The best books for illuminating the Middle Ages

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a medieval historian who specialises in social history, and more particularly on sexuality, propaganda, and apocalypticism. I fell in love with the period from my very first class during my BA, but even back then, I was struck by just how little we as a society pay attention to some thousand years of history. Even worse, we often tell lazy myths about the Middle Ages as a time of filth and ignorance that makes us feel good about ourselves. Since not everyone can get a Ph.D. like I did, I have dedicated my career to bringing the period to light. I hope this book list does just that.

I wrote...

Book cover of The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women's Roles in Society

What is my book about?

This book is an important and fun corrective to our society’s understanding of the “historical place” of women in society. It draws on ideas from medieval (and ancient) society to consider how we built ideas of how women were meant to look, have relationships, and exist within the world.

Overall, we find that our society continuously changes its reasoning about why women have to be treated as less than men. But it’s not all bad news! If social constructs are made and are constantly being remade, it also means they can be unmade. A polemic against bad history and worse ideas of biological determinism, the book illuminates the lives of everyday medieval women and shows how we can learn from the past to make a more equitable future. 

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Beatrice's Last Smile: A New History of the Middle Ages

Eleanor Janega Why did I love this book?

This book made me rethink how we consider the idea of the Middle Ages–full stop.

Pegg tracks the medieval period through the concept of holiness, and if you think that might be boring, then I have got news for you about how wild medieval (and Late Antique!) people were.

Whether it is being stoked to be sent to your death in the gladiatorial ring or writing transcendent fiction about how the girl you had a crush on as a teenager is waiting for you in heaven, Pegg shows that medieval people were constantly rethinking what it meant to be alive and how to square that in a Christian society. I guarantee it will make Trad Caths absolutely livid.  

By Mark Gregory Pegg,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Beatrice's Last Smile as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Mark Gregory Pegg's history of the Middle Ages opens and closes with martyrdom, the first that of a young Roman mother in a North African amphitheater in 203 and the second a French girl burned to death beside the Seine in 1431. Both Vibia Perpetua and Jeanne la Pucelle died for their Christian beliefs, yet that for which they willingly sacrificed their lives connects and separates them. Both were divinely inspired, but one believed her deity shared the universe
with other gods, and the other knew that her Creator ruled heaven and earth. Between them, across the centuries, lives were…

Book cover of The Canterbury Tales

Eleanor Janega Why did I love this book?

I love this stupid, sexy mess of a book.

Oh, you think you know what the Canterbury Tales is about? No. You don’t. It’s about shagging in pear trees while your blind husband sits below you. It’s about weird non-binary people that your travelling companions don’t know what to make of. It’s about love and death and meaning and fart jokes. The Canterbury Tales is a brilliantly alive, deliciously bawdy, surprisingly disarming work that will help you understand what regular people in the Middle Ages wanted to read about.

For bonus points, get a hold of the Riverside Chaucer translation because medieval historians like to be thingy about that. I’ll take any version as long as you read it, though. 

Book cover of The Light Ages: The Surprising Story of Medieval Science

Eleanor Janega Why did I love this book?

If I hear someone who has never studied medieval history once in their life refer to the “Dark Ages” as a time when “Science” was banned by the Church one more time, I will actually die, and this book does an amazing job of explaining how ignorant those old myths are.

Falk laces this book with delicious tidbits of the weird and wonderful of medieval scientific (or, to be nerdy, what we would call natural philosophical) ideas. Goat fat enemas? Sure. But there is also the transcription of Persian manuscripts, the invention of mechanical clocks and eyeglasses, and the creation of the University.

The book brings to life a vibrant, interconnected intellectual world and is a testament to how clever medieval people were in circumstances that were much more difficult than our own.

By Seb Falk,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Soaring Gothic cathedrals, violent crusades, the Black Death: these are the dramatic forces that shaped the medieval era. But the so-called Dark Ages also gave us the first universities, eyeglasses, and mechanical clocks. As medieval thinkers sought to understand the world around them, from the passing of the seasons to the stars in the sky, they came to develop a vibrant scientific culture.

