The best books on the real Middle Ages

Who am I?

I am a historian primarily of western Europe in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. My leading interest has shifted over many years from the people who were persecuted as heretics at that time to their persecutors, as it dawned on me that whereas scepticism about the teachings of the Roman (or any) church was easily understandable, the persecution of mostly rather humble people who presented no real threat to that Church or to wider society was not, and needed to be explained.


I wrote...

The War on Heresy

By R.I. Moore,

Book cover of The War on Heresy

What is my book about?

I wrote this book to understand why west Europeans acquired the habit of putting one another to death by burning in large numbers, which they continued to do until the eighteenth century. Such events were always surrounded by speculation and rumour-mongering, at the time and often for centuries afterward. It was necessary, therefore, to examine the sources with great care and strip away the accumulated crust of handed-down sensationalism and uncritically accepted conspiracy theories.

Much of this embedded error was a legacy of the sentimental medievalism of the nineteenth-century Gothic Revival, which evoked a never-never land of wandering knights, love-lorn ladies, and pious peasants, and in doing so reaffirmed that those centuries were not to be blamed for the grimy realities of the modern world.
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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe

R.I. Moore Why did I love this book?

Between antiquity and the middle ages, between Byzantium and the West, between Christendom and Islam... For four hundred years Ravenna sat at the tipping points of all the great transitions that together shaped Europe. Judith Herrin tells its fascinating history and presents a parade of forceful and creative characters with great insight and a wonderfully light touch, in a book as beautifully produced as it is profoundly researched.

By Judith Herrin,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Ravenna as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A riveting history of the city that led the West out of the ruins of the Roman Empire

At the end of the fourth century, as the power of Rome faded and Constantinople became the seat of empire, a new capital city was rising in the West. Here, in Ravenna on the coast of Italy, Arian Goths and Catholic Romans competed to produce an unrivaled concentration of buildings and astonishing mosaics. For three centuries, the city attracted scholars, lawyers, craftsmen, and religious luminaries, becoming a true cultural and political capital. Bringing this extraordinary history marvelously to life, Judith Herrin rewrites…


Book cover of The Silk Road: A New History

R.I. Moore Why did I love this book?

The Silk Road is a nineteenth-century invention, but the movements of people, things, and ideas in and through the immense and often terrifying space between modern Iran and China generated change in every sphere and engaged an astonishing variety of people. Valerie Hansen’s exploration of seven places along the imagined route and what has been found in them offers a lucid and lively introduction to a wider medieval world and how we know about it. 

By Valerie Hansen,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The Silk Road is as iconic in world history as the Colossus of Rhodes or the Suez Canal. But what was it, exactly? It conjures up a hazy image of a caravan of camels laden with silk on a dusty desert track, reaching from China to Rome. The reality was different-and far more interesting-as revealed in this new history.

In The Silk Road, Valerie Hansen describes the remarkable archeological finds that revolutionize our understanding of these trade routes. For centuries, key records remained hidden-sometimes deliberately buried by bureaucrats for safe keeping. But the sands of the Taklamakan Desert have revealed…


Book cover of Clothing the Clergy: Virtue and Power in Medieval Europe, C. 800 1200

R.I. Moore Why did I love this book?

By exploring how their sumptuous ritual vestments were designed, manufactured, and cared for, Maureen Miller shines powerful new light on the key social transformation of the European middle ages - how the clergy emerged as a distinct and dominant order of society in the eleventh and twelfth centuries - and how the process was shaped by their essential, intimate and contradictory relationships with the women who discharged these tasks.  

By Maureen C. Miller,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

After initial ambivalence about distinctive garb for its ministers, early Christianity developed both liturgical garments and visible markers of clerical status outside church. From the ninth century, moreover, new converts to the faith beyond the Alps developed a highly ornate style of liturgical attire; church vestments were made of precious silks and decorated with embroidered and woven ornament, often incorporating gold and jewels. Making use of surviving medieval textiles and garments; mosaics, frescoes, and manuscript illuminations; canon law; liturgical sources; literary works; hagiography; theological tracts; chronicles, letters, inventories of ecclesiastical treasuries, and wills, Maureen C. Miller in Clothing the Clergy…


Book cover of Monodies and on the Relics of Saints: The Autobiography and a Manifesto of a French Monk from Thetime of the Crusades

R.I. Moore Why did I love this book?

