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

The Books I Picked & Why

The Autumn of the Middle Ages

By Johan Huizinga, Rodney J. Payton, Ulrich Mammitzsch

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.

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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”.

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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.

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Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages

By André Vauchez, Jean Birrell

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.

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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.

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