The best books on the late medieval crisis: war and plague in Britain and France

Who am I?

I was drawn into the study of medieval history through an interest in chivalry and this led to a PhD and various publications on the career and household of Edward the Black Prince (1330-76). He lived through the heart of what’s become known as the late medieval crisis: a period which many contemporaries thought was a prelude to the apocalypse. I’ve been teaching and writing about this period for more than 20 years now and remain fascinated by the contrasts between creativity and utter devastation that characterise the later middle ages.

I wrote...

The Hundred Years War: A People's History

By David Green,

Book cover of The Hundred Years War: A People's History

What is my book about?

The Hundred Years War (1337–1453) dominated life in England and France for well over a century. It became the defining feature of existence for generations. David Green focuses on the ways the war affected different groups, including knights, clerics, women, peasants, soldiers, peacemakers, and kings. He also explores how the war changed government in England and France and reshaped peoples’ perceptions of themselves and of their national character.

The book illuminates the realities of battle and the conditions of those compelled to live in occupied territory; the roles played by clergy and their shifting loyalties to king and pope. Peopled with vivid and well-known characters—Henry V, Joan of Arc, Philippe the Good of Burgundy, Edward the Black Prince, John the Blind of Bohemia—as well as a host of ordinary individuals who were drawn into the struggle, this book reveals not only the Hundred Years War’s impact on warfare, institutions, and nations, but also its true human cost.

The books I picked & why

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The Black Death

By Rosemary Horrox,

Book cover of The Black Death

Why this book?

This is a wonderfully curated selection of sources drawn from many western European countries. They offer us a real sense of how individuals, groups, governments and the Church reacted to this, perhaps the most appalling natural disaster in European history. We learn not only of political but personal and psychological reactions to a plague which most contemporaries viewed as a manifestation of divine anger with a sinful world.

Edward III

By W. Mark Ormrod,

Book cover of Edward III

Why this book?

A magnificent example of the possibilities of historical biography from an author whose life was cut tragically short. Ormrod writes with a balance of passion, precision, and wry humour. Edward III reigned in the shadow of the deposition of his father, while his own military triumphs in the Hundred Years War set an example his successor, Richard II, found impossible to emulate. Alongside a wealth of detail, Ormrod reveals the pressures of kingship during the extraordinary turbulence of the fourteenth century.

The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dwr

By R.R. Davies,

Book cover of The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dwr

Why this book?

Rees Davies was one of the first historians to seek to explore the histories of Britain and Ireland as both unique and intertwined narratives. Although this book focuses on the Welsh revolt of the early 15th century it shows the author’s formidable understanding of the relationship between England and Wales in the century after the Edwardian conquest. An object lesson in academic history written with the general reader in mind.

The Book of Chivalry of Geoffroi de Charny

By Richard W. Kaeuper (editor), Elspeth Kennedy (editor),

Book cover of The Book of Chivalry of Geoffroi de Charny: Text, Context, and Translation

Why this book?

Often said to have been in decline in the later middle ages, this treatise, by a French knight, written for King John II’s Company of the Star, shows that chivalry, although under great pressure, remained a hugely powerful ethos which continued to shape aristocratic life in the fourteenth century. The work details the trials and travails of a life in arms and the ‘worth’ of various military enterprises. Rather poignantly, Charny died at the battle of Poitiers (1356) while bearing the Oriflamme, the French banner.

Morality Play

By Barry Unsworth,

Book cover of Morality Play

Why this book?

Evocative, engaging, and clever, if, on occasion, desperately bleak. This is a murder mystery set against the backdrop of plague in the north of England. Although very well researched the book carries some of the hallmarks of contemporary fiction and so avoids many of the stereotypes (and irritations) of historical novels. Sometimes fiction can be as effective as ‘fact’ in showing the fate of individuals caught up in moments of revolutionary change.