The same transformation is vividly described, along with the enormities of archetypically immoral barons and revolting peasants, the murder of a scandalous bishop, and much else, in the memoirs of an abbot from northern France at a time of violent social upheaval and intense personal rivalries, often played out on the stage of religious piety. This is one of the liveliest and most revealing of the many sources translated from this period, excellently introduced by Jay Rubenstein.   

By Guibert Of Nogent, Joseph McAlhany (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Monodies and on the Relics of Saints as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The first Western autobiography since Augustine's "Confessions", "The Monodies" is set against the backdrop of the First Crusade and offers stunning insights into medieval society. As Guibert of Nogent intimately recounts his early years, monastic life, and the bloody uprising at Laon in 1112, we witness a world - and a mind - populated by royals, heretics, nuns, witches, and devils, and come to understand just how fervently he was preoccupied with sin, sexuality, the afterlife, and the dark arts. Exotic, disquieting, and illuminating, "The Monodies" is a work in which the dreams, fears, and superstitions of one man illuminate…


Book cover of The Hanged Man: A Story of Miracle, Memory, and Colonialism in the Middle Ages

R.I. Moore Why did I love this book?

In 1307 the pope charged three commissioners to decide whether the survival of a Welshman hanged for murder some years previously had or had not been a miracle. Bartlett’s masterly and compulsively readable microhistory draws from their report a brilliantly illuminated miniature (less than 200 pages) of an entire world, from the family life of the highest nobility to the grisly details of hanging and what they symbolised, and of the struggle for power in many forms, from the marches of Wales to central Italy.

By Robert Bartlett,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Seven hundred years ago, executioners led a Welsh rebel named William Cragh to a wintry hill to be hanged. They placed a noose around his neck, dropped him from the gallows, and later pronounced him dead. But was he dead? While no less than nine eyewitnesses attested to his demise, Cragh later proved to be very much alive, his resurrection attributed to the saintly entreaties of the defunct Bishop Thomas de Cantilupe. The Hanged Man tells the story of this putative miracle--why it happened, what it meant, and how we know about it. The nine eyewitness accounts live on in…


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A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France

By Janet Hulstrand,

Book cover of A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France

Janet Hulstrand Author Of A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France

New book alert!

Who am I?

Author Reader Editor Francophile Minnesotan Once and forever Brooklynite

Janet's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

This memoir chronicles the lives of three generations of women with a passion for reading, writing, and travel. The story begins in 1992 in an unfinished attic in Brooklyn as the author reads a notebook written by her grandmother nearly 100 years earlier. This sets her on a 30-year search to find her grandmother’s journals and uncover the hidden interior lives of her mother and grandmother.

Her adventures take her to a variety of locations, from a small town in Iowa to New York, Washington, London, and Paris—and finally to a little village in France, where she is finally able to write the book that will tell her own story, intertwined with the stories of her mother and grandmother.

A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France

By Janet Hulstrand,

What is this book about?

This story, about three generations of women with a passion for reading, writing, and travel, begins in 1992, in an unfinished attic in Brooklyn, as a young writer reads journals written by her grandmother as a schoolgirl nearly 100 years earlier. This sets her on a 30-year quest to uncover the hidden lives and unfulfilled dreams of her mother and grandmother. In this coming-of-middle-age memoir, the author comes to realize that the passion for travel and for literature that has fueled her life's journey is a gift that was passed down to her by the very role models she was…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Middle Ages, historic sites, and clothing?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Middle Ages, historic sites, and clothing.

The Middle Ages Explore 402 books about the Middle Ages
Historic Sites Explore 14 books about historic sites
Clothing Explore 34 books about clothing