The best books about medieval warfare

Stephen Morillo Author Of War and Conflict in the Middle Ages: A Global Perspective.
By Stephen Morillo

The Books I Picked & Why

The Last Great War of Antiquity

By James Howard-Johnston

The Last Great War of Antiquity

Why this book?

This book is, to me, the Platonic Ideal of scholarly military history. Howard-Johnston examines a somewhat obscure but vastly important war between the Byzantine Empire and the Persian Empire that lasted from 602 to 628 and left both empires vulnerable to the new Islamic power that was about to emerge in Arabia. His narrative is lively, his knowledge of the sources is unmatched, his interpretations masterful, and he exposes the inner workings of the book regularly in philosophical comments on the job of the military historian, causation in history, and the problems of source interpretation. That it took him longer to write than the war itself lasted is also one of my favorite pieces of historian-author trivia!


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The Cambridge History of War: Volume 2, War and the Medieval World

By David A. Graff

The Cambridge History of War: Volume 2, War and the Medieval World

Why this book?

This is a superb example of what a multi-author compilation can achieve: wide coverage, specialist knowledge of a variety of topics and approaches, and thus fascinating details from around the world of medieval warfare. And what it lacks (in coherent overview and broad comparative approach) is supplied by my own book! I think of this as a good companion to my own more global, comparative, and theory-based account of medieval war and conflict.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The Tale of the Heike

By Helen Craig McCullough

The Tale of the Heike

Why this book?

So if you want to get away from academic historians and go straight to the sources, this is a great place to start. The Tale of the Heike is the epic story, developed over centuries by Japanese storytellers, of the great war between the Taira clan and the Minamoto clan for dominance in Japan in the Genpei War of 1180-1185, the war from which emerged the first samurai-centered government in Japanese history, the Kamakura. Full of colorful characters, dramatic battle scenes, and betrayal-soaked politics, it gives an authentic window onto medieval warfare.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Under the Hog: A Novel of Richard III

By Patrick Carleton

Under the Hog: A Novel of Richard III

Why this book?

Academic books too dry? Primary sources too intimidating? Find a copy of Under the Hog, a historical novel set in the War of the Roses in 15th century England that is perhaps the best historical novel ever — certainly the best written by a pseudonymous author! It gives a variety of close-up views of medieval combat, politics, and culture, and is a favorite among folks who think that king Richard III of England (yes, the evil hunchback of Shakespeare’s depiction) got a reputational raw deal from the Bard. 


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The Worm Ouroboros

By E. R. Eddison, Keith Henderson

The Worm Ouroboros

Why this book?

Historical novels still too mundane? Read E.R. Eddison’s fantasy classic. An epic tale of war and heroism told in a fabulous faux-17th century English style, The Worm also features some of the best, most realistic battle scenes in all of fantasy literature -— check out the Battle of Krothering Side for its action, tactical acumen, and narrative brilliance. I have several times taught a class on “Swords, Sorcery, and Reality” that brings classic fantasy literature into dialogue with medieval primary sources, and Eddison regularly ends up as the student’s favorite, even beating out Tolkien (whose battle narratives are themselves excellent!). And this book has to be on this list, because it’s actually my favorite book ever. My earring is a Worm Ouroboros!


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Random Book Lists