Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Three guides to the medieval mindset

Whether reading a fantasy with an emphasis on realism, or simply seeking to understand the way people thought in the past, these three books offer a great guide to political, military, and everyday thinking.

The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli

Strictly speaking more Renaissance than medieval, the archetypal politician’s handbook is still relevant to both the modern and medieval worlds. Machiavelli’s work, which includes many historical examples (frequently classical but also more recent), is a masterpiece on human psychology and the realities of power. It reached an infamous status in the past due to its chapters regarding when it’s appropriate for leaders to lie to their people, and why it’s better to be feared than loved.

The Prince offers little in the way of rhetorical flimflam, and offers the unvarnished (and sometimes uncomfortable) truth about why those in power act the way they do. It’s a great book to read in itself, and excellent as a guide for how leaders think and act (in both governance and military spheres), particularly before democracy became quite so popular.

[As an aside, those into audiobooks may wish to check out the edition narrated by Ian Richardson. It’s like having Francis Urquhart give you lessons in political cunning].

By Sword and Fire, by Sean McGlynn

Getting the balance right when it comes to mercy and brutality in medieval warfare can be very difficult, as the way of thinking in those days is so different to modern morality. By Sword and Fire does a great job of putting the rationale in context, and explaining why certain actions that today would be universally condemned (Richard the Lionheart and Saladin executing prisoners in the Holy Land) made sense at the time, without imposing modern norms on the medieval world.

As you might expect, it’s a grim book, so those who are easily upset by such things shouldn’t read it. However, I found it invaluable as a resource to understand how mercy and brutality could be justified (and advantageous for the commander) in a medieval setting.

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, by Ian Mortimer

This is an absolutely fantastic read that puts the reader in the shoes of a 14th century fellow. It’s a sort of everyman’s history, looking at the food people ate, the way they travelled, what they wore, how justice worked, and so on. For everyday details it’s utterly invaluable and packed with interesting snippets of information (one of the best is that monks had a rule preventing them eating meat in the refectory, leading them to invent a secondary dining room called the misericord, in which they did eat meat).

Being roughly situated in the 14th century, the book includes information about what it’s like when harvests fail, or plague strikes. It is very much about people and the world in which they lived, and is of great use in trying to see things from the perspective of an ordinary sort of fellow.

[Equivalent editions are available by the same author for Elizabethan England, and Restoration Britain, the latter of which I’m currently reading and will review].

These three books collectively offer fantastic insight into the way power politics, military morality, and the everyday world operated in the medieval age. If you’re planning on writing something set in an approximately medieval setting, or simply find the history interesting, I can highly recommend all three.



  1. All three are decent reads - I do love the social history aspect of the 3rd most, though, as it helps the world feel more alive to me. :)

    1. It's a very engaging book, and helps answer lots of little questions (how is time measured, how many meals are eaten etc) that don't seem to crop up elsewhere. The Elizabethan and Restoration editions are both well worth a look too.