 1981, has come to be regarded as one of the great contributions to medieval studies of recent times. Hagiographical texts and reports of the processes of canonisation - a mode of investigation into saints' lives and their miracles implemented by the popes from the end of the twelfth century - are here used for the first time as major source materials. The book illuminates the main features of the medieval…


Kingdoms and Communities in Western Europe 900-1300

By Susan Reynolds,

Book cover of Kingdoms and Communities in Western Europe 900-1300

Why this book?

Susan Reynolds was renowned for speaking her mind, never rudely but always forthrightly. If she considered that a generally accepted view or term was wrong or misleading or ill-defined, she said so. In a later work of hers, Fiefs and Vassals, she questioned the very value of the term “feudalism” when analyzing the Middle Ages. In Kingdoms and Communities, a rather less polemical work, she argued for the importance of self-organizing lay communities (parishes, guilds, even “the community of the realm”) as contrasted with the traditional focus on kings and the Church. Susan was in the line of a long tradition of female medievalists at Oxford and Cambridge, going back even before female students were allowed to take degrees. Eileen Power (1889-1940), author of Medieval People (1924, still in print) would be a precursor.

Kingdoms and Communities in Western Europe 900-1300

By Susan Reynolds,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Kingdoms and Communities in Western Europe 900-1300 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This study is an exploration of the collective values and activities of lay society in Western Europe between the tenth century and the thirteenth. Arguing that medieval attitudes and behaviour have too readily been defined in terms of hierarchical structures of government, clerical thought, or narrow notion of kinship, the author instead places new emphasis on the horizontal bonds of collective association which permeated society in medieval England, France and
Burgundy, Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy.
By refocusing on the social and political values that characterized lay collective activity, this book offers a stimulating new approach to the history of…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Middle Ages, France, and medieval society?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Middle Ages, France, and medieval society.

The Middle Ages Explore 303 books about the Middle Ages
France Explore 691 books about France
Medieval Society Explore 14 books about medieval society

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