The best books about the use and abuse of the medieval past

K. Patrick Fazioli Author Of The Mirror of the Medieval: An Anthropology of the Western Historical Imagination
By K. Patrick Fazioli

Who am I?

I’m not ashamed to admit that my childhood fascination with the distant past was sparked by hours of leafing through The Kingfisher Illustrated History of the World and countless viewings of the “Indiana Jones” movies. Today, I am an Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities at Mercy College and an archaeologist specializing in the eastern Alpine region during Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. The author of three books and numerous scholarly articles, my research interests include ceramic technology, social identity, and the appropriation of the medieval past by modern ideologies.    


I wrote...

The Mirror of the Medieval: An Anthropology of the Western Historical Imagination

By K. Patrick Fazioli,

Book cover of The Mirror of the Medieval: An Anthropology of the Western Historical Imagination

What is my book about?

The Middle Ages—to paraphrase William Faulkner—are never dead. (In fact, they aren’t even past!) My book explores how the idea of the medieval has served as a funhouse mirror through which modernity sees itself, whether to celebrate our supposed triumph over barbarism and superstition or to lament the loss of a more innocent and rooted world. Drawing on history, archaeology, and anthropology, The Mirror of the Medieval not only traces how modern ideologies have appropriated the medieval past but also investigates shifts in technology, social identity, and religious belief from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages in the eastern Alpine region.  

The books I picked & why

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The Devil’s Historians: How Modern Extremists Abuse the Medieval Past

By Amy Kaufman, Paul Sturtevant,

Book cover of The Devil’s Historians: How Modern Extremists Abuse the Medieval Past

Why this book?

If you want to understand why everything you think you know about the Middle Ages is (probably) wrong, go pick up a copy of The Devil’s Historians, which chronicles how everyone from the Brothers Grimm and George R. R. Martin to ISIS and Donald Trump have invented a medieval past that reflects their own ideological preoccupations rather than historical reality. With chapters on nationalism, gender, race, and religion, Amy Kaufman and Paul Sturtevant’s book sharply contrasts the one-dimensional Middle Ages found in pop culture and political propaganda with the more complicated, even contradictory, medieval world revealed by contemporary scholarship. 

The Devil’s Historians: How Modern Extremists Abuse the Medieval Past

By Amy Kaufman, Paul Sturtevant,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Devil’s Historians as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Amy S. Kaufman and Paul B. Sturtevant examine the many ways in which the medieval past has been manipulated to promote discrimination, oppression, and murder. Tracing the fetish for "medieval times" behind toxic ideologies like nationalism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, misogyny, and white supremacy, Kaufman and Sturtevant show us how the Middle Ages have been twisted for political purposes in every century that followed. The Devil's Historians casts aside the myth of an oppressive, patriarchal medieval monoculture and reveals a medieval world not often shown in popular culture: one that is diverse, thriving, courageous, compelling, and complex.

The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe

By Patrick J. Geary,

Book cover of The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe

Why this book?

Whenever I travel across Europe, I make a point to stop by the local museum or history exhibition to see how the Early Middle Ages are presented to the public. It is striking how often the narrative presumes the continuity of people living today and their “ancestors” who have been dead for a thousand years. In The Myth of Nations, Patrick Geary sets out to show that this idea is not only complete nonsense but also incredibly dangerous in the hands of ethno-nationalist politicians. Part withering polemic and part careful scholarly study, Geary harshly rebukes historians and archaeologists who have helped to collapse the temporal distance between the past and present while offering his own account of the complex and nuanced ways in which social identity operated within the late Roman and early medieval worlds.        

The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe

By Patrick J. Geary,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Modern-day Europeans by the millions proudly trace back their national identities to the Celts, Franks, Gauls, Goths, Huns, or Serbs--or some combination of the various peoples who inhabited, traversed, or pillaged their continent more than a thousand years ago. According to Patrick Geary, this is historical nonsense. The idea that national character is fixed for all time in a simpler, distant past is groundless, he argues in this unflinching reconsideration of European nationhood. Few of the peoples that many Europeans honor as sharing their sense of "nation" had comparably homogeneous identities; even the Huns, he points out, were firmly united…

Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time

By Kathleen Davis,

Book cover of Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time

Why this book?

