The best books on medieval religious history

The Books I Picked & Why

The Confessions

By Saint Augustine, Maria Boulding

The Confessions

Why this book?

Saint Augustine's autobiography is, simply, one of the most remarkable and influential books ever written. To start with, it is a terrific tale. Augustine's evolution from a restless, pear-pilfering child, to an ambitious and tempestuous teen, and then a thoughtful and searching adult desperate to find his way (and foil his mother's plans for him) is one almost any reader can relate to. Moreover, in the process of examining his own halting progress toward faith, Augustine more or less invented a new form of "selfhood." For anyone interested in medieval Christianity, Jewish-Christian relations, or European thought, it all starts with Augustine.


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Augustine of Hippo: A Biography

By Peter Brown

Augustine of Hippo: A Biography

Why this book?

Augustine's Confessions is an extraordinary book, but it is not always an easy one! Readers looking for help in understanding its brilliant author can do no better than to turn to Peter Brown's biography, first published in 1967. It is a beautifully written, lucid, and illuminating study of Augustine's life and thought, the best possible guide to both the man and his world. In an Epilogue added for the forty-fifth-anniversary edition, Brown discusses what he and other scholars have learned in the decades since he first wrote the book, and how his ideas about Augustine have changed, demonstrating the curiosity and openness that are the hallmarks of a great scholar.


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The Letters of Abelard and Heloise

By Peter Abelard, Héloïse, Betty Radice

The Letters of Abelard and Heloise

Why this book?

The letters collected in this slim paperback collectively tell one of the most dramatic and moving stories of the entire Middle Ages. Letter 1, directed toward a (perhaps fictional) friend, is a spiritual autobiography, consciously modelled on Augustine's Confessions, in which the great philosopher and theologian Peter Abelard recounts his doomed love affair with his brilliant seventeen-year-old pupil Heloise.  This affair resulted in Abelard's violent castration at the instigation of her outraged uncle.  In Letter 1, written years later, Abelard explains how his suffering gradually led him towards God. Eight more letters, exchanged between Abelard and Heloise years after their parting, are less dramatic but almost more poignant, as Heloise, now a nun, seeks solace and connection from her former lover, who offers spiritual advice but cannot give her the intimacy she craves.


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Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women

By Caroline Walker Bynum

Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women

Why this book?

I first read Holy Feast and Holy Fast in graduate school, and like so many others was bowled over by its innovative, anthropological, and overtly feminist approach to medieval religion. Instead of the usual cast of characters found in studies of medieval Christianity -- theologians debating the finer points of the Trinity, or bishops and popes disciplining renegade or careless clerics -- Bynum introduces us to men and (especially) women who used their bodies, and symbols drawn from everyday life and physical experience, to express their faith. Though some of her characters are mystics and/or extreme ascetics whose self-denying practices bordered on the kooky, the book vividly conveys the texture, rhythms, and reality of urban life in the high Middle Ages.


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The Crusades and the Christian World of the East: Rough Tolerance

By Christopher MacEvitt

The Crusades and the Christian World of the East: Rough Tolerance

Why this book?

There has been an explosion of interest in the Crusades since 9/11, with many medieval historians working hard to push back against over-simplified and often inaccurate depictions of Christian holy war and Christian-Muslim relations. This impressively researched book adds a fascinating new dimension to the story of the Crusades, examining relations between newly arrived European Catholics and the many and varied indigenous Levantine Christian communities in the decades following the Crusader conquest of Jerusalem in 1099. MacEvitt rejects the dominant narrative, which held that the Frankish conquerors, imbued with the rigid prejudices of an intolerant European Christendom, had little interaction with or understanding of the local populations. Instead, he paints a portrait of a surprisingly practical and flexible Crusader regime, characterized by extensive Frankish-local social, religious, and legal interactions. MacEvitt's nuanced model, which he dubs "rough tolerance," avoids both idealization and demonization, and offers a fruitful way to approach relations between disparate religious and ethnic groups.


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