The best books about Britain in the Early Middle Ages

Who am I?

I am a Professor of Early Medieval English History at the University of Cambridge. I also work on relations with the rest of Britain, and between Britain and its European neighbours, especially from an economic and social point of view. My interest in early medieval history arose from the jigsaw puzzle approach that it requires: even more so than for other periods, sources are few and often challenging, so need to be seen together and interpreted imaginatively. 


I wrote...

Early Medieval Britain

By Rory Naismith,

Book cover of Early Medieval Britain

What is my book about?

I agreed to write this book for two main reasons. The first is that I like a challenge, and the scope and complexity of the subject matter certainly made it a challenge! Britain is a big place with lots of distinct languages and histories in this period. There are, moreover, very different traditions of how to treat the early Middle Ages among specialists on England, Wales and Scotland. My aim was to span and cut across some of these differences, in an approachable way that would be comprehensible and interesting for students. But these complexities mean there are relatively few books that treat Britain as a whole. I have written this list to emphasise some other books that do this same job, and do it in an interesting and effective way.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of From Pictland to Alba: Scotland, 789-1070

Rory Naismith Why did I love this book?

This book is not just about Scotland, despite the title. It is a very rich and imaginative study that is both helped and hindered by its remit being modern Scotland, which was never a single political or cultural entity in the early Middle Ages. That means the author has to look at several distinct groups: the English of Northumbria, the Britons of Strathclyde in the southwest, and the Vikings of the north and west, as well as the ‘Scots’ themselves of central Scotland (whose collective identity as Scots was taking shape at this time). All of this is done with insight, imagination, and command of the complicated sources. It is a lesson in how wide-ranging histories of Britain should be written.

By Alex Woolf,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked From Pictland to Alba as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the 780s northern Britain was dominated by two great kingdoms; Pictavia, centred in north-eastern Scotland and Northumbria which straddled the modern Anglo-Scottish border. Within a hundred years both of these kingdoms had been thrown into chaos by the onslaught of the Vikings and within two hundred years they had become distant memories. This book charts the transformation of the political landscape of northern Britain between the eighth and the eleventh centuries. Central to this narrative is the mysterious disappearance of the Picts and their language and the sudden rise to prominence of the Gaelic-speaking Scots who would replace them…


Book cover of Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland: The Dynasty of Ivarr to A.D. 1014

Rory Naismith Why did I love this book?

‘Viking’ really refers more to an activity than an ethnicity, and has developed an unhelpful amount of baggage in modern times. This book, however, is about vikings red in tooth and claw who fought, raided, and conquered across Britain, but did so as conscious and coherent historical figures rather than an aggressive force of nature. Through delicate source-work that traverses several linguistic and cultural divides, Downham traces the activities of a powerful Scandinavian dynasty that played a formative role in the history of Britain and Ireland across the ninth and tenth centuries.

By Clare Downham,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Vikings plagued the coasts of Ireland and Britain in the 790s. By the mid-ninth century vikings had established a number of settlements in Ireland and Britain and had become heavily involved with local politics. A particularly successful viking leader named Ivarr campaigned on both sides of the Irish Sea in the 860s. His descendants dominated the major seaports of Ireland and challenged the power of kings in Britain during the later ninth and tenth centuries. This book provides a political analysis of the deeds of Ivarr's family from their first appearance in Insular records down to the year 1014. Such…


Book cover of Formative Britain: An Archaeology of Britain, Fifth to Eleventh Century AD

Rory Naismith Why did I love this book?

Archaeologists have a history of stimulating and provocative big-picture thinking about Britain, and this volume represents one of the latest and most ambitious surveys of the material remains of Britain as a whole. Its author is a veteran excavator with experience on sites from Sutton Hoo to Portmahomack. Carver’s title signals one of his goals: to break free of the ethnic, national labels for this period, and to lay down a new chronological and geographical framework for thinking about the whole of Britain across the period. 

By Martin Carver,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Formative Britain presents an account of the peoples occupying the island of Britain between 400 and 1100 AD, whose ideas continue to set the political agenda today. Forty years of new archaeological research has laid bare a hive of diverse and disputatious communities of Picts, Scots, Welsh, Cumbrian and Cornish Britons, Northumbrians, Angles and Saxons, who expressed their views of this world and the next in a thousand sites and monuments.

