A friend asked for suggestions for beautiful books about the Middle Ages that don’t make it sound like a sad, terrible time for humanity with no ideas or beauty, only darkness. And I realized when I was trying to find suggestions on my blog that it’s time to update my book list. We’ve discovered some new favorites since the last time I did this and none of my prior blog posts has everything in one place.
It takes me quite a bit of time to write up these book lists with links and descriptions and mini-reviews. If you find them helpful, please consider buying a book by clicking through the link and buying via my Amazon affiliate page. That way we get a bit of money that will go to buying our family more books which I can then tell you about. And thus we all win.
I’ll try to update this list if I find more books or remember ones I’ve missed.
Please do let me know if you have favorites that I’ve missed. I always love book recommendations.
1. Marguerite Makes a Book by Bruce Robertson
In Paris in the 1400s, in the shadow of Notre Dame Cathedral, Marguerite helps her father, whose eyes are going bad, paint a book of hours for a wealthy noblewoman. She gathers her materials: vellum, goose feathers, eggs, the raw materials for her pigments. She prepares her paints, she prepares the vellum, she paints the page. This book is a lovely introduction to how illuminated manuscripts are made.
2. Castle Diary: The Journal of Tobias Burgess by Richard Platt and Chris Riddell
An eleven year old boy is sent to be a page in an unfamiliar castle. Lots of details about life on the castle estate through the course of a year. A really fun story which my kids loved. The older, hardcover edition is to be preferred if you can find it, the newer paperback edition is a much smaller format and many of the color pictures have been replaced by black and white.
3. Saint George and the Dragon by Margaret Hodges and Trina Schart Hyman
A fable that is based on Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen, it tells the story of St George, the red cross knight fighting the dragon to save the kingdom of the beautiful princess, Una. The illustrations are gorgeous– I always recommend Trina Schart Hyman– and the language of this retelling preserves much of the poetic grandeur of the original poem.
4. The Kitchen Knight by Margaret Hodges and Trina Schart Hyman
A retelling of the Arthurian legend of Sir Gareth who becomes a kitchen boy at King Arthur’s court and then asks the king to be allowed to go on a quest to save a damsel who has been captured by the black knight. The damsel’s sister who has come to seek his aid initially treats him with disdain because he is a lowly kitchen boy, but he takes it in stride and always acts courteously toward her. Eventually he bests all of his foes and wins the fair lady. Based on Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, gives a good taste of a genuine medieval tale. And Trina Schart Hyman’s illustrations are absolutely a feast for the eyes.
5. A Medieval Feast by Aliki
A beautiful book about the king visiting the lord’s castle and all the castle getting ready for the royal visit and the food they eat. It’s got a lot of information about farming, hunting and table manners and cooking. The pictures are beautiful and full of interesting details. A really nice slice of life book.
6. Castle by David Macauley A family favorite. Tells about the construction methods, tools, and people involved in building a Norman castle. I really like the fictional frame narrative. This isn’t just a generic castle, but it has a story. And the pictures are so detailed. Definitely go with the black and white edition and not the updated colorized one. Color seems like a good idea, but the book loses much of its detail and its charm.
7. Cathedral by David Macauley Like Castle, this shows the step by step construction and also has a frame story about the people who are involved in the building of the church. Plenty of detailed pictures about the tools, and construction methods. Though the outlook is fairly secular, it’s not at all inimical to the faith. And you can supplement with conversations about the why and wherefore of medieval churches.
8. Till Year’s Good End by W. Nikola-Lisa and Christopher Manson
Life of medieval peasants, based on illustrations in a book of hours. Beautiful woodcut prints.
9. A Farm Through Time by Angela Wilkes and Eric Thomas
This one starts with a medieval farm and then traces the development to the modern era. So it begins with farm life in the middle ages and the illustrations are really lovely. It pairs nicely with Till the Year’s Good End in showing how we get from then to now.
We have the Street through Time too. These books are so good for giving that sense of the flow of history and the details are so good at keeping kids engrossed for long periods of time.
10. Canterbury Tales adapted by Barbara Cohen illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman
What better way to learn about the medieval world than through its most famous literature? This is a selection of stories from the Canterbury Tales, the more kid-friendly ones. With absolutely lovely illustrations.
11. The White Cat and the Monk by Jo Ellen Bogart and Sydney Smith
The medieval Old Irish poem Pangur Bán (found in the margin of a manuscript) is perfect for picture book adaptations. There have been a few of them. This one is lovely. It tells the tale of a monk and his white cat, the monk chases wisdom through the pages of his books just as the cat chases mice.
