The best books with passage through the labyrinth of life through a medieval lens

Why am I passionate about this?

I'm a medievalist with a focus on German and European literature. Already with my Ph.D. diss. in 1987, I endeavored to explore interdisciplinary, interlingual connections (German-Italian), and much of my subsequent work (119 scholarly books so far) has continued with this focus. I have developed a large profile of studies on cultural, literary, social, religious, and economic aspects of the pre-modern era. In the last two decades or so, I have researched many concepts pertaining to the history of mentality, emotions, everyday-life conditions, and now also on transcultural and global aspects before 1800. Numerous books and articles have dealt with gender issues, communication, and historical and social conditions as expressed in literature. 


I wrote...

Tracing the Trails in the Medieval World: Epistemological Explorations, Orientation, and Mapping in Medieval Literature

By Albrecht Classen,

Book cover of Tracing the Trails in the Medieval World: Epistemological Explorations, Orientation, and Mapping in Medieval Literature

What is my book about?

Every human being knows that we are walking through life following trails, whether we are aware of them or not. Medieval poets, from the anonymous composer of Beowulf to Marie de France, Hartmann von Aue, Gottfried von Strassburg, and Guillaume de Lorris to Petrarch and Heinrich Kaufringer, predicated their works on the notion of the trail and elaborated on its epistemological function. We can grasp here an essential concept that determines much of medieval and early modern European literature and philosophy, addressing the direction which all protagonists pursue, as powerfully illustrated also by the anonymous poets of Herzog Ernst and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Dante’s Divina Commedia, in fact, proves to be one of the most explicit poetic manifestations of the fundamental idea of the trail.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Origins of Courtliness: Civilizing Trends and the Formation of Courtly Ideals, 939-1210

Albrecht Classen Why did I love this book?

This is the seminal study on the origins of courtliness via early medieval German bishops adopting Ciceronian ideals which were handed down to the French nobility, and from there the nobility in the rest of Europe followed suit. Jaeger offers the most unusual but best explanation for this unique process. He succeeds in demonstrating the narrative tradition from Roman ethics and philosophy to early medieval culture.

By C. Stephen Jaeger,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Origins of Courtliness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Selected by Choice magazine as an Outstanding Academic Book

Argues that the origins of courtliness lie in the German courts, their courtier class, and the education for court service in the tenth and eleventh centuries.


Book cover of Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe

Albrecht Classen Why did I love this book?

If you ever want to know what the medieval Church had to say about sex, love, marriage, and other related topics, you only need to draw from the relevant preachers’ manuals and Church lawbooks, which illuminate the entire spectrum of human failings which the Church condemned and punished in specific terms. It might be hilarious at times, but Brundage clearly unearths the concrete rules for the ordinary people when they were allowed to have sex during the year and under what conditions. Moreover, this is an eye-opening book about the official view of queerness in the Middle Ages.

By James A. Brundage,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This monumental study of medieval law and sexual conduct explores the origin and develpment of the Christian church's sex law and the systems of belief upon which that law rested. Focusing on the Church's own legal system of canon law, James A. Brundage offers a comprehensive history of legal doctrines-covering the millennium from A.D. 500 to 1500-concerning a wide variety of sexual behavior, including marital sex, adultery, homosexuality, concubinage, prostitution, masturbation, and incest. His survey makes strikingly clear how the system of sexual control in a world we have half-forgotten has shaped the world in which we live today. The…


Book cover of The Case for Women in Medieval Culture

Albrecht Classen Why did I love this book?

Contrary to our common assumptions, women in the Middle Ages were not simply muted or repressed. Much depended on the social, economic, religious, and cultural circumstances. Blamires brings to light a wealth of documents that confirm the much more complex conditions for women in the pre-modern age, many of whom received considerable respect if not admiration.

