The Top 11 of 2011: Our Medievalicious Wish List!

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We have compiled a list of 11 books published this year which our readers might to be great reads about the Middle Ages:

The Abacus and the Cross: The Story Of the Pope Who Brought the Light Of Science to the Dark Ages

By Nancy Marie Brown
(It actually came out in late 2010, but we had to add it to this list!)

The medieval Catholic Church, widely considered a source of intolerance and inquisitorial fervor, was not anti-science during the Dark Ages—in fact, the pope in the year 1000 was the leading mathematician and astronomer of his day. Called “The Scientist Pope,” Gerbert of Aurillac rose from peasant beginnings to lead the church. By turns a teacher, traitor, kingmaker, and visionary, Gerbert is the first Christian known to teach math using the nine Arabic numerals and zero.In The Abacus and the Cross, Nancy Marie Brown skillfully explores the new learning Gerbert brought to Europe. A fascinating narrative of one remarkable math teacher, The Abacus and the Cross will captivate readers of history, science, and religion alike.

Click here to read  the article The Abacus and The Cross: When the Pope Was A Scientist, by Nancy Marie Brown

From Kirkus Reviews: “The years around 1000 CE seem to be every medieval historian’s favorite era, but Brown’s welcome addition to the genre provides a lively, eye-opening portrait of a sophisticated Europe whose intellectual leaders showed genuine interest in learning.”  - click here to read more reviews

A Hermit’s Cookbook: Monks, Food and Fasting in the Middle Ages

By Andrew Jotischky

The Egyptian hermit Onuphrios was said to have lived entirely on dates, and perhaps the most famous of all hermits, John the Baptist, on locusts and wild honey. Was it really possible to sustain life on so little food? The history of monasticism is defined by the fierce and passionate abandonment of the ordinary comforts of life, the most striking being food and drink. A Hermit’s Cookbook opens with stories and pen-portraits of the Desert Fathers of early Christianity and their followers who were ascetic solitaries, hermits and pillar-dwellers. It proceeds to explore how the ideals of the desert fathers were revived in both the Byzantine and western traditions, looking at the cultivation of food in monasteries, eating and cooking, and why hunting animals was rejected by any self-respecting hermit. Full of rich anecdotes, and including recipes for basic monk’s stew and bread soup – and many others – this is a fascinating story of hermits, monks, food and fasting in the Middle Ages.

Review from HistoryExtra.com: “Andrew Jotischky’s book is a valuable addition to the literature on the monastic life and deserves more than a specialist readership. And it has many appetising monastic recipes.” Click here to read the full review

The Friar of Carcassonne: Revolt against the Inquisition in the Last Days of the Cathars

By Stephen O’Shea

The dramatic story of a courageous friar who battled king, pope and Inquisition in his search for justice. Nearly a century had passed since the French region of Languedoc had been put to the sword in the Albigensian Crusade, but the stain of Catharism still lay on the land. Any accusation of Catharism invited peril. But repression bred resentment, and it was in Carcassonne that resistance began to stir. In 1300 a great orator emerged there to bring together the currents of resistance. Three years later the terrible prisons were stormed and the inmates set free.

Click here to see our feature on this book,  including a video interview with the author

The Deeds of the Franks and Other Jerusalem-Bound Pilgrims The Earliest Chronicle of the First Crusade

By Nirmal Dass

This new translation offers a faithful yet accessible English-language rendering of the twelfth-century Gesta Francorum et aliorum Hierosolomitanorum, the earliest known Latin account of the First Crusade. Although an anonymous work, it has become the exemplar for all later histories and retellings of the First Crusade. As such, it is filled with vivid descriptions of the hardships suffered by the crusaders, with deeds of personal heroism, with courtly intrigues, with betrayal and cowardice, and with a relentless faith that would see the attainment of the desired goal: the capture of Jerusalem by the crusaders in 1095. There is a great deal of mystery surrounding this anonymous account, especially in regard to its authorship; place, date, and purpose of composition; narrative methodology; and point of view. It is also a sweeping tale that swiftly moves from the first preaching of the crusade by Pope Urban II, to the ragtag and ultimately doomed effort of the popular People’s Crusade, and then the more disciplined and concerted campaign by the French and Norman nobility that led to the conquest of the Holy Land by the crusaders.

The Emperor and the Saint: Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, Francis of Assisi, and Journeys to Medieval Places

By Richard F. Cassady

The Emperor and the Saint is a vivid place-by-place telling of the life and times of the most enlightened, creative, and dynamic ruler of Medieval Europe, Frederick II of Hohenstaufen. St. Francis, who shared with Frederick a love of the natural world and was baptized in the same cathedral in Assisi, is a parallel and contrasting presence. Cassady enthusiastically guides the reader through the history and legends, pausing to describe the architecture of a cathedral, to marvel at the atmosphere of a town, to recommend the best place for a quiet picnic of local fare.

A man of insatiable curiosity, Frederick spent hours developing his knowledge of science and religion, art and philosophy. He traveled the length and breadth of Europe, even going to the Holy Land where, as commander of a Crusade, he negotiated a treaty with Sultan al-Kamil of Egypt, nephew of the great Saladin. Both respected and reviled, Frederick achieved great heights and faced grave disappointments. When Frederick died in December 1250, he was robed in the white habit of a Cistercian monk to demonstrate his connection to personal, political, and religious worlds.

