By Danièle Cybulskie
When is the perfect time to curl up with a good medieval book and lose yourself centuries ago? I’ve compiled a list of some of my favourite books both from and about the Middle Ages. We’ll start with the historical fiction. (I’ve linked to the editions I own, but I don’t know if they’re all available to order at the moment. You may have to dig around.) Warning: they’ll take a little longer than five minutes to read.
So, none of these won a Pulitzer, but that’s entertainment.
I first read this book as a teenager and loved it. I found a copy of it at Chapters, and was a little embarrassed to finally buy it, since they’d replaced the cover art with some sort of Fabio-inspired bodice-ripping. But I digress.
This is a Robin Hood origin story, based on his legend as a crusader and noble. It is mainly told from Maid Marian’s perspective, but it leaps around a bit to follow the other characters, too. I found the ending a little disappointing, but the rest of it intriguing, as retellings are. There is a sequel to this which I wasn’t crazy about, but this is a book I come back to, since I love Robin Hood.
A friend lent me this book, and I really enjoyed it. As the name suggests, it’s the story of the Macbeths, told in a way that is much closer to the real accounts of the good and well-liked Macbeth than to the mustache-twirling man (and woman – minus the mustache) of Shakespeare’s (wonderful) play. It’s a good look at medieval Scotland, and the author is very conscious of the historical record, which I always appreciate.
There are a ton of books in this series, and it was popular enough to even draw Derek Jacobi to play the titular character on TV. Brother Cadfael is a Benedictine monk from Shrewsbury Abbey who always finds himself solving one mystery or another. The series takes place in the mid-12th Century, a time of civil war in England, so there is plenty to write about. These books give readers a glimpse into Benedictine life – just don’t look for much romance!
This last series is an interesting one, for a couple of reasons. First, it’s about a blind, Jewish physician (Isaac of Girona) practising in Spain in the mid-14th Century. You don’t get to read about most of these aspects of medieval life every day! And second, Caroline Roe is a graduate of the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto, so she is invested in writing accurately about the period. I have met Caroline Roe, and she is a lovely lady who is really interested in the period and characters she writes about. That kind of passion is definitely worth supporting!
Books from the Middle Ages
Here are a few of my favourite books from the Middle Ages. Because they are rare, they are often expensive, but library (and inter-library) loans may save you the cash. As a side note, these are all linked to English translations, since the first is originally in Latin, the second and third in (Old) French, and the fourth in (tough) Middle English.
This book was written at the very beginning of what I consider to be the Middle Ages (524 CE), by a Roman man who rose as high as he could before the wheel of fortune cast him down. Boethius wrote The Consolation of Philosophy in prison as he awaited execution for political crimes, and it sets down the conclusions he came to about life. This book was extremely influential in the Middle Ages, since it answers the big questions: why do bad things happen to good people? What is God’s role in our lives? How can we have free will and still have events be preordained? Boethius may well challenge much of what you thought about medieval philosophy.
Since I talked about these in an earlier post, I’m not going to talk about them here, except to say that there are several fun stories in here.
Largely forgotten-about by history until this century, Christine de Pizan was a professional woman writer of the French court in the late-14th and early-15th Centuries. She was widowed at 25, and made her living exclusively by writing. This is pretty stunning on its own, but Christine also dared to challenge masculine authority. In The Book of the City of Ladies, Christine addresses the failings of women, according to society, and refutes them one by one, using examples of women from history and legend. This is truly an impressive (and vital) work, which has been sadly absent from the literary canon. (I hope to write more about Christine in the future.)
We’ve now come to my favourite piece of Middle English writing. In this poem, The Green Knight appears at King Arthur’s Court and throws down a challenge: a knight must try to cut off his (The Green Knight’s) head and the next year on the same day, The Green Knight will try to cut off the knight’s head. Seems easy, right? That’s what Gawain thought, too. This poem was written in archaic Middle English sometime in the 14th Century (although the date is very contested), by an anonymous poet. J.R.R. Tolkein’s translation is excellent, and relatively cheap, too. I highly recommend it. (There will be more about Gawain in the future, too.)
I hope you’ll take the time to give one or two of these a read, especially the medieval ones.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist