The best books that reimagine the Middle Ages

Alex Myers Author Of The Story of Silence
By Alex Myers

The Books I Picked & Why

Pope Joan

By Donna Woolfolk Cross

Book cover of Pope Joan

Why this book?

I love this novel because of how it takes what seems like an impossible story (a female pope?!) and writes it so carefully and compellingly that the impossible becomes completely plausible. The young woman’s journey from her home and family to becoming pope…how she navigates a world that is completely not designed for her…I was totally captivated by the story.

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By Lauren Groff

Book cover of Matrix

Why this book?

Matrix pulled me in immediately. I loved the realness of the setting: the mud and the cold and the food and the smells. Life in the middle ages wasn’t easy, and Groff’s novel doesn’t try to romanticize that. I also loved the protagonist, a woman who gradually builds a position of power for herself. Groff explores sexuality and desire, community and meaning, religion and power on a scale that is both personal and profound.

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The Pillars of the Earth

By Ken Follett

Book cover of The Pillars of the Earth

Why this book?

This may be the book that got me hooked on historical fiction about the middle ages. Follet’s account of the cathedral building was both grand in scale and meticulous in detail. I am always amazed when I see castles and cathedrals and wonder – how did that build that? How is it still standing? Follet’s novel answers those questions and also shows the lives of those who did the building – not just the rich and powerful, but the simple stonemasons as well.

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The Name of the Rose

By Umberto Eco

Book cover of The Name of the Rose

Why this book?

I love a good murder mystery. And when an author can write a compelling whodunit and pair that with a historically accurate depiction of a medieval monastery and then, on top of that, add in some deep reflections on language, desire, and philosophy… swoon! This novel is creepy and captivating and will make you want to visit some catacombs.

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The Mists of Avalon

By Marion Zimmer Bradley

Book cover of The Mists of Avalon

Why this book?

If Pillars of the Earth got me into historical fiction set in the middle ages, then The Mists of Avalon is what hooked me for fantasy set in that period. I adored this feminist retelling of King Arthur’s legends – the women, who are in the background and rather one-dimensional in the original, get to be the story-creators here. There are certainly familiar scenes of swords and quests, but there’s also a lot more magic and a lot more mystery and intrigue.

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