The best books on medieval life

Marion Turner Author Of Chaucer: A European Life
By Marion Turner

Who am I?

Marion Turner is a Professor of English Literature at Oxford University where she teaches medieval literature. Her critically-acclaimed biography of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer was picked as a Book of the Year by the Times, the Sunday Times, the New Statesman, and the TLS, and has been hailed as ‘an absolute triumph,’ and a ‘masterpiece.’ It won the British Academy Rose Mary Crawshay Prize and the English Association Beatrice White Prize, and was shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize.


I wrote...

Chaucer: A European Life

By Marion Turner,

Book cover of Chaucer: A European Life

What is my book about?

An acclaimed biography that recreates the cosmopolitan world in which a wine merchant’s son became one of the most celebrated of all English writers. Uncovering important new information about Chaucer’s travels, private life, and the circulation of his writings, Marion Turner reconstructs in unprecedented detail the cosmopolitan world of Chaucer’s adventurous life, focusing on the places and spaces that fired his imagination. From the wharves of London to the frescoed chapels of Florence, the book recounts Chaucer’s experiences as a prisoner of war in France, as a father visiting his daughter’s nunnery, as a member of a chaotic Parliament, and as a diplomat in Milan.

The books I picked & why

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Blood and Roses: One Family's Struggle and Triumph During the Tumultuous Wars of the Roses

By Helen Castor,

Book cover of Blood and Roses: One Family's Struggle and Triumph During the Tumultuous Wars of the Roses

Why this book?

This book tells the story of the wars of the Roses through the lens of one family – the Pastons. This family left an extraordinary archive of letters, and it included many fascinating characters, especially women. The Paston women fought off sieges on their houses, wrote Valentine letters to their husbands, ran off with servants, and managed complicated household finances. As a family, the Pastons were social climbers, who tried to get on at court and to improve their position. Through them, we hear about high politics, but also about the domestic life and loves of the gentry in the fifteenth century. In this book, Helen Castor writes a kind of family biography, expansive, gripping, and detailed. It is both first-class research and a great story.

Blood and Roses: One Family's Struggle and Triumph During the Tumultuous Wars of the Roses

By Helen Castor,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

“A gripping family saga. . . . Page-turners are rarely written by scholars of the 15th century, but Castor wears her learning admirably lightly. Blood and Roses is nothing less than a ripping yarn.” —The Indepedent (London)

The Wars of the Roses tore England asunder. Over the course of thirty years, four kings lost their thrones, countless men lost their lives on the battlefield or their heads on the block, and others found themselves suddenly flush with gold. Yet until now, little has been written about the ordinary people who lived through this extraordinary time.

Blood and Roses is a…


Medieval Bodies: Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages

By Jack Hartnell,

Book cover of Medieval Bodies: Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages

Why this book?

Jack Hartnell anatomises the Middle Ages in a very real sense: the book is divided up into parts of the body. It is a brilliant and innovative approach, allowing him to bring together the history of medicine, artistic objects, political thought, cartography, metaphor, and the medieval imagination, among other things. Importantly, he looks far beyond Western Europe, so the book also includes Jewish and Islamic approaches to the body, explores the Byzantine world, and analyses objects and ideas from, for instance, North Africa and the Middle East. The book focuses on the Mediterranean world in its broadest sense, ranging widely across sources and disciplines but staying rooted in the question of how medieval people thought about and experienced their bodies. As you might expect from an art historian, he has lavishly illustrated the book, and it gives readers a great sense of the beauty and weirdness of the art and objects that survive.

Medieval Bodies: Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages

By Jack Hartnell,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Just like us, medieval men and women worried about growing old, got blisters and indigestion, fell in love, and had children. And yet their lives were full of miraculous and richly metaphorical experiences radically different from our own, unfolding in a world where deadly wounds might be healed overnight by divine intervention, or where the heart of a king, plucked from his corpse, could be held aloft as a powerful symbol of political rule.

