The best books about medieval York

The Books I Picked & Why

York: The Making of a City 1068-1350

By Sarah Rees Jones

York: The Making of a City 1068-1350

Why this book?

This is a masterful work covering the period from the Norman conquest to the Black Death. Sarah Rees Jones is one of my go-to scholars for medieval York, as well as an engaging writer. I particularly appreciate her looking beyond the importance of the royal government in the city’s development to include the strong influence of the Minster and other ecclesiastical institutions in the city as well as the significance of the people of York—merchants and craftspeople.

Check here first if you want a feel for how the city grew, who were the makers and shakers, how the neighborhoods developed, where the influential people lived. Every time I dip into this book I learn something new. With 18 useful maps and an extensive bibliography.


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Medieval York 600-1540

By D. M. Palliser

Medieval York 600-1540

Why this book?

If you want even earlier information than 1068, Palliser begins with Roman York, Eboracum, moves through Scandinavian York, Jorvik, and then joins up with the city as it grows in the middle ages. The introduction discusses why a city grew in this particular spot, the strategic, geologic, and geographic advantage of the Vale of York.

This is the perfect complement to Rees Jones’s book, with more emphasis on the political and military history than hers and extending past the Black Death into the large degree of independent rule gained in two charters granted by King Richard II, then on to the gradual decline of the city in the 16th century.


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Medieval Merchants: York, Beverley and Hull in the Later Middle Ages

By Jenny Kermode

Medieval Merchants: York, Beverley and Hull in the Later Middle Ages

Why this book?

Kermode focuses on the dynamics of northern urban society in the three major towns along the corridor on the lowland plain by the River Ouse—York, Beverley, and Hull. Merchants from the three towns joined partnerships and intermarried, creating dynasties, the most prominent mingling with the gentry and royal households of the region, and served in parliament as MP’s. The merchants tend to be wealthier than their craftsmen neighbors.

Chapters cover politics, the nuts, and bolts of their trade, how they accrued wealth, and how they used that wealth. Appendix B, Some Merchant Biographies, reads like the society pages, offering tantalizing glimpses into family connections.


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Women, Work, and Life Cycle in a Medieval Economy: Women in York and Yorkshire C.1300-1520

By P.J.P. Goldberg

Women, Work, and Life Cycle in a Medieval Economy: Women in York and Yorkshire C.1300-1520

Why this book?

A classic cited in every title on my list, Goldberg’s book provides a glimpse into the lives of women in the area, both rural and urban. The book grew out of the question, How far was marriage a necessity for medieval women? His focus is on women in the north, with its unique labor issues. To answer the question he examines the economy and how women participated in it, with an emphasis on the changes brought on by the decline in population after the Black Death in the later 14th century.

He covers tradeswomen, servants, prostitutes, farm laborers, with glimpses into the lives they led and how the different groups made choices about marriage. Women in York and Yorkshire chose to enter the workforce, often delaying marriage until it offered a clear advantage, and their economic independence offered them an advantage in making decisions about their future. Gives a real taste of what’s special about the North.


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War, Politics and Finance in Late Medieval English Towns: Bristol, York and the Crown, 1350-1400

By Christian D. Liddy

War, Politics and Finance in Late Medieval English Towns: Bristol, York and the Crown, 1350-1400

Why this book?

Why would this 50 year period be so interesting in these two cities? In these years Bristol and York were second only to London in influence and growth within the realm, and as the rising merchant class accrued wealth they used it to make agreements with the crown—to their advantage, of course. With King Edward III it was all about his war with France; with his grandson and successor King Richard II it was about gaining charters that made them more independent of royal interference as well as negotiating their way between the political factions within the nobility.

Richard’s reign was a dangerous time, especially at the end when York merchants chose to loan money to Henry Bolingbroke’s uprising against his cousin the king.  The stakes were high and the personalities larger than life.


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