The best books to get inside the heads of medieval men and women

Jack Hight Author Of Eagle (Saladin Trilogy)
By Jack Hight

Who am I?

I fell in love with historical fiction as a kid when I spent a week sick in bed reading the entire Horatio Hornblower series. I got hooked on history while studying the French Revolution in college. I remember thinking: these people are absolutely bonkers! I loved it. As a historian, I study the history of identity: the tools people had to craft a self-definition, and how those tools were themselves created. As a novelist, I draw on my research so that I can – like the authors in this list – recreate not just the settings and events of the past, but also the weird and wonderful world inside people’s heads.

I wrote...

Eagle (Saladin Trilogy)

By Jack Hight,

Book cover of Eagle (Saladin Trilogy)

What is my book about?

The Middle East in 1158 is a land riven by civil war and infighting. Two kings sit uneasily on their thrones: Baldwin in Jerusalem and Nur ad-Din in Aleppo. War between the kingdoms is inevitable. It is a world balanced on a knife’s edge, where one man can be the difference between victory and defeat. 

That man is Saladin. Arriving at court as a young warrior, he will navigate webs of intrigue, survive epic battles, and form a lasting friendship with John, the Saxon slave who becomes his best friend. This is one man’s incredible journey, set against the backdrop of world-changing events. Great leaders are not born. They are made. This is the story of the making of Saladin.

The books I picked & why

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The Name of the Rose

By Umberto Eco,

Book cover of The Name of the Rose

Why this book?

I picked up Eco’s novel in the campus bookstore one afternoon while I was in college and finished it as the sun came up the next morning… even though I had a half-written paper due in a few hours. It’s that good. The murder mystery cracks along, but the real magic comes from the way Eco vividly recreates the medieval mindset. This isn’t just Sherlock Holmes in a medieval monastery, although William of Baskerville could definitely give Sherlock a run for his money. William and the other characters think like medieval people. It’s strange, compelling, and baked into the plot in a way that makes this, for my money, the best fictional recreation of a historical mindset ever.

The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller

By Carlo Ginzburg, John Tedeschi (contributor),

Book cover of The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller

Why this book?

I love books that dig into how strange people were in the Middle Ages. They weren’t more or less like people today only with different clothes and feudalism, any more so than people in the US are just like Indonesians but with a different language and toilet paper. No book I have read brings this home better than Ginzburg’s history. Layer by layer, he peels back the mental world of Menocchio, a sixteenth-century Italian miller who believed that the world began as a cheese-like mass in which angels appeared, like maggots emerging from rotting meat. This book literally changed my life: both the subject of my historical research and the way I write historical fiction.

An Instance of the Fingerpost

By Iain Pears,

Book cover of An Instance of the Fingerpost

Why this book?

This novel is a bit of a cheat, as it takes place in Restoration England, but I couldn’t help myself. I picked it off the shelf at random at Shakespeare and Company in Paris, and it was like having the good fortune to sit down in a pub next to a future friend for life. I’m a sucker for murder mysteries, historical fiction, and unreliable narrators, and this book has all three! Pears narrates the murder from four different perspectives, with each one adding compelling details to a conspiracy that just keeps growing in scope and import. The star of the drama is Marco da Cola, a worthy successor to Eco’s William of Baskerville both in his devotion to science and in his pitch-perfect evocation of a historical mindset.

The Return of Martin Guerre

By Natalie Zemon Davis,

Book cover of The Return of Martin Guerre

Why this book?

Davis’s history of the crafty peasant Arnaud du Tilh is another reminder that when it comes to history, truth is stranger than fiction. It’s also the book that confirmed my desire to do microhistory. Davis digs into trial documents to narrate the tale of Arnaud, who after being mistaken at an inn for the disappeared Martin Guerre, learns everything he can about the missing man before taking over his life. The real mystery here is not how Arnaud manages to fool the villagers in the small French town of Artigat, but why even those who couldn’t possibly have been fooled – like Martin’s wife Bertrande – go along with the ruse. 

The Winter King

By Bernard Cornwell,

Book cover of The Winter King

Why this book?

If you’re a fan of historical fiction, then you probably don’t need me to tell you to read Bernard Cornwell. If you’re not a fan, this book might well make you one. Cornwell is great at narrating the bloody heroism and terror that occurs when two shield walls meet, but what sets him apart are his insights into how people thought, like when a Saxon warrior is sent to scout the enemy and runs into trouble because he can’t count past ten because, well… the Middle Ages. The Winter King is probably the least historic of Cornwell’s novels – mixing history and Arthurian legend – but it’s the first one I read and has remained my favorite. 

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