Influential Medieval Books and a Milestone

19 Dec

I have to get over feeling guilty about not posting much. This has happened, and will continue to happen periodically. The last month was unexpected though. I thought I’d have some free time; instead I’ve been extremely busy.

Just finished spending three days shut in a room in Tennessee with four colleagues. This isn’t quite as severe as it sounds. It’s not like the door’s locked or anything. However it always amazes me just how much you can get done when a few people who know what they’re talking about and have a defined task get together. I like open meetings with lots of folks, but this is just so much more efficient.

Passed a milestone – 10,000 views since April 10! I seem to be at the 40-50 views/day with occasional spikes and lulls. Of course if I’d post more regularly . . . I had a goal of 100 posts by the end of January – about 8 posts/month wouldn’t be bad. I don’t think that’s happening.

Now the reason for this post: I thought it would be interesting to list the most influential medieval history books I’ve read over the past 15 years. My interest in the period has been impacted by various people, places and things. Paul Gans from New York University deserves particular notice. He has been an extraordinarily open, gracious and helpful individual over the years and has helped share his passion for the period with me. The Usenet group soc.history.medieval was probably the initial spur to expanding my interest as it gave me the opportunity to share and exchange ideas and information. Kalamazoo has been very influential dating back to my first conference in 2001. I’ve also started reading several academic journals which has been very interesting. And of course there is this blog and those I’ve “met” through it.

But books remain the core of how I learn about Medieval History. When I reflect, I look at my Medieval hobby very much as a journey. There have been various points along the way where I took one branch of the road rather than another and almost always this has been because of a book I read. Listed below are the books I feel have been most influential on my Medieval “journey.” This is not a recommended reading list by any means though I think all have value. It’s not a list of my favorites or those I feel were the “best” books I’ve read. In fact, at least one was an eye-opener for me because of what I feel are some problems with it. However each of these planted an idea, concept or inspired me to learn more.

I look at these books and my descriptions and think any Historian will probably laugh at me. Many of these concepts are likely taught in a first-year history survey. In my case, I learned about them in a different way. I’ve listed these books, as best I can recall, in the order I read them with an approximate reading date. For the past few years I’ve recorded the date I read something but this isn’t true before about 2005.

Lindberg, David C., The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, 600 B.C. to A.D. 1450. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (1994). ISBN: 978-0226482316. Date Read: Approximately 1997. – For me, this book was the one which helped me develop an appreciation for the difference in how Medievals (and Ancients) viewed the world when compared with us today. The difference in taking a philosophical approach to understanding how the world works compared with our modern approach using the Scientific Method is pretty significant. I was smart enough to know that folks a thousand or more years ago viewed the world differently from us however this book was the opening into helping me begin to understand this at least a little. It has also resulted in my library containing a ton of Greek and Roman philosophy sources (in translation of course).

Brown, Peter, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press (1969). ISBN: 9-780520-014114. Date Read: Approximately 1997. – This was the first book I read which showed me that I would have to learn about Christianity to even begin to understand the Medieval period. Later, when I decided to focus on the 4th-9th centuries I think it was at least in part through reading this that I realized I would also have to become much more informed about the Roman Empire.

Prestwich, Michael, Edward I. New Haven, Connecticut USA: Yale University Press (1997). ISBN: 9-780300-071573. Date Read: Approximately 1997. – This book showed me two things. First, that a well-written biography does much more than tell about an individual; it also can be an excellent source of information for the region and period in which that individual lived. I think this may have also been the first, or at least one of the first, book(s) I read which contained a great deal of detail and showed me that I really enjoyed this type of book. A side effect was my becoming a fan of the Yale English Monarchs Series. To date I have nine of them.

Reynolds, Susan, Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1996). ISBN:9-780198-206484. Date Read: Approximately 1997. – This book was pretty influential in a lot of ways, including the content which is extremely important, but the reason I included it here is that it helped me understand that historical revision is not “naughty” but is necessary and desirable (most of the time anyway).

Maalouf, Amin, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes. New York: Shocken Books (1984). ISBN: 9-78085-208986. Date Read: Approximately 1997-8. – This was not a book I expected to choose when I started this exercise. As I was scanning my book list I realized that in examining modern attitudes in the Arab World to the Crusades, Maalouf was instrumental in showing me how important it is to examine medieval and ancient sources in context; by taking into consideration the viewpoints, prejudices, motivations, etc., of the authors.

White, Carolinne, ed., Early Christian Lives. London: Penguin Books (1998). ISBN: 9-780140-435269. Date Read: Approximately 1998. – This is the first collection of Vitae I read and launched my interest in hagiography which continues to this day.

Pernoud, Régine, Joan of Arc: By Herself and Her Witnesses. Lanham, Maryland USA: Scarborough House (1982). ISBN: 9-780812-812602. Date Read: Approximately 1998. – This book showed me several things which I later explored in more depth. It was my first introduction to heresy which I find fascinating. It also showed me some of the ways in which lay authorities would corrupt Church Institutions and practices for their ends (Malcolm Barber’s Trial of the Templars is another excellent case study as is anything on the Albigensian Crusade). Interestingly, this was also one of the first books I ordered through Amazon. My first ever order was January 11, 1998 (The Battle of Hastings by Stephen Morillo) and I ordered this on January 25.

