5 Novels To Get To Know The Middle Ages (well)


The Middle Ages, that great unknown. And we say well, unknown; because we already know that this is one of the most reviled times in history, full of clichés, legends and falsehoods. Much of the “blame” lies with many of the novels and films that have been made about the Middle Ages, since most of them lack historical rigor and present the “typical” Middle Ages: dark, violent, dangerous and practically foolish.

Is there any novel that offers us a true account of how medieval men and women lived? Yes, it exists. Below, we list 5 novels to get to know the Middle Ages (well) that are also great works of universal literature. If you are interested, keep reading.

Books to immerse us in the Middle Ages

There are many authors who have either been specialists in this historical period, or had a great cultural background and enormous knowledge on the subject. This is the case of Umberto Eco and Zoe Oldenbourg, both specialized in the Middle Ages, or Walter Scott who, despite limiting himself to romantic aesthetics, presents us with a very credible Middle Ages in his magnificent novel Ivanhoe. Let’s look at them one by one.

1. Ivanhoe, by Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) is the great champion of English romantic literature. His historical novels, filled with that romantic aura typical of the early 19th century, sometimes have errors and more often than not they appear wrapped in a fantasy that we cannot ignore.

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However, despite this, Scott portrays 12th century England with great fidelity in his immortal Ivanhoe (1820), and presents us with the political and social reality of the moment: the fierce fight between the Saxons, who had settled on the island for centuries, and the Normans, the invaders to whom King Richard himself belonged. We will only say that Jacques Le Goff (1924-2014), the eminent medievalist, confessed to having begun to love the Middle Ages thanks to this novel.

2. The name of the rose, by Umberto Eco

Although its cinematic namesake, starring an extraordinary Sean Connery, is unforgettable, Eco’s novel captures the essence of the time much better. The author was delighted with the film adaptation; However, from our point of view, the setting of the film is too gloomy and “dirty”, and the only thing it achieves is to give a wrong image of how monks lived in the Middle Ages.

Umberto Eco (1932-2016) was undoubtedly the last great humanist of our time. A specialist in semiotics, he particularly delved into the medieval period and studied its symbolism and mentality. All of this is witnessed by his magnificent novel The Name of the Rose, in which the abbey murders are just an excuse (and what a hectic excuse!) to capture on paper a fascinating microcosm: life in a medieval monastery. The historical rigor with which Eco carries out his work, not only in terms of the historical and physical setting, but also in relation to the mentality of the time (14th century), makes this novel one of the best of its genre to know ( well) the Middle Ages.

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3. The Burned Ones, by Zoe Oldenbourg

Much has been written about the Cathars, and not everything is faithful to historical reality. This is not the case with the work of this magnificent medievalist of Russian origin, who uses her extensive knowledge of the Middle Ages to present novels that are authentic literary and historical gems.

From Zoe Oldenbourg (1916-2002) we could cite many titles: The Carnal Cities (1961), Mud and Ashes (1946) or The Cornerstone (1953); However, we have opted for The Burned Ones, a splendid work that narrates the adventures of a Cathar lady and her family, whose husband is at war against the Crusader armies. It is a story with soul, one of those that leaves you glued to your seat, where, in addition, the author shows off all her knowledge of medieval history and culture.

4. The Alcántara Bridge, by Frank Baer

Set in the Iberian Peninsula during the 11th century, the book is the result of careful research by the author, the German writer and journalist Frank Baer (1938-2019). Published in 1991 with great public and critical success, The Alcántara Bridge revolves around three characters who belong to the three cultures of the time: a Jewish doctor, a Muslim poet and a Christian gentleman. It is, according to many critics, one of the best books to learn about the situation of the peninsula at the time of the (mis)called Reconquista.

5. Our Lady of Paris, by Victor Hugo

Again, as in the case of Walter Scott, we find a name from Romanticism, French in this case: Victor Hugo (1802-1885). Consequently, it is true that Our Lady of Paris (1831) also has that glorious (and, at times, spectral) tinge of any story that claims to belong to the movement.

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However, Victor Hugo was an extremely detailed worker. Our Lady of Paris, set in the French city at the end of the 15th century, contains descriptions that are authentic prodigies of both literature and knowledge of Gothic architecture ; In fact, one of Hugo’s intentions when writing the story was to vindicate France’s medieval heritage, which in those years was truly forgotten.

Thus, through the adventures of the young and naive Esmeralda, the unforgettable hunchback Quasimodo and the evil deacon of the cathedral, Claude Frollo, Hugo composes a romance that is truly the son of the aesthetics of the 19th century, but in which he expresses all his careful research on the period.

We hope you liked the selection and we invite you to delve into the best novels set in the Middle Ages to learn about this unique and reviled period. To do this, we recommend being meticulous in the selection, since not all literary works based on the Middle Ages are historically credible. Welcome and welcome to the adventure.