The best books on why the 14th century mirrors our own ideals, economy, and pandemic

Mary Ellen Johnson Author Of The Lion and the Leopard
By Mary Ellen Johnson

Who am I?

In junior high, I happened across a picture of an armor-plated knight being raised by a winch to sit astride his destrier. What a ridiculous time period, I thought. After raiding every related book in the school library,  I changed my opinion from “ridiculous” to “fascinating.” Particularly when deciding that periods such as the fourteenth century, with its plagues, wars, political upheavals, and climate change were pretty much a distorted mirror of our own. Throughout my life as wife, mother, novelist, and social justice advocate, I’ve held medieval England close to my heart. I remain forever grateful I’ve been able to explore it both in my writing and in several treks across the pond.  


I wrote...

The Lion and the Leopard

By Mary Ellen Johnson,

Book cover of The Lion and the Leopard

What is my book about?

Fourteenth-century England was a time of plague, climate change, economic disruptions, revolts,  tyrannical rulers, and corrupt favorites. Against a backdrop similar to our own, my knights, their ladies, lords, and ordinary folk live and love and struggle against the turning of fortune’s wheel—where they, like us, rise only to fall and inch their way round the wheel yet again. Each character wrestles in some fashion with the family motto of my hero knight: All is lost save honor.

Throughout, historical characters such as Edward III, the Black Prince, and John of Gaunt all appear. My favorite is the little-known revolutionary priest John Ball who I shamelessly modeled after my more radical relatives. I hope I accurately captured the essence of John—and of them all. 

The books I picked & why

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The Three Edwards

By Thomas B. Costain,

Book cover of The Three Edwards

Why this book?

Thomas Costain’s series introduced me to a fascinating world of castles and cathedrals, of tournaments where mounted knights broke lances on behalf of their ladies, where courtly love and chivalry ruled the day. (In theory. Seldom in practice.) How strange, my preteen self thought. How enchanting! I was particularly fascinated by The Three Edwards, which recounts the reign of one of England’s worst kings sandwiched between two of its greatest. With the eye of a natural storyteller, Costain intersperses tales of wars, rebellions, and political machinations with myths such as Arthur and Guinevere’s tombs being “discovered” in Glastonbury and the possible origins of Robin Hood. While there are newer series mining the same period, Costain’s research remains relatively solid, and his prose retains its powerful simplicity.  

The Three Edwards

By Thomas B. Costain,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

THE THREE EDWARDS covers the years between 1272 and 1377 when three Edwards ruled England. Edward I brought England out of the Middle Ages. Edward II had a tragic reign but gave his country Edward III, who ruled gloriously, if violently.
"A thrilling narrative... history told with all the interest found only in a great novel." (Salt Lake City Tribune)


The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century

By Ian Mortimer,

Book cover of The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century

Why this book?

When creating a scene, my internal dialogue consists of some form of the following: Remember, farm animals were way smaller; hedges were not ubiquitous while music pretty much was; catching butterflies with nets and blowing soap bubbles was a favorite childhood pastime; and hey, why not have my knight stop to smell the flowers followed by weaving his love a garland? While our ancestors were sometimes very like us, in other ways both their actions and thought processes seem inexplicable. Which is what makes Ian Mortimer’s charmingly written and informative guidebook an indispensable part of my library. 

The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century

By Ian Mortimer,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The past is a foreign country. This is your guidebook. Imagine you could get into a time machine and travel back to the fourteenth century. What would you see? What would you smell? More to the point, where are you going to stay? Should you go to a castle or a monastic guest house? And what are you going to eat? What sort of food are you going to be offered by a peasant or a monk or a lord? This radical new approach turns our entire understanding of history upside down. It shows us that the past is not…


1381: The Year of the Peasants' Revolt

By Juliet Barker,

Book cover of 1381: The Year of the Peasants' Revolt

Why this book?

Another beautifully written book recounting the first popular uprising in English history. Would the revolt even have occurred without the Black Death and the subsequent upheaval caused by labor shortages, rising wages, population migrations? The author subsequently draws similarities between 1381 and contemporary conditions, making a compelling case for the axiom: history often rhymes. (When promoting American Independence, Thomas Paine championed the rebels, as did supporters of the French Revolution.) I particularly enjoyed delving into the life of the radical priest, John Ball, whose (largely fictional) voice continues to inspire those who ask, “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?”

1381: The Year of the Peasants' Revolt

By Juliet Barker,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked 1381 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Written with the fluency readers have come to expect from Juliet Barker, 1381: The Year of the Peasants' Revolt provides an account of the first great popular uprising in England and its background, and paints on a broad canvas a picture of English life in medieval times. Skeptical of contemporary chroniclers' accounts of events, Barker draws on the judicial sources of the indictments and court proceedings that followed the rebellion. This emphasis offers a fresh perspective on the so-called Peasants' Revolt and gives depth and texture to the historical narrative. Among the book's arguments are that the rebels believed they…


The Black Prince

By Michael Jones,

Book cover of The Black Prince

Why this book?

Each time I visit Canterbury Cathedral, I pay homage to my favorite knight, Edward of Woodstock, who epitomizes the fourteenth-century version of the knight nonpareil. Being an autodidact rather than a scholar, I am particularly grateful that Black Prince is both meticulously researched and easy to read. I particularly admire Prince Edward because of his courage on and off the battlefield, especially when enduring the mysterious illness that ultimately killed him. Edward the Black Prince embraced all the turns of fortune’s wheel with grace, courage, and dignity. Love this man and love this book!

The Black Prince

By Michael Jones,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

As a child he was given his own suit of armor; at the age of sixteen, he helped defeat the French at Crécy. At Poitiers, in 1356, his victory over King John II of France forced the French into a humiliating surrender that marked the zenith of England’s dominance in the Hundred Years War. As lord of Aquitaine, he ruled a vast swathe of territory across the west and southwest of France, holding a magnificent court at Bordeaux that mesmerized the brave but unruly Gascon nobility and drew them like moths to the flame of his cause. He was Edward…


The Perfect King: The Life of Edward III, Father of the English Nation

By Ian Mortimer,

Book cover of The Perfect King: The Life of Edward III, Father of the English Nation

Why this book?

Forget the Wars of the Roses! Give me the fourteenth century and the reign of Edward III—whose like, according to the chronicler Jean Froissart, “has not been seen since the days of King Arthur." A happy warrior, exuberant ruler, and skilled commander, who at least one modern military historian has described as “the greatest general in English history.” Edward kicked some serious French butt during the beginning of the Hundred Years War. (Great from the English point of view. Devastating for those on the receiving end of Edward’s chevauchees.) The poignancy of outliving one’s peers and one’s time and dying alone—all of that is compassionately detailed in Ian Mortimer’s compelling biography, which reminds us why Edward of Windsor ranks among England’s greatest kings. 

The Perfect King: The Life of Edward III, Father of the English Nation

By Ian Mortimer,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

He ordered his uncle to be beheaded; he usurped his father's throne; he taxed his people more than any other previous king, and he started a war which lasted for more than a hundred years. Yet for centuries Edward III (1327-77) was celebrated as the most brilliant of all English monarchs. In this first full study of his character and life, Ian Mortimer shows how under Edward the feudal kingdom of England became a highly organised nation, capable of raising large revenues and deploying a new type of projectile-based warfare, culminating in the crushing victory over the French at Crecy.…


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