In The Light Ages, Cambridge science historian Seb Falk takes us on a tour of medieval science through the eyes of one fourteenth-century monk, John of Westwyk. Born in a rural manor, educated in England's grandest monastery,…

Book cover of The Inferno

Eleanor Janega Why did I love this book?

I’m a giant nerd for fantasy, and my man Dante pretty much invented it with this book. Basically, every depiction of Hell you have ever seen in a book or on a movie screen? Yeah, Dante did that.

But it’s not just coming to grips with the, frankly iconic, nine circles of hell that make me love it; it’s the fact that Dante is also this very clearly petty, grudge-holding, self-absorbed regular guy who just so happens also to have an incredible imagination.

Yes, I love it because it’s a disturbing and beautiful revery about mislead lives, but it’s also a window into the soul of a medieval man. Come for the philosophical quandaries; stay for the demons and the ironic punishments. I re-read this constantly.

By Dante Alighieri, John Ciardi (translator),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Belonging in the immortal company of the works of Homer, Virgil, Milton, and Shakespeare, Dante Alighieri’s poetic masterpiece is a visionary journey that takes readers through the torment of Hell.

The first part of Dante’s Divine Comedy is many things: a moving human drama, a supreme expression of the Middle Ages, a glorification of the ways of God, and a magnificent protest against the ways in which men have thwarted the divine plan. One of the few literary works that has enjoyed a fame both immediate and enduring, The Inferno remains powerful after seven centuries. It confronts the most universal…

Book cover of Other Middle Ages: Witnesses at the Margins of Medieval Society

Eleanor Janega Why did I love this book?

This deep dive into the people that medieval Europe sidelined is absolutely indispensable for understanding society as a whole.

I get frustrated because when people think about the medieval period, they assume that it was a time when everyone just quietly played along with whatever the Church said, and everyone was a straight white Christian keeping quiet. This book goes and finds the people that the medieval period wanted hidden and brings them to light.

I also like that it helps us to consider that we still partake in the same othering behaviours now. It’s full of fascinating primary sources, and I find it totally absorbing.

By Michael Goodich (editor),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Seldom heard from in modern times, those on the margins of Medieval Europe have much to tell us about the society that defined them. More than just a fascinating cast of characters, the visionaries and sexual dissidents, the suicidal and psychologically unbalanced, the lepers and converts of Medieval times reveal the fears of a people for whom life was made both meaningful and terrifying by the sacred.
After centuries of historical silence, these and other disenfranchised members of the medieval public have been given voice by Michael Goodich in a unique collection of texts from the mid-eleventh through the fourteenth…

You might also like...

Book cover of Dulcinea

Ana Veciana-Suarez Author Of Dulcinea

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I became fascinated with 16th-century and 17th-century Europe after reading Don Quixote many years ago. Since then, every novel or nonfiction book about that era has felt both ancient and contemporary. I’m always struck by how much our environment has changed—transportation, communication, housing, government—but also how little we as people have changed when it comes to ambition, love, grief, and greed. I doubled down my reading on that time period when I researched my novel, Dulcinea. Many people read in the eras of the Renaissance, World War II, or ancient Greece, so I’m hoping to introduce them to the Baroque Age. 

Ana's book list on bringing to life the forgotten Baroque Age

What is my book about?

Dolça Llull Prat, a wealthy Barcelona woman, is only 15 when she falls in love with an impoverished poet-solder. Theirs is a forbidden relationship, one that overcomes many obstacles until the fledgling writer renders her as the lowly Dulcinea in his bestseller.

By doing so, he unwittingly exposes his muse to gossip. But when Dolça receives his deathbed note asking to see her, she races across Spain with the intention of unburdening herself of an old secret.

On the journey, she encounters bandits, the Inquisition, illness, and the choices she's made. At its heart, Dulcinea is about how we betray the people we love, what happens when we succumb to convention, and why we squander the few chances we get to change our lives.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Middle Ages, Christian pilgrimages, and Europe?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Middle Ages, Christian pilgrimages, and Europe.

The Middle Ages Explore 406 books about the Middle Ages
Christian Pilgrimages Explore 8 books about Christian pilgrimages
Europe Explore 874 books about Europe