The best books about medieval York

Who am I?

I have been writing the Owen Archer mysteries, set in and around the city of York in the late 14th century, for 30 years, ever since falling in love with the city of York on a visit. As I studied medieval literature and culture in graduate school, with a special interest in Chaucer, I’ve focused my research on the period in which he lived. I’ve spent months walking the streets of the city, hiking through the countryside, and meeting with local historians. Besides the 13 Owen Archer mysteries I’ve also published 3 Kate Clifford mysteries covering Richard II’s downfall, both series grounded in the politics and culture of medieval York and Yorkshire. 

I wrote...

The Riverwoman's Dragon

By Candace Robb,

Book cover of The Riverwoman's Dragon

What is my book about?

May, 1375. Owen Archer returns from London to find York in chaos. While the citizens are living in terror of the pestilence, a newly arrived physician is whipping up fear and suspicion against traditional healers and midwives. Aided by parish priests, he is especially hostile towards Magda Digby, who has helped and healed the people of York for many years. For her part, Magda is uneasy about the arrival of two long-lost kinsfolk, between whom she senses a hidden agenda. Her troubles multiply when she discovers a body in the river near her home and falls under suspicion of murder.

Days later, fire rips through a warehouse in the city. Amongst the charred debris lies the body of a man – not burned, but stabbed in the back. Is there a connection to the corpse in the river? Determined to prove Magda’s innocence, Owen investigates amidst violent outbursts within and without the city walls– but the more he uncovers, the deeper the mystery becomes… 

The books I picked & why

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York: The Making of a City 1068-1350

By Sarah Rees Jones,

Book cover of 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.

Medieval York 600-1540

By D. M. Palliser,

Book cover of 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.

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

By Jenny Kermode,

Book cover of 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.

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

By P.J.P. Goldberg,

Book cover of 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.

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

By Christian D. Liddy,

Book cover of 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.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Middle Ages, England, and Bristol?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Middle Ages, England, and Bristol.

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