12. The Duke and the Peasant by Sister Wendy Beckett
Sister Wendy Beckett examines the images in the medieval book of hours, the Tres Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry with her usual idiosyncratic look at the pictures. I don’t always agree with her interpretations, but I appreciate the fresh look. The beautiful full-page illustrations from the calendar pages of an actual medieval book of hours, owned by the 14th century French nobleman, the Duc de Berry, are worth the price of admission. Follows the lives of medieval peasants through the changing seasons with the duke’s castle in the background. Pairs nicely with Marguerite Makes a Book and Till Year’s Good End.
13.Chanticleer and the Fox by Geoffrey Chaucer and Barbara Cooney
I love Barbara Cooney’s illustrations of Geoffrey Chaucer’s animal fable from the Canterbury Tales. The story gives a glimpse of the life of a medieval peasant widow and her family who keep chickens and a cow and eat mostly bread and milk and eggs and vegetables from their garden. The sly fox tricks the proud rooster who does not listen to his wife’s warnings.
14. The Little Juggler by Barbara Cooney
A retelling of a medieval French legend of the juggler of Notre Dame who juggles for Our Lady, Holy Mary the Mother of God.
15. The Blackbird’s Nest: St Kevin of Ireland by Jenny Schroedel and Doug Montross
One of my favorite picture books of all time. Recounts the legend of St Kevin who was so lost in prayer that a blackbird built her nest in his hand. Then loathe to disturb the nest, he knelt there until the eggs had hatched and the nestlings flown away. The author notes that the time from nest to fledgling is about 40 days and in the story the period coincides with Lent. Kevin gets along better with animals than people, but learns through his empathy for the bird how to love his fellow monks.
16. The Life of Saint Benedict by John McKenzie and Mark Brown
There are other lives of St Benedict for children. Most notably Tomie de Paola and Kathleen Norris’s beautiful book The Holy Twins. But I really like this one’s emphasis and style.
17. Favorite Medieval Tales by Mary Pope Osborne
Not actually my favorite collection of tales (which was one we got from the library and I can’t remember what the actual title was but it was something like Medieval Tales) but still a good collection of stories.
18. The Canterbury Tales adapted by by Geraldine McCaughrean from the work by Geoffrey Chaucer
Another lovely adapted for children version of the Canterbury Tales.
19. The Man Who Loved Books by Jean Fritz and Trina Schart Hyman
A story about St Columba of Ireland. The tone is pretty secular, though it’s less condescending and more aware of the world of the medieval Church than other picture books about St Columba that I’ve read. A nice introduction to one of the earliest recorded controversies over copyright.
20. Brother Hugo and the Bear by Katie Beebe and S.D. Schindler
A bear eats the book that brother Hugo has borrowed. So he must borrow another monastery’s copy and copy the book out by hand to replace it. A picture book aimed at younger readers, funny and beautifully illustrated. A nice introductory book to medieval manuscripts.
21. The Ink Garden of Brother Theophane by C.M. Millen and Andrea Wisnewski
Brother Theophane finds copying manuscripts boring. All that brown ink! Then he learns the secret of color and his manuscripts get much more interesting. This fanciful book is beautifully illustrated. Suitable for early elementary with the simplicity of the text. Less process-oriented and more whimsical.
22. Hildegarde’s Gift by Megan Hoyt and David Hill
An introduction to the medieval mystic St Hildegarde of Bingen, who was a poet, artist, and musician.
23. Brother Francis of Assisi by Tomie de Paola
A life of St Francis, the founder of the Franciscan order and a most important medieval saint.
24. Canticle of the Sun by Fiona French and St Francis of Assisi
A beautiful illustrated version of the poem by one of the most beloved medieval saints, Francis of Assisi.
1. The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli
The Door in the Wall worked really nicely as a read aloud with a mixed group of kids from about 6 to 12. Or could be read independently by an older child. It’s a bit sad; but it’s well balanced and shows the joy too. In 14th century England a boy of noble birth, Robin, gets sick and loses the use of his legs, he’s abandoned by the servants who fear the plague, but saved by a kindly monk. The monks teach him to carve and make things with his hands. He eventually is reunited with his family.
2. Adam of the Road is another good read aloud story that younger children can enjoy. In thirteenth century England, young boy gets separated from his father who is a minstrel, and goes out to find him. An adventure story with lots of twists and turns gives you a nice sense of medieval England and the songs and stories sung.
3. Dawn Wind by Rosemary Sutcliff
Historical novel that takes place in 6th century England. The protagonist, Owain, is a Romano-British boy whose family are killed in a war with the Saxons. Owain survives the battle but later becomes a Saxon thrall (slave). Even as he sees the very end of Roman Britain, Owain sees the coming of St Augustine to England, the very dawn of a new Christian era in Britain.
