The Best Books On Medieval Life

By Marion Turner

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By Helen Castor

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.


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

By Jack Hartnell

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.


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

By Barbara A. Hanawalt

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.


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Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World

By Christopher De Hamel

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.


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

By Christopher Dyer

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.


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