When I first read this book as a graduate student, Kathleen Davis’s ability to draw unexpected connections—between political power and temporality, feudalism and imperialism, medieval and postcolonial studies—melted my brain (in a good way). It’s not easy to do justice to her complex argument in a few sentences, but basically she shows how early modern jurists deliberately relegated certain ideas (servility, absolutism, religiosity) both to Europe’s medieval past and the present of the nonwestern world in order to justify imperial expansion, colonial domination, and even chattel slavery. A dense critique of both medieval historiography and postcolonial theory, Periodization and Sovereignty isn’t a breezy read but it’s well worth the effort.     

Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time

By Kathleen Davis,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Despite all recent challenges to stage-oriented histories, the idea of a division between a "medieval" and a "modern" period has survived, even flourished, in academia. Periodization and Sovereignty demonstrates that this survival is no innocent affair. By examining periodization together with the two controversial categories of feudalism and secularization, Kathleen Davis exposes the relationship between the constitution of "the Middle Ages" and the history of sovereignty, slavery, and colonialism.
This book's groundbreaking investigation of feudal historiography finds that the historical formation of "feudalism" mediated the theorization of sovereignty and a social contract, even as it provided a rationale for colonialism…


Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism, and the War on Terror

By Bruce Holsinger,

Book cover of Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism, and the War on Terror

Why this book?

This book is very much a product of the George W. Bush years, when American adventurism in the Middle East, domestic surveillance programs, and the rise of Islamophobia seemed like the biggest problems facing America. While this makes the book feel a little dated in places, it remains one of the most fascinating case studies of the distortion of the Middle Ages for political purposes. Holsinger meticulously details how neoconservative thinkers repeatedly described Al Qaeda and the Taliban as “medieval” and “feudal” (even though their extremist ideology was a distinctly modern phenomenon) as well as how the neomedieval school of political theory was used to intellectually justify torture, extradition, and the War on Terror more broadly.  

Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism, and the War on Terror

By Bruce Holsinger,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism, and the War on Terror as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

President Bush was roundly criticized for likening America's antiterrorism measures to a "crusade" in 2001. Far from just a gaffe, however, such medievalism has become a dominant paradigm for comprehending the identity and motivations of America's perceived enemy in the war on terror. Yet as Bruce Holsinger argues here, this cloying post-9/11 rhetoric has served to obscure the more intricate ideological machinations of neomedievalism, the global idiom of the non-state actor: non-governmental organizations, transnational corporate militias, and terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda. "Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism, and the War on Terror" addresses the role of neomedievalism in contemporary politics. While international-relations…

Whose Middle Ages? Teachable Moments for an Ill-Used Past

By Andrew Albin, Mary C. Erler, Thomas O'Donnell, Nicholas L. Paul, Nina Rowe

Book cover of Whose Middle Ages? Teachable Moments for an Ill-Used Past

Why this book?

I often use selections from Whose Middle Ages? in my medieval history courses, but this collection of short, insightful essays is a great resource for anyone interested in understanding what leading scholars think about invocations of the medieval past in contemporary culture. Touching on a wide range of topics, from Viking imagery in heavy metal music and Celtic crosses on white supremacist websites to controversies over Sharia law and papal heresy in the popular press, this volume serves as an ideal introduction to the use and abuse of the Middle Ages.   

Whose Middle Ages? Teachable Moments for an Ill-Used Past

By Andrew Albin, Mary C. Erler, Thomas O'Donnell, Nicholas L. Paul, Nina Rowe

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Whose Middle Ages? Teachable Moments for an Ill-Used Past as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Whose Middle Ages? is an interdisciplinary collection of short, accessible essays intended for the nonspecialist reader and ideal for teaching at an undergraduate level. Each of twenty-two essays takes up an area where digging for meaning in the medieval past has brought something distorted back into the present: in our popular entertainment; in our news, our politics, and our propaganda; and in subtler ways that inform how we think about our histories, our countries, and ourselves. Each author looks to a history that has refused to remain past and uses the tools of the academy to read and re-read familiar…


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