Beginning with the fall of the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages in Europe stretched across the continent—and across a millennium—running from the 5th century through the end of the 15th, spanning numerous changes both technological and cultural, political and geographical.
Medieval history has left its mark on modern culture in everything from our language to our media. The world’s most popular roleplaying game takes place in a fantasy world inspired by the Middle Ages, while one of the most profitable and critically-lauded film franchises of all time—The Lord of the Rings—was also set in a fantastic version of the medieval world.
Nor are they remotely alone. Plenty of films, books, games, and even songs have dredged both medieval history and culture for inspiration, including A24’s recently released adaptation of The Green Knight, starring Dev Patel, which takes as its jumping off point one of the most frequently-adapted stories from the cycle of Arthurian legend. The epic poem was previously adapted to film in 1984, with Miles O’Keefe and Sean Connery, and before that in ’73 with Murray Head and Nigel Green.
From the fanciful to the factual, the following books about the medieval times will scratch your itch for epic adventures, swords (and occasionally sorcery), kings and knights, and also the dirt and squalor that characterized life for so many during this long and sometimes dismal period.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
Speaking of things that have been adapted, borrowed, and repurposed countless times throughout history, there are few stories that have been reworked as often as Mark Twain’s satirical classic.
Sure, when it was originally published in 1889, it was a send-up of the American South’s obsession with chivalry, not to mention a critique of feudalism and of the ideals of capitalism, but today it stands as one of the most formative works of time travel fiction ever written – one that has stood the test of time, itself.
King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table
And if your grasp of Arthurian legend maybe isn’t quite what it ought to be—or you’d just like a refresher before you read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court or sit down to watch The Green Knight in theaters—the perfect place to start is this indispensable interpretation, itself hailing from all the way back in the 15th century.
Though few legends have been reworked and repurposed as often as the story of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, for most English-speaking audiences, the stories all begin here…
The Canterbury Tales
Written between 1387 and 1400, The Canterbury Tales not only hail from the Middle Ages, they capture the width and breadth of the period in a way few other stories have ever managed, before or since. Ranging from the ribald to the romantic, the tragic to the comic, these stories include folk tales that were familiar to the people of the time period, as well as new inventions by Geoffrey Chaucer, considered one of the age’s greatest poets.
Written in the tongue of the common folk of the time, The Canterbury Tales offers a peek into the world of medieval Europe, from the high life to the low, from the fantastical to the mundane, and everything in between.
The Folly of the World
Set in Holland in the midst of the Saint Elizabeth Flood of 1421, which transformed much of the nation into a dreary and dangerous inland sea, Jesse Bullington’s rollicking and often ribald 2012 novel injects modern sensibilities into a heavily-researched picture of a time and place as haunting as any fantasy.
Not that there aren’t occasional elements of the kind of fantasy that those who are well-versed in Bullington’s bibliography might expect, but here they are grounded in a picture of medieval Holland that is stranger than any sword-and-sorcery world…
Speaking of sword-and-sorcery worlds, every heroic fantasy epic owes at least a little bit of a debt to this Old English poem, written sometime before the 11th century. Frequently translated and adapted, Beowulf tells the iconic saga of its titular hero and his struggle against the beast Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a terrible dragon. Where, after all, would fantasy be without all of that?
While we may not know the identity of the original poet who composed the piece, the saga of Beowulf and his monstrous foes is as familiar to us as the dark beyond the campfire—yet still feels as new and vivid as those campfire stories once did.
The Name of the Rose
A perennial bestseller ever since its original publication in 1980, Umberto Eco’s classic debut takes the traditional murder mystery and transplants it from turn-of-the-century drawing rooms to an Italian monastery in 1327.
If you’ve only ever seen the 1986 movie (with Sean Connery again), you’re in for a treat, as intellectual puzzles, Biblical analysis, and literary theory have never been as enthralling as they are in Eco’s capable hands.
The Pillars of the Earth
Previously known primarily for writing thrillers, Welsh author Ken Follett’s 1989 historical novel about the building of a cathedral in a fictional English town became his best-selling work, and has been adapted into a TV miniseries and even a 2017 video game.
Set between the sinking of the White Ship in 1120 and the murder of Thomas Becket by followers of King Henry II in 1170, The Pillars of the Earth tracks the history of the nation through the construction of one building, covering conflicts between religious and secular life, the development of Gothic architecture, and the English civil war known as “the Anarchy” which gripped the nation between 1135 and 1153.