By Alcuin Blamires,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Case for Women in Medieval Culture as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Misogyny is of course not the whole story of medieval discourse on women: medieval culture also envisaged a case for women. But hitherto studies of profeminine attitudes in that periods culture have tended to concentrate on courtly literature or on female visionary writings or on attempts to transcend misogyny by major authors such as Christine de Pizan and Chaucer. This book sets out to demonstrate something different: that there existed from early in the Middle
Ages a corpus of substantial traditions in defence of women, on which the more familiar authors drew, and that this corpus itself consolidated strands of…


Book cover of European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages

Albrecht Classen Why did I love this book?

This is the most seminal study ever written regarding western culture, highlighting the connections and shared tropes and topoi from classical antiquity to the early twentieth century. Curtius demonstrates an enormous command of Latin and vernacular literature from all of Europe and knows how to draw significant lines from culture to culture and from period to period.

By Ernst Robert Curtius,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Published just after the Second World War, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages is a sweeping exploration of the remarkable continuity of European literature across time and place, from the classical era up to the early nineteenth century, and from the Italian peninsula to the British Isles. In what T. S. Eliot called a "magnificent" book, Ernst Robert Curtius establishes medieval Latin literature as the vital transition between the literature of antiquity and the vernacular literatures of later centuries. The result is nothing less than a masterful synthesis of European literature from Homer to Goethe. European Literature and the…


Book cover of Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature

Albrecht Classen Why did I love this book?

Auerbach wrote this book while he lived in exile in Istanbul, having fled from the Nazis. This forced him to turn his attention very closely to the original texts, classical in their reputation from the ancient through the medieval, and the early modern period. He demonstrated brilliantly the true value of thorough philological work and the great yield of close reading, profiling all of pre-modern European literature in a unique fashion. This book lives on until today.

By Erich Auerbach, Willard R. Trask (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Mimesis as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

More than half a century after its translation into English, Erich Auerbach's Mimesis remains a masterpiece of literary criticism. A brilliant display of erudition, wit, and wisdom, his exploration of how great European writers from Homer to Virginia Woolf depicted reality has taught generations how to read Western literature. This new expanded edition includes a substantial essay in introduction by Edward Said as well as an essay, never before translated into English, in which Auerbach responds to his critics. A German Jew, Auerbach was forced out of his professorship at the University of Marburg in 1935. He left for Turkey,…


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Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

By Rebecca Wellington,

Book cover of Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

Rebecca Wellington Author Of Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I am adopted. For most of my life, I didn’t identify as adopted. I shoved that away because of the shame I felt about being adopted and not truly fitting into my family. But then two things happened: I had my own biological children, the only two people I know to date to whom I am biologically related, and then shortly after my second daughter was born, my older sister, also an adoptee, died of a drug overdose. These sequential births and death put my life on a new trajectory, and I started writing, out of grief, the history of adoption and motherhood in America. 

Rebecca's book list on straight up, real memoirs on motherhood and adoption

What is my book about?

I grew up thinking that being adopted didn’t matter. I was wrong. This book is my journey uncovering the significance and true history of adoption practices in America. Now, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, the renewed debate over women’s reproductive rights places an even greater emphasis on adoption. As a mother, historian, and adoptee, I am uniquely qualified to uncover the policies and practices of adoption.

The history of adoption, reframed through the voices of adoptees like me, and mothers who have been forced to relinquish their babies, blows apart old narratives about adoption, exposing the fallacy that adoption is always good.

In this story, I reckon with the pain and unanswered questions of my own experience and explore broader issues surrounding adoption in the United States, including changing legal policies, sterilization, and compulsory relinquishment programs, forced assimilation of babies of color and Indigenous babies adopted into white families, and other liabilities affecting women, mothers, and children. Now is the moment we must all hear these stories.

Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

By Rebecca Wellington,

What is this book about?

Nearly every person in the United States is affected by adoption. Adoption practices are woven into the fabric of American society and reflect how our nation values human beings, particularly mothers. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade, the renewed debate over women's reproductive rights places an even greater emphasis on adoption. As a mother, historian, and adoptee, Rebecca C. Wellington is uniquely qualified to uncover the policies and practices of adoption. Wellington's timely-and deeply researched-account amplifies previously marginalized voices and exposes the social and racial biases embedded in the United States' adoption industry.…


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