Brundage, James A., Law, Sex and Christian Society in Medieval Europe. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press (1987). ISBN: 9-780226-077840. Date Read: Approximately 1999. – This is one among several books I read which helped show me that the Church was not some sort of monolithic, authoritarian, autocratic institution which controlled everything during the Medieval period but that there was debate and dissension even within the Church as well as between religious and lay leaders. I can’t say for sure if this was even the first book showing me this but it continues to be one I refer to whenever someone gives me the “Church ran everything during the Middle Ages” argument.

Boswell, John, The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press (1998). ISBN: 9-780226-067124. Date Read: Approximately 2000. – I had never bought into the concept that religion was evil or that the Church was a massively negative influence on Human advancement or life in general during the Middle Ages but this book really helped me refine my thoughts on this.

Dhuoda, Handbook for William: A Carolingian Woman’s Counsel for Her Son, trans. Carol Neel. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press (1999). ISBN: 9-780813-209388. Date Read: Approximately 2001. – This book was something of a slap in the face, helping me to realize just how under-represented women are in contemporary Medieval sources, and helped inspire an interest in the role of women during the period.

McCormick, Michael, Origins of the European Economy: Communications and Commerce, A.D. 300-900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2005). Date Read: 2005. – This was, I believe, the first book I read which showed me how statistical analysis of events could be used as a methodological approach to Medieval Studies. Plus the sheer level of detail was astonishing. It continues to be one of my very favorite books. Also, I believe this was the first book where I decided I couldn’t wait for the paperback to come out and had to buy it as a newly published hardcover for a pretty decent chunk of change (for me anyway).

Ward-Perkins, Bryan, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2005). ISBN: 9-780192-805645. Date Read: December, 2005. – This book showed me just how much a respected modern historian’s prejudices could influence his work. While reading it I kept thinking, Who is this guy? and kept checking his bio to make sure this really was a professional historian. I was pretty fired up by this book at the time and still use it as an object lesson.

Wickham, Chris, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2006). ISBN: 9-780199-212965. Date Read: November, 2008. – My other “favorite” along with McCormick. For me, this book really drove home the need for regionalism in studying history and how geographic areas should first be studied independent of other areas before grouping different regions into a broader synthesis (if the synthesis is valid).

Halsall, Guy, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2008). ISBN: 9-780521-435437. Date Read: November, 2009. – It’s difficult for me to assess just how influential this book has been because I’m not sure where this will lead me but Halsall has shown me the importance of first assessing archaeological and textual sources independently of one another and free of external influences before deciding if these sources support one another. In particular this has influenced my desire to learn more about Early Medieval cemetery finds but it holds true for all evidence.

There it is – my “most influential books” list. Putting it together was interesting. There were several books I started to include and decided I only wanted them for sheer quality; while they taught me a great deal, they had not caused a sea change in what I was studying or how I viewed an important issue.

There are substantial aspects of my Medieval hobby where I can’t point to a single book as influential. One is my interest in peasants. Peasants fit in the same “hugely important but rarely mentioned” category as women but I can’t recall a single book where the light bulb went on and I thought, gosh, I need to learn more about them. And at some point I decided I needed every contemporary/near-contemporary source I could get my hands on (in translation, of course). I don’t recall exactly where that may have happened. It may have been Peter Heather’s The Fall of the Roman Empire which I nearly included here for that reason, but I’d read quite a few sources before that such as Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care, Augustine’s City of God and Einhard, Gregory of Tours, Froissart, etc. I often think what would truly spur me to re-learn Latin would be running out of sources in translation. Fortunately, this does not seem likely to happen soon. I have also read quite a bit on the Eastern Empire. At some point I decided I had to read about the East to better understand the West (and then found the East just plain interesting) but I can’t recall exactly when or how this happened. Finally, I decided that the Early Medieval Period was what I was most interested in. I am reasonably certain this didn’t happen because of a single book but rather a gradual realization that this was really cool.


Posted by on December 19, 2010 in Books



4 responses to “Influential Medieval Books and a Milestone

  1. Steve Muhlberger

    December 19, 2010 at 6:06 pm

    A very interesting post and list. Interesting how many of these books I haven't read. For me, Reynolds' Kingdoms and Communities was more important than Fiefs and Vassals. Elizabeth Brown's AHR takedown of feudalism had a formative influence esp. on my teaching. I never discuss feudalism, unless I'm talking about August 1789 and dovecotes. Avoiding the term and the construct is easy as pie, I've found.

  2. Medieval History Geek

    December 19, 2010 at 7:45 pm

    Thank you. You're right about Brown of course. Reynolds dedicates the book to her in recognition of the article.I have it easier in not having to teach but avoiding the "f-word" isn't hard – I can talk about social and economic structures and what they are and how they worked (as I understand them anyway) without ever having to use a word which is pretty close to meaningless – though the discussion of how it came to be widely used is interesting in a historiographical sense.


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