The Tigress of Forli: Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici

By Elizabeth Lev

The astonishing life of a long-misunderstood Renaissance virago

Wife, mother, leader, warrior. Caterina Riario Sforza was one of the most prominent women in Renaissance Italy—and one of the most vilified. In this glittering biography, Elizabeth Lev reexamines her extraordinary life and accomplishments.

Raised in the court of Milan and wed at age ten to the pope’s corrupt nephew, Caterina was ensnared in Italy’s political intrigues early in life. After turbulent years in Rome’s papal court, she moved to the Romagnol province of Forlì. Following her husband’s assassination, she ruled Italy’s crossroads with iron will, martial strength, political savvy—and an icon’s fashion sense. In finally losing her lands to the Borgia family, she put up a resistance that inspired all of Europe and set the stage for her progeny—including Cosimo de’ Medici—to follow her example to greatness.

The True Chronicles of Jean le Bel 1290 – 1360

By Jean Le Bel, translated by Nigel Bryant

The chronicles of Jean le Bel, written around 1357-60, are one of the most important sources for the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War. They were only rediscovered and published at the beginning of the twentieth century, though Froissart begins his much more famous work by acknowledging his great debt to the ‘true chronicles’ which Jean le Bel had written. Many of the great pages of Froissart are actually the work of Jean le Bel, and this is the first translation of his book. It introduces English-speaking readers to a vivid text written by a man who, although a canon of the cathedral at Liège, had actually fought with Edward III in Scotland, and who was a great admirer of the English king. He writes directly and clearly, with an admirable grasp of narrative; and he writes very much from the point of view of the knights who fought with Edward.

Charlemagne’s Survey of the Holy Land: Wealth, Personnel, and Buildings of a Mediterranean Church between Antiquity and the Middle Ages

By Michael McCormick

In Charlemagne’s Survey of the Holy Land, Michael McCormick rehabilitates and reinterprets one of the most neglected and extraordinary sources from Charlemagne’s revival of the Roman empire: the report of a fact-finding mission to the Christian church of the Holy Land. The roll of documents translated and edited in this volume preserves the most detailed statistical portrait before the Domesday Book of the finances, monuments (including exact dimensions), and female and male personnel of any major Christian church.

Setting these documents in the context of economic trends, archaeological evidence, and a comparison of Holy Land churches and monasteries with their contemporaries west and east, this study shows that the Palestinian church was living in decline as its old financial links with Byzantium slackened. In recounting Charlemagne’s move to outflank the Byzantine emperor, McCormick constructs a microhistory of the Frankish king’s ambitions and formidable organizational talents for running an empire.

The Age of Chivalry: The Story of Medieval Europe, 950 to 1450

By Hywel Williams

This was the age of the system of legal and military obligation known as ‘feudalism’, and of the birth and consolidation of powerful kingdoms in England, France and Spain; it was an era of urbanization and the expansion of trade, of the building of the great Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals, of courtly romance and the art of the troubadour, and of the founding of celebrated seats of learning in Paris, Oxford and Bologna. But it was also an epoch characterised by brutal military adventure in the launching of armed pilgrimages to liberate Jerusalem from Muslim control, of the brutal dynastic conflict of the Hundred Years’ War and of the devastating pandemic of the Black Death.

In a sequence of scholarly but accessible articles – accompanied by an array of beautiful and authentic images of the era, plus timelines, maps, boxed features and display quotes – distinguished historian Hywel Williams sheds revelatory light on every aspect of a rich and complex period of European history.

Irresistible North: From Venice to Greenland on the Trail of the Zen Brothers

By Andrea Di Robilant

The  charming odyssey in the path of the mysterious Zen brothers, who explored parts of the New World a century before Columbus, and became both a source of scandal and a cause célèbre among geographers in the following centuries.

This delightful journey begins with Andrea di Robilant’s serendipitous discovery of a travel narrative published in Venice in 1558 by the Renaissance statesman Nicolò Zen: the text and its fascinating nautical map re-created the travels of two of the author’s ancestors, brothers who explored the North Atlantic in the 1380s and 1390s. Di Robilant set out to discover why later, in the nineteenth century, the Zens’ account came under attack as one of the greatest frauds in geographical history. Was their map—and even their journey—partially or perhaps entirely faked?

The Geometry of Creation: Architectural Drawing and the Dynamics of Gothic Design

By Robert Bork

The flowering of Gothic architecture depended to a striking extent on the use of drawing as a tool of design. By drawing precise “blueprints” with simple tools such as the compass and straightedge, Gothic draftsmen were able to develop a linearized architecture of unprecedented complexity and sophistication. Examination of their surviving drawings can provide valuable and remarkably intimate information about the Gothic design process. Gothic drawings include compass pricks, uninked construction lines, and other telltale traces of the draftsman’s geometrically based working method. The proportions of the drawings, moreover, are those actually intended by the designer, uncompromised by errors introduced in the construction process. All of these features make these drawings ideal subjects for the study of Gothic design practice, but their geometry has to date received little systematic attention. This book offers a new perspective on Gothic architectural creativity. It shows, in a series of rigorous geometrical case studies, how Gothic design evolved over time, in two senses: in the hours of the draftsman’s labor, and across the centuries of the late Middle Ages. In each case study, a series of computer graphics show in unprecedented detail how a medieval designer could have developed his architectural concept step by step, using only basic geometrical operations. Taken together, these analyses demonstrate both remarkable methodological continuity across the Gothic era, and the progressive development of new and sophisticated permutations on venerable design themes.

Sharan Newman

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