The best books for feeling like you scrubbed floors in the Middle Ages

Merrie Haskell Author Of Handbook for Dragon Slayers
By Merrie Haskell

Who am I?

I'm an American writer who grew obsessed with all things King Arthur at age 10. Trying to be the best 7th-grade Arthurian scholar in the world set me on a path of life-long learning and research. My historical fantasy novels for children have been flatteringly called "maybe the only [fiction] depiction of the complexities of feudal obligations & responsibilities I've ever seen" by a real medievalist. While that wasn't what I was going for, it speaks to the thing I seek out when I read: total immersion in another world. If you don't feel like you scrubbed pots in the Middle Ages, why would you read about a medieval scullery maid?

I wrote...

Handbook for Dragon Slayers

By Merrie Haskell,

Book cover of Handbook for Dragon Slayers

What is my book about?

Thirteen-year-old Princess Matilda, whose lame foot brings fear of the evil eye, has never given much thought to dragons, attending instead to her endless duties and wishing herself free of a princess's responsibilities.

When a greedy cousin steals Tilda's lands, the young princess goes on the run with two would-be dragon slayers. Before long she is facing down the Wild Hunt, befriending magical horses, and battling flame-spouting dragons. On the adventure of a lifetime, and caught between dreams of freedom and the people who need her, Tilda learns more about dragons—and herself—than she ever imagined.

The books I picked & why

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Catherine, Called Birdy

By Karen Cushman,

Book cover of Catherine, Called Birdy

Why this book?

The original 1994 cover features a medieval girl giving the reader the slightest side-eyed smirk as she pulls a rope for a classic doorway-bucket prank. The cover fits the novel perfectly: they're both vivid, detailed, direct, and slightly irreverent. Cushman's presentation of medieval life creates just the right amount of culture shock to remind you that the past truly is a foreign country--Birdy's matter-of-fact relationship to her fleas, for example. "Picked off twenty-nine fleas today," she writes one day (the book is presented as Birdy's diary). While Birdy is a lady who does more embroidery than floor scrubbing, the feeling of immersion in the Middle Ages is just the sort of warts-and-all experience that I adore.

Journey for a Princess

By Margaret Leighton,

Book cover of Journey for a Princess

Why this book?

I first read this book a dozen times in junior high, borrowed it on interlibrary loan several times in adulthood, and eventually bought a second-hand copy. Leighton's 1960 book was rather eye-opening after a steady diet of girl power books, as it features a princess who doesn't take up a sword or rebel against society. And yet, I absolutely adored Elstrid, thrilling as she learned to navigate the complexities of her medieval world. This is by far the most historical and political book on this list, based on real people. The only drawback to this book is that the princess never scrubs a floor. But you certainly believe she knew each one of her scullery maids by name!

The Black Cauldron

By Lloyd Alexander,

Book cover of The Black Cauldron

Why this book?

I read the second book in the Prydain Chronicles first, so it remains my favorite for introducing me to this magical version of medieval Wales and an Assistant Pig-Keeper. While I, like Taran, wanted to avoid the mundanities of life and skip straight to the magic swords, it was the grounding in the reality of chores that made me believe in the world. It also made me believe that if I had the good fortune to discover a portal to Prydain, that I could at least take up a career in the scullery, the forge, or possibly as a pig-keeper, while I waited to be discovered for the princess-in-disguise that I surely must be.

The Tale of Gwyn

By Cynthia Voigt,

Book cover of The Tale of Gwyn

Why this book?

When I first encountered this book in the late 1980s, it was titled Jackaroo--named for the Robin Hood-like folk hero in the non-magical secondary world called the Kingdom. However, the star of the story is Gwyn, so the renaming makes sense. The book is riveting in its action moments, but somehow I'm even more drawn to the scenes of daily toil. I have absolutely no idea how Voigt can make scrubbing the floor seem so important! (This is the real floor-scrubbing book of this list.) The Tale of Gwyn evokes a medieval European past that feels more real than the best-researched historical novel. Hopefully the series rebrand draws the wide readership it deserves--it is both exciting and thoughtful, bleak and hopeful, and I return to it again and again. 

The Wolf Hunt: A Novel of the Crusades

By Gillian Bradshaw,

Book cover of The Wolf Hunt: A Novel of the Crusades

Why this book?

Gillian Bradshaw is one of the best historical fiction writers I know of, and everyone else should know of her too. The Wolf Hunt is based on Bisclavret, one of the Lais of Marie de France, and fairly drips with historical detail (please use a coaster). The fantasy element is the major plot point, but the magic that allows for it is so subtle and low-key that I nearly forgot to classify the book as historical fantasy. This is a grown-up Catherine, Called Birdy in its ability to evoke a medieval mind and setting, minus the humor, plus more romance. And while there's no floor-scrubbing, it has big floor-scrubbing energy.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Middle Ages, knights, and heroes?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Middle Ages, knights, and heroes.

The Middle Ages Explore 216 books about the Middle Ages
Knights Explore 35 books about knights
Heroes Explore 41 books about heroes

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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