Historical fiction was just beginning as literary genre in the 19th century, but soon authors found success in writing about stories set in the Middle Ages. Here are ten of the most famous medieval novels published in the 19th century, which you can download or read for free via Archive.org
Ivanhoe: A Romance
By Sir Walter Scott
It is said that this novel began people’s interest in the Middle Ages. Scott had already written several historical novels when he published Ivanhoe in 1820, but it was this work which was perhaps his most successful. Set during the reign of Richard I, it revolves around the lingering enmity between the Normans and Saxons.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
By Mark Twain
One of the earliest examples of time travel in literature, Mark Twain’s 1889 novel tells the story of Hank Morgan, a 19th century citizen of Hartford, Connecticut, who is transported back to early medieval England and has adventures in King Arthur’s court. It is a satire of the romantic view of the Middle Ages created by Sir Walter Scott and others, and portrays medieval people as superstitious fools. By the end of the story the body-count starts to pile up as modern warfare comes to Arthurian England.
By George Eliot
Extensively researched, this novel was first published in a serial format between 1862 and 1863. It is set in Florence at the end of the 15th century, when Savonarola controlling the city. While some love this novel, and others believe it is Eliot’s worst book, the writer herself called it her best work, saying “I could swear by every sentence as having been written with my best blood, such as it is, and with the most ardent care for veracity of which my nature is capable”.
The Hunchback of Notre-Dame
By Victor Hugo
It is this 1831 novel that introduces us to Esmeralda, Quasimodo and the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Set in Paris in the year 1482, it has been praised for its masterful depiction of medieval Paris, its intricately ordered narrative, and its memorable portraits of such stock romantic characters as the gentle monster, the evil cleric, and the beautiful, orphaned heroine. You may have seen one of the many of the movies or plays based on this book, but this 19th century novel is also worth a read
Hereward the Wake: Last of the English
By Charles Kingsley
It was thanks to this 1866 novel that the 11th century Anglo-Saxon rebel Hereward became a national symbol in England. In this story, Hereward is the son of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, and Lady Godiva, but a rebellious youth. After a series of adventures, including fighting a polar bear, he become the leader of the English resistance against William the Conqueror and the ‘French’.
The Saga of Eric Brighteyes
By H. Rider Haggard
After a trip to Iceland, the popular Victorian adventure writer H. Rider Haggard wrote this book in 1890. One of the first novels set in the Viking Age, it was designed to be like a modernized form of an Icelandic saga. One reviewer comments, that it is :full of epic battles on land and sea, and heroic deeds aplenty. Eric fights men, monsters, and sorcery. In fact I’d be willing to term The Saga of Eric Brighteyes proto-sword and sorcery, as it contains many of the elements that would eventually make up that particular sub genre.”
The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of Great Renown in Nottinghamshire
By Howard Pyle
While the story of Robin Hood continued to be popular in the 19th century, it was in 1883 when Pyle published his collection of tales that made the English rogue in a medieval icon. This novel was aimed at children, so Pyle changed many of the earlier legends to make Robin Hood more of a hero.
The White Company
By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Although he was more famous for his stories about Sherlock Holmes, Doyle was more proud of historical fiction, including The White Company, which tells the story of Alleyne Edricson, a young man who joins a mercenary company as an archer and takes part in the battles of the Hundred Years War. He followed this book with a prequel called Sir Nigel.
Anne of Geierstein, or The Maiden of the Mist
By Sir Walter Scott
Following the success of Ivanhoe, Scott penned several more novels set in the Middle Ages, including Anne of Geierstein in 1829. This novel goes from England in the Wars of the Roses to Switzerland in the midst of their struggles with Duke Charles the Bold.
The Cloister and the Hearth
By Charles Reade
First published in 1861. The Cloister and the Hearth has been lauded as one of the greatest historical novels in English for it meticulous recreation of 15th-century European life. The story follows Gerard Eliason, a young Dutch artist who was going to be a priest until he falls in love with Margaret Brandt. When Gerard’s father tries to stop the marriage and have his son kidnapped, Gerard is forced to flee and travel through Europe. However, the romance has led to something else! It was one of the favourite novels of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who said that while Reade’s “style can be abrupt, jerky, and incoherent to an exasperating extent…there still remains enough virtue in this novel to make it, in my eyes, the wisest and the most beautiful I have ever read.”