Last week Katie at Doing Dewey hosted Nonfiction November and this week another great blogger, Veronica at The Thousand Book Project has agreed to host. Just like in past years we’ve been inspired to lend our expertise, request expertise or announce our willingness to learn more.
You can either share three or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).
In 2017 I discussed books about Iran by Iranian authors. The following year in 2018 I wrote about women leaving religion, featuring seven memoirs by, and two anthologies about women who’d left various versions of Christianity, Judaism or Islam. In 2019 it was prison memoirs. Last year, in 2020 I featured books about Italy by non-Italians.
The inspiration for this year’s topic came from a friend of mine who texted me back in September looking for book recommendations. She wanted to learn about the Middle Ages and asked if I could recommend any helpful reading material. After racking my brain for a bit I emailed her a list of 10 books I thought might do the trick. Later, I decided the list I’d concocted might make a good “Ask the Expert” post for Nonfiction November.
I revised my original list ever so slightly and added two additional titles to make it an even dozen. Remember, as with all of my so-called “expert” posts, I only included books I’ve read. Therefore, in no way is this list definitive. I trust me, I ain’t no expert.
- The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World by Catherine Nixey – Nixey argues the early Christians deliberately destroyed the remnants of classical Greek and Roman cultures and in doing so helped produce what we’ve referred to for years, either rightly or wrongly as the “Dark Ages.”
- Medieval Europe: A Short History by Charles Warren Hollister – This was an old college text book I borrowed from my sister and brother-in-law and years later it’s still one of the best books I’ve read on the subject.
- The Story of Civilization, Volume IV: A history of medieval civilization—Christian, Islamic, and Judaic—from Constantine to Dante: A.D. 325-1300 by Will Durant – Another book I read years ago that helped spark my interest in the Middle Ages.
- The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time by John Kelly – How can you NOT read about the Middle Ages without including at least one book on the Black Death?
- Rashi (Jewish Encounters Series) by Elie Wiesel – A succinct, readable account of on one of Medieval Judaism’s greatest thinkers. Best if followed up with Sherwin Nuland’s equally satisfying short biography Maimonides.
- Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages by Richard E. Rubenstein – Who would think a book about Medieval philosophy would be so enjoyable?
- The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain by MarÌa Rosa Menocal – Not just a terrific follow-up book to the above-mentioned Aristotle’s Children, but an amazing look at a forgotten world where Muslims, Jews and Christians all helped build a remarkably advanced civilization. Great if read alongside Jane S. Gerber’s The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience.
- Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization by Lars Brownworth – To me anyway, Byzantine history gets overlooked. Brownworth’s breezy book hits all the high points. Be sure to follow it up with Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World by Colin Wells.
- Mysteries of the Middle Ages: And the Beginning of the Modern World by Thomas Cahill – Cahill has the gift of making profound historical developments simple to understand. This book is no exception.
- A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara Tuchman – While Cahill made history accessible to a popular audience, Tuchman helped pave the way starting in the 1960s. Another book I read decades ago that still sticks with me.
- The Waning of the Middle Ages: A Study of the Forms of Life, Thought and Art in France and The Netherlands in the 14th and 15th Centuries by Johan Huizinga – Recommended by of all people my old neighborhood coffee barista, not an easy book to read but an insightful one full of detail. If The Darkening Age bookends the beginning of the Middle Ages this one bookends its gradual denouement.
- How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill – I could not compile a list like this without including one of my all-time favorites. This enjoyable and fresh look at history will make you wanna read Cahill’s entire body of work.
Just like the prof you had in college who always suggested supplementary texts that no one ever read, I’m going to throw out a few more books. While they might not deal directly with the Middle Ages, they help provide valuable context and/or previously overlooked or unappreciated narratives.
- The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance by Jim Al-Khalili
- Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary
- A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Karen Armstrong
- The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan
If you end up reading these books I promise you’ll know more about the Middle Ages than the person on the street (unless that person has a masters in Medieval Studies). You’ll also be totally primed if you encounter any historical novels set in those centuries like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose or Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth.
With all that in mind, good luck and happy reading!