In this richly illustrated and unusual history, Jack Hartnell uncovers the fascinating ways in which people thought about, explored, and experienced their physical selves in the…


Growing Up in Medieval London: The Experience of Childhood in History

By Barbara A. Hanawalt,

Book cover of Growing Up in Medieval London: The Experience of Childhood in History

Why this book?

I learnt so much from this book when I was writing my biography of Chaucer. It is hard to find out information about childhood in history, and yet it is impossible to try to understand a society if we don’t know how children were brought up, what games they played, how they were educated, what adolescence was like. This book tells us about all those things. You can find out about how children learnt to read, what happened to orphans, the opportunities for pre-marital sex. Looking at a wide range of historical records and literary texts, Hanawalt pieces together a remarkably complete picture of medieval childhood. Looking at causes of death, for example, tells her where male and female children spent their time and what they were likely to be doing (boys were more likely to be outside). And archaeological finds reveal what kinds of toys children played with. Fascinating stuff.

Growing Up in Medieval London: The Experience of Childhood in History

By Barbara A. Hanawalt,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Growing Up in Medieval London as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When Barbara Hanawalt's acclaimed history The Ties That Bound first appeared, it was hailed for its unprecedented research and vivid re-creation of medieval life. David Levine, writing in The New York Times Book Review, called Hanawalt's book "as stimulating for the questions it asks as for the answers it provides" and he concluded that "one comes away from this stimulating book with the same sense of wonder that Thomas Hardy's Angel Clare felt [:]
'The impressionable peasant leads a larger, fuller, more dramatic life than the pachydermatous king.'"
Now, in Growing Up in Medieval London, Hanawalt again reveals the larger,…


Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World

By Christopher De Hamel,

Book cover of Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World

Why this book?

This is such a wonderful, idiosyncratic book, and it rightly scooped all kinds of awards. What I like about it is, first, that it focuses on books – actual, material books – what they look like, feel like, as well as what they say and, second, that it gives you windows onto lots of different aspects of medieval life. Each manuscript offers a snapshot, a way into, for instance, fourteenth-century scribal culture in Chaucer’s London, or love-songs and drinking-songs in the era when universities developed. It is beautifully illustrated too, giving readers a sense of the richness and variety of medieval art and writing. And every chapter weavers in the author’s life with the manuscript, telling us the story of how he met that manuscript, and why it matters.

Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World

By Christopher De Hamel,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An extraordinary and beautifully illustrated exploration of the medieval world through twelve manuscripts, from one of the world's leading experts.

Winner of The Wolfson History Prize and The Duff Cooper Prize.

A San Francisco Chronicle Holiday Book Gift Guide Pick!

Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts is a captivating examination of twelve illuminated manuscripts from the medieval period. Noted authority Christopher de Hamel invites the reader into intimate conversations with these texts to explore what they tell us about nearly a thousand years of medieval history - and about the modern world, too.

In so doing, de Hamel introduces us to kings,…


Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain 850-1520

By Christopher Dyer,

Book cover of Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain 850-1520

Why this book?

For me, this isn’t a book that I read cover to cover; it is a book that I very frequently refer to when I want information. This is my go-to book when I want to check how much a labourer was paid, and what that money would buy, for example. It is an economic history and, as such, helps you to understand the fundamentals of how medieval society worked and was put together. So you can find out not only about the life of an aristocrat, but about the life of a peasant, free or unfree, and about life in the countryside as well as life in towns or in great households. It covers almost 700 years of history, so it also demonstrates how much changed across this long and varied period – starting hundreds of years before the Norman Conquest, and ending in the reign of Henry VIII, when England was on the brink of the break with Rome.

Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain 850-1520

By Christopher Dyer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Making a Living in the Middle Ages as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Dramatic social and economic change during the middle ages altered the lives of the people of Britain in far-reaching ways, from the structure of their families to the ways they made their livings. In this masterly book, preeminent medieval historian Christopher Dyer presents a fresh view of the British economy from the ninth to the sixteenth century and a vivid new account of medieval life. He begins his volume with the formation of towns and villages in the ninth and tenth centuries and ends with the inflation, population rise, and colonial expansion of the sixteenth century.

This is a book…


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