22 April 2013

Resources for the Middle Ages

Setting people straight on the subject of the Middle Ages is one of my favorite hobbies. In our world today, all forms of entertainment and media almost universally paint the medieval period with the same bleak, oppressive palette.  If you’d like to be set straight on some common misconceptions, you can take my Medieval Quiz here.

A couple weeks ago I was practicing my aforementioned hobby in one of my classes, and my students asked me where to go to find good resources on the Middle Ages – that is, the real Middle Ages.


A good starter book for revising your history is Those Terrible Middle Ages! Debunking the Myths by RĂ©gine Pernoud. Pernoud was a curator at two museums and at the French National Archives. As such, she had access to tons of primary sources and wrote dozens of books, only a few of which are available in English. In this book, Pernoud sets about to rehabilitate the reputation of the Middle Ages. The book is informal, written to a general audience. It is primarily franco-centric, but useful to readers interested in the medievals generally.

 

When you’re ready to move on from that, you should turn your attention to Frances and Joseph Gies who were a wife and husband medievalist team. Together they wrote a number of books on the Middle Ages suitable for scholars or laymen. The great benefits of their books are their readability, their great bibliographies, and their close fidelity to primary sources. More than anything, these books will bring you right into the day-to-day life of the Middle Ages.


If you want to understand the thrust and scope of the Middle Ages, you need to read G.K. Chesterton’s A Short History of England. A warning ahead of time, though: this is not a history book. If you don’t have a good outline of the history of England in your head, this book will make no sense to you. Chesterton is not presenting history, but a certain theory of history that encompasses and exhibits the spirit of the medieval period. He references historical events that he assumes his audience will know. The first time I read this book, I was completely lost. Two years and a number of history books later, I reread it and found it incredibly insightful.

 

Finally, if you’re one of those people who just don’t have time to read, you can always have Middle Ages misconceptions debunked by none other than Terry Jones of Monty Python fame. In Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives *, Jones takes a look at the Middle Ages in a chatty humorous way that is actually very educational. His impetus for the series, he says, was to get back at the Renaissance. “It's just that I'm sick of the way people's eyes light up when they start talking about the Renaissance. I'm sick of the way art critics tend to say: 'Aaaah! The Renaissance!' with that deeply self-satisfied air of someone who is at last getting down to the Real Thing. And I'm sick to death of that ridiculous assumption that that before the Renaissance human beings had no sense of individuality.” When I last checked all the episodes are available on Youtube. Episodes 1 and 6 are the most informative in my opinion.


So there you go. That’s probably more info than you can easily deal with at one time. Have fun perusing and watching. And remember, as I always tell my students, NO ONE IN THE MIDDLE AGES BELIEVED THE EARTH WAS FLAT!

*[Parental Discretion Advised for some of these episodes. It's British television after all.]

5 comments:

Erica said...

I've read all the "Life In" books. Good resources.

...I still prefer having electricity. But not even the Renaissance had that. XD

Another good one would be "How The Irish Saved Civilization", since the majority of that is about the Christian Celts during the Middle Ages doing things like "writing books" and "illuminating manuscripts that will be turned into smashing, if somewhat psychedelic, animated films about monks and the Fair Folk".

Rick said...

I like electricity too. "How the Irish Saved Civilization" was a good book, but I feel like Cahill paints with a very broad brush and doesn't let the facts get in the way of a good story. The book becomes much better when you listen to the audio book narrated by Liam Neeson. :)

Also, The Secret of Kells ftw!

Erica said...

I'm not sure which thrills me more-the idea of Liam Neeson reading that book or Terry Jones sticking it to the Renaissance.

Deirdre Salmon said...

Rick,

I am on my way to England as well and am in need of a one book, solid history of Great Britain from the beginning until now. Hope had mentioned you recommended this prior to Chesterton's. Any suggestions?

Many thanks-

Deirdre Salmon
Salmond@veritaspress.com

Rick said...

Deirdre,

It's not an academic book in the world, and it was written for kids, but I don't think you can do better than "Our Island Story" by H.E. Marshall. It's an easy and quick read. It's also available for free online. It gets you from the legends of Brutus all the way up through the Victorian period when the book was written. There are other overviews, of course. I imagine you could get a good overview from the Western Civ textbook that goes with the Omnibus program, but it won't be nearly as fun. Or you could go for Winston Churchill's massive 3 volume History of the English People, but I don't think that really qualifies as summer reading. :) Have a fun trip!