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By Danièle Cybulskie
It may not surprise you to learn I am a notorious bibliophile, and rarely ever leave a bookshop empty-handed. Fortunately, this means that I’ve read a whole bunch of fantastic books this year, so I thought I’d share just a handful of my favourites that range from medieval-for-beginners to heavier academic stuff. Most of them, I (or other writers at Our Site) have already written about because the content was so great, so I’ve linked back to previous posts for those who want a bit more information.
1. The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England by Dan Jones
Dan Jones has a whole bunch of great stuff out this year, including two new books: Magna Carta and Realm Divided. (You can read my Magna Carta interview with Jones here.) For personal preference, though, I have to go with The Plantagenets. Following (what I think is) Britain’s most interesting dynasty, Jones uses colourful prose and great storytelling to hit all the juiciest bits of each king’s rule as well as all the important stuff. As a result, The Plantagenets is compulsive reading that teaches you at the same time. Who could ask for anything more?
2. Dragon’s Blood and Willow Bark: The Mysteries of Medieval Medicine by Toni Mount
This is a very reader-friendly overview of medieval medicine, from the quirky to the surreal to the stuff that actually worked, and the science behind it. Because it’s both a fast read and a general overview, it’s the kind of book that’s great for people with a budding interest in the medieval period, or as a jumping off point for people a little farther along in medieval studies, medicine, or naturopathy. It’s also full of great little factoids you can spring on unsuspecting family members, like “Did you know that snail slime is great for burns?” (Everyone needs a little bit of gross medieval trivia to liven up their small talk.)
3. A Poisoned Past: The Life and Times of Margarida de Portu, a Fourteenth-Century Accused Poisoner by Steven Bednarski
This piece of microhistory is a great read because it gets at a whole bunch of interesting aspects of medieval life and scholarship at the same time. From it, readers can learn about medieval life in Southern Europe, the judicial system, familial relationships (and the effect those could have on a trial), as well as how historians find and assess a case like Margarida’s. Also, it’s a real medieval murder mystery. So, there’s that.
4. The Well-Laden Ship by Egbert of Liège (translation by Robert Gary Babcock)
Admittedly, this might be for the more geeky of us, because (while there is a great explanatory introduction) this is mainly just the words of medieval people, left for us to contemplate without a lot of additional exposition. Egbert of Liège wrote down local proverbs and wisdom for posterity and as an exercise for students, so his book is a treasure trove of medieval thought from the old and familiar (“While the cat’s away, the mouse is seen scurrying about.” p.11) to the still relevant (“I hate a painful nose infection with stopped-up nostrils.” p.43). It’s a beautiful edition, and a source of endless amusement.
5. Medieval Life: Archaeology and the Life Course by Roberta Gilchrist
While the above books are friendly to the dabbling medievalist, this one is more for the hardcore. Roberta Gilchrist has compiled an absolutely stunning amount of archaeological information (including pictures and sketches) on all aspects of medieval life from the well-known to the obscure. As a result, this book goes beyond being a post-secondary textbook to being a handy guide for any medievalist to have on the shelf for quick reference. It’s thorough enough that it’s valuable for both the people who know little about history and the people who know quite a bit more. It’d also be a handy reference for those budding authors who (I’ve discovered) make up part of our Our Site community, and who are looking for accurate details in their historical writing. While this definitely is more of a textbook than a bathtub book, I highly recommend it for anyone with a serious interest in our beloved Middle Ages.
There are so many other books I could add to this list, but these are some of my favourites. Feel free to use our comment section on Facebook, or tweet out other recommended reads to share with our community. Happy reading!
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist