A call for suggestions of history books

A call for suggestions of history books


Having just finished reading about the crusades, I realize my knowledge of European history, in general and in the medieval period in particular, has large gaps. I know British history best, primarily because of my reading various literature in English, but I’d love to spread my wings a bit.

Consider this an open request for suggestions of good books for popular consumption, both general surveys of medieval Europe, but also good books that focus on particular places or periods, like the Muslim conquest of Spain and their expulsion, or the Bourbon rulers of the Two Sicilies, or the history of the Holy Roman Empire or the like.

I know Warren Carroll has produced a massive multi-volume set on the history of Christendom, but I’m hoping for something that will help me dip my toe into the subject before I immerse myself in something that large.

Photo credit: Copyright Lars Aronsonn, 2005. Licensed under Creative Commons Share Alike 1.0 license.

  • Trimuph: The Power and Glory of the Catholic Church, by H.W. Crocker III. Everything you need to know in one rollicking good volume.

  • As the unpaid advocate for the Lost Empire, I am compelled to recommend you get something on Byzantium.  In all seriousness, you can’t understand the history of Europe without studying it at least in passing.  Here’s a couple of recommendation lists:



    One more thing—Sailing from Byzantium by Colin Wells is a neat book that shows how Byzantine culture shaped both Eastern Europe and the Italian Renaissance. 

    If you want a good overview of the period, the Shorter Cambridge Medieval History is a two volume set from the ‘50s that will give you the nuts and bolts of the era, even if it gives a bit too much of a hairy eyeball to the intellectual accomplishments of the era.  Also, Will Durant’s “Age of Faith” from his Story of Civilization series is worth your time.

  • Start with “The Civilization of the Middle Ages” by the very well respected medievalist Norman F. Cantor.  This is probably one the most important historical works on the topic and is very readable.  He also provides an excellent “suggested readings” section at the end of the book. 

    I just finished “The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision” by Henry Kamen.  Kamen does a nice job presenting the most current research on the topic, yet is geared towards the history buff. He can get a bit dense at points but the tome is well worth the effort.  Hope this helps.

  • Another author comes to mind.  I read “The Retrial of Joan of Arc: The Evidence for her Vindication” and found it very informative and entertaining.  She is a highly respected French Medieval historian and has two other books that I intend to read &88220;Those Terrible Middle Ages!” that debunks many of the myths of the age and “The Crusades” which has been highly recommended to me.

  • I am seeing some other recommendations that are fine, but I cannot stress enough the importance of Cantor’s work.  Cantor represents the movement away from the idea that the Middle Ages were a “dark age” that was dominated by religious ignorance.  Every author that writes about the Middle Ages today, whether they know it or not, are either responding to Cantor or building upon him.  If I were to teach a survey class on the Middle Ages, Cantor’s book would be my main required text. Read it, you will not be disappointed.

  • Belloc’s books on the Crusades and Europe and the Faith are both easy reads.

  • The Galleys of Lepanto by Jack Beeching.  Out of print but very good.  Also, check out some of the archived articles by Christopher Check that he wrote for This Rock over the past year or two.  They are informative and have some great recommendations for further reading.

  • A History of Venice by John Julius Norwich is compelling—over 600 pages, but an easy read.  Learn how the Venetians managed to maintain their society from a democracy to a republic to an aristocracy for 1000 years in spite of constant wars with neighboring states and then Islamic attacks.

  • Dame C. V. Wedgwood’s <blockquote>The Thirty Years War<blockquote> . . . an absolutely great book on the 17th century. 

    A great series on Plantagenet England is Thomas Costain’s “Pageant of England” series.

    For 20th century, William Manchester’s two books on Churchill, “The Last Lion” are magnificent.

  • Patrick Sweeney,

    An outstanding list of books! The Cantor book you have on your list is the one that causes so much controversy, manly because it was written as an introduction to “Civilizations” as a historiography of the field. It was separated and made into a separate work when later editions came out. It needs to be read with “Civilizations.”  As for Cantor’s issues with other historians or ego, they are irrelevant to the quality of his work. I asked my wife (a college literature professor) if she could name any good authors that fit the description you gave of Cantor, she said “Just about all of them.”

  • Patrick is spot on about Cantor. His work is generally regarded as mediocre at best by those in the field of medieval history. The writing style is amazingly uneven for someone aiming his books at a popular audience.  His writing at times exhibits an occasional anti-Catholic streak and a frequent anti-clerical one. Cantor is also prone to making ridiculous statements that he can’t back up. You can tell that he read too much Freud in college. In one of his last books – the awful LAST KNIGHT – Cantor composes a love letter that John of Gaunt might have written his mistress! In his book on the Black Death, he claims that people who are descended from medieval plague survivors are immune from the AIDS virus.

    For a much more competent (and better written) study of the High Middle Ages see William Chester Jordan’s EUROPE IN THE HIGH MIDDLE AGES.

  • Though a few days late to commenting, thought I would suggest books anyway.

    I highly recommend Christopher Dawson’s Religion and the Rise of Western Culture. Others of his are good too but this one captures the importance of culture (and thus religion) to Europe’s history.

    Robert Royal’s The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West is a good read. It is more of an intellectual history of religion’s impact on the West. I am in the middle of it and it seems to be a good place to get a perspective of European history, though it does spend some time discussing Ancient Greece, Rome, and the biblical era before it gets into the type of European history you sound interested in.

    A very interesting and somewhat easy-to-read book is Josef Pieper’s Scholasticism: Personalities and Problems of Medieval Philosophy. If you like biography, then this might be a good way to get a feel for the Middle Ages: through the personalities connected with the philosophy of that day. Not for everyone, I grant, but definitely for those who like biography and philosophy. The European history runs throughout to set up each figure and philosophical issue.

  • The best survey of the High Middle Ages is a wonderful work by the authoritative Malcolm Barber called THE TWO CITIES: MEDIEVAL EUROPE, 1050-1320. Get the 2nd edition which came out in 2004.

    In the field of medieval cultural history, there is no one better than Jacques Le Goff. Books of his like TIME, WORK, AND CULTURE IN THE MIDDLE AGES and THE MEDIEVAL IMAGINATION are fascinating and invaluable. He has also written a couple of good surveys and even solid biographies of St. Francis and St. Louis.

    One of the more erudite and interesting works of history I’ve read is NEW WORLDS, ANCIENT TEXTS: THE POWER OF TRADITION AND THE SHOCK OF DISCOVERY by Anthony Grafton. It covers the period between the 15th and 18th centuries.

    JH Elliott is another excellent choice for early modern European history, especially his classics THE OLD WORLD AND THE NEW, 1492-1650 and EUROPE DIVIDED: 1559-1598.