Books on Medieval History

This year’s Humanities class is the Medival World.  I am terribly deficient in the area of Medieval history and literature.  I have a list of some 40 or 50 books I have read in the field, but almost every book needs to be re-read and I have many more that I should read.  The Medieval world is so rich and vast that it would take years of study to become even a worthy novice.  Thankfully, being the teacher in the Humanities program gives me the opportunity every four years to make a few baby steps toward proficiency.  I am a student along with my students.  Perhaps I am primus inter pares, that is, first among equals, but I long to know more.

Here are some books I am currently working on that are helpful.

A well written survey of Medieval history.

I discovered Morris Bishop’s The Middle Ages at the beginning of the school year.  It is well written and engaging.  We are using it as our ‘text’ in the class.

I recently began reading Thomas Cahill’s Mysteries of the Middle Ages.  Cahill is always an engaging writer.  His concept of “Hinges of History” is right on target.  He veers between genius and quirky, sometimes in the same sentence.  I received this book as a gift from one of my students, Liz Woll, for Christmas.

Speaking of books for Christmas, my family gave me a copy of Foundations by Peter Ackroyd.  I have read over the dust jacket and gazed at the book lovingly many times, but have yet to get started on it.  This book is the first volume of a history of England, and England’s role in Medieval history is quite thrilling.

Volume 1 of a History of England

 Speaking of England, I am about half-way through reading The White Horse King: The Life of Alfred the Great by Ben Merkle.

The man who united the various factions to create an English kingdom–Alfred the Great–a truly great Christian ruler.

Just this week, we finished reading and discussing The Rule of St. Benedict.  This set of rules for the Benedictine monks is filled with good spiritual exhortations.  The monastic life was filled with Scripture and prayer.  I think we all need some doses of the lifestyle.  In fact, my Humanities class had a St. Benedict’s day today.  Our chapel was devoted to Medieval devotions and we were not silent all day, but we were quiet.  My students also prepared a meal for the junior high and teachers.  Then we performed works of service by cleaning up parts of the campus.

The work of monks during the Middle Ages cannot be overestimated.  They preserved the books and culture time and time again.  As the order of the Roman Empire fell into disorder, it was the monks who copied the manuscripts, evangelized the barbarians, took care of the sick and poor, and schooled the young. 

One of the best studies of the works of the monks is How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill.  I have read and taught this book several times.  It centers around the work of such heroes of the faith as St. Patrick and St. Columbanus.  If I ever get to travel to Europe, I would love to go to the obscrure island of Iona where the Irish monks were located during some really rough times.  They were a small outpost for a vibrant Christian faith.  I hope we can be at least half as faithful as they were.

This book is a great place to start on learning Medieval history.

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