This highly illustrated volume is the first book that attempts to describe the experience of all levels of society over the whole island using archaeology alone. The story is…


Book cover of The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000

Rory Naismith Why did I love this book?

This is not a book just about Britain, and that is precisely the point: Britain on its own makes sense as a unit, but it needs to be regarded both as a collection of smaller regions, and as part of a bigger whole. Wickham’s masterly survey does an excellent job of situating Britain with regard to bigger developments across the continent. He highlights very effectively how it does and does not fit in with wider trends, which is critical to knowing what makes Britain distinctive. This book exemplifies why the history of Britain really needs also to be the history of Europe, and indeed beyond.

By Chris Wickham,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Inheritance of Rome as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'The Penguin History of Europe series ... is one of contemporary publishing's great projects' New Statesman

The world known as the 'Dark Ages', often seen as a time of barbarism, was in fact the crucible in which modern Europe would be created.

Chris Wickham's acclaimed history shows how this period, encompassing peoples such as Goths, Franks, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, was central to the development of our history and culture. From the collapse of the Roman Empire to the establishment of new European states, and from Ireland to Constantinople, the Baltic to the Mediterranean, this landmark work makes…


Book cover of Britain in the First Millennium: From Romans to Normans

Rory Naismith Why did I love this book?

Most books covering the early Middle Ages in Britain start with the fifth century and end around the tenth or eleventh. Edward James’s Britain is different, in that it embraces the Roman period too. Breadth on this level is stimulating, especially when (as here) it is accompanied by elegant and insightful prose that takes care to pay attention to diverse constituencies in society. 

By Edward James,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Britain in the First Millennium as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Ideal for undergraduates, this survey of medieval Britain is a coherent narrative of events between the two great invasions from continental Europe. It is unique both for its broad historical perspective and for its wide geographic coverage: it spans the 'long' millennium from the first century BC through the Norman conquest and covers events across the whole of Britain, from Cornwall to the Shetlands. Edward James provides the European context for events in England while also examining the many ways Britain differed from the rest of Europe. Students of medieval Europe will find his book an invaluable synthesis.


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Holy Food: How Cults, Communes, and Religious Movements Influenced What We Eat - An American History

By Christina Ward,

Book cover of Holy Food: How Cults, Communes, and Religious Movements Influenced What We Eat - An American History

Christina Ward Author Of Holy Food: How Cults, Communes, and Religious Movements Influenced What We Eat - An American History

New book alert!

Who am I?

For me, history is always about individuals; what they think and believe and how those ideas motivate their actions. By relegating our past to official histories or staid academic tellings we deprive ourselves of the humanity of our shared experiences. As a “popular historian” I use food to tell all the many ways we attempt to “be” American. History is for everyone, and my self-appointed mission is to bring more stories to readers! These recommendations are a few stand-out titles from the hundreds of books that inform my current work on how food and religion converge in America. You’ll have to wait for Holy Food to find out what I’ve discovered.

Christina's book list on the hidden history of America

What is my book about?

Does God have a recipe? Independent food historian Christina Ward’s highly anticipated Holy Food explores the influence of mainstream to fringe religious beliefs on modern American food culture.

Author Christina Ward unravels how religious beliefs intersect with politics, economics, and, of course, food to tell a different story of America. It's the story of true believers and charlatans, of idealists and visionaries, and of the everyday people who followed them—often at their peril.

Holy Food explains how faith pioneers used societal woes and cultural trends to create new pathways of belief and reveals the interconnectivity between sects and their leaders.

Holy Food: How Cults, Communes, and Religious Movements Influenced What We Eat - An American History

By Christina Ward,

What is this book about?

Does God have a recipe?

"Holy Food is a titanic feat of research and a fascinating exploration of American faith and culinary rites. Christina Ward is the perfect guide – generous, wise, and ecumenical." — Adam Chandler, author of Drive-Thru Dreams

"Holy Food doesn't just trace the influence that preachers, gurus, and cult leaders have had on American cuisine. It offers a unique look at the ways spirituality—whether in the form of fringe cults or major religions—has shaped our culture. Christina Ward has gone spelunking into some very odd corners of American history to unearth this fascinating collection of stories…


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