4. Sword Song by Rosemary Sutcliff
Bjarni is a Viking youth from the west of England who accidentally kills a priest and is exiled for three years. He sets out into the world to sell his sword and travels around the British isles, first to Ireland then the Hebrides, then Scotland before returning home. The novel is somewhat episodic, but lyrical and is one of my favorite Sutcliff novel. When we read it aloud the children all seemed to like it, though it wasn’t an easy book. Among other things Bjarni encounters and weighs the differences between the two different religions, the pagan worship of Thor and Odin and the Viking gods and the Christian faith.
5. Knight’s Fee by Rosemary Sutcliff
Set in the days of Norman England, the story of an orphan boy who is half Saxon half Norman and how he becomes a part of a knight’s household and foster brother to the knight’s grandson.
6. Augustine Came to Kent by Barbara Willard
Wolf, born in England but raised in Rome, accompanies his father and the Roman missionaries led by St Augustine to his native England.
7. If All the Swords in England: A Story of Thomas Becket by Barbara Willard
12th century. An orphan boy Simon, becomes a servant in the household of the bishop Thomas Beckett. They are exiled to France by the anger of King Henry II, return to England, where Thomas is ultimately murdered in his cathedral. Simon’s twin is in service in the king’s household.
8. Son of Charlemagne by Barbara Willard
8th century. Carl is the son of the French king Charles, later known as Charles the great or Charlemagne. He travels across the Alps with the royal household to meet with the pope. He watches his father conquer the barbarian tribes, watches his oldest brother disinherited and two of his brothers crowned as kings. An interesting look into the very educated and rather chaotic household of Charlemagne.
10. In the Days of Alfred the Great by Eva March Tappan
This book reads like a blend between a novel and a nonfiction text. Some of the chapters are very narrative and colorful, but at other places it feels very dry and factual. Still, we very much enjoyed this introduction to the world of the great medieval king Alfred.
11. The Magna Charta by James Daugherty
Tells the story of the signing of the Magna Charta by King John. And also considers its legacy in British and American laws.
12. St Benedict: Hero of the Hills by Mary Fabyan Windeatt
A fictional telling of the life of the 6th century monk, founder of the Benedictine order and of European monasticism.
13. St Dominic and the Rosary by Catherine Beebe
Fictional life of Dominic de Guzmán the founder of the Order of Preachers (Dominican Order) in the 13th century.
14. Francis and Clare Saints of Assisi by Helen Walker Homan
Dramatic life of the 13th century saints, Francis and Clare, the founders of the Franciscan order, which was a major player in the late Middle Ages.
15. St Joan the Girl Soldier by Louis de Wohl
The story of the 15th century peasant girl who led French troops to victory over the English invaders during the Hundred Years War.
15. St Louis and the Last Crusade by Margaret Ann Hubbard
The story of the 13th century king of France who joined the crusade to the Holy Land.
16. St Thomas Aquinas and the Preaching Beggars by Milton Lomask
Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican friar in the 13th century. A philosopher and theologian, one of the greatest minds of the Middle Ages and a great saint as well.
17. St Elizabeth’s Three Crowns by Blanche Jennings Thompson
St Elizabeth of Hungary, also known as Elizabeth of Thuringia, was a 13th century princess from Hungary who married Louis (Ludwig) of Thuringia. Known for her charitable works, after her husband’s death she became a third order Franciscan.
18. St. Anthony and the Christ Child by Helen Walker Homan
St Anthony of Padua was a 13th century Franciscan friar. Born in Portugal he was originally a priest in the Augustinian order but then became a Franciscan. One of the greatest preachers of the Middle Ages, he was immensely beloved and was canonized almost immediately after his death.
19. The Witch’s Brat by Rosemary Sutcliff
This one has a rather misleading title. About an orphan boy in Norman England who was raised by his grandmother who was an herb woman. After his grandmother dies he eventually finds himself at a monastery where he takes over the garden and becomes a healer.
Books that have been highly recommended to me, but I have not yet looked at them
1. One Is One. by Barbara Leonie Picard
This one looks good and I’m looking forward to reading it.
n 14th-century England, Stephen de Beauville dreams of becoming a knight—not a promising ambition for a contemplative boy with a talent for drawing. Quiet and solitary, Stephen must endure the bitter torments of his brothers and cousins until he finds his first true friend; through that friendship Stephen gains courage to endure the lack of kindness in his life. But believing that Stephen will never possess the valor to be a knight, his father abruptly sends him away to spend the rest of his life in a monastery.
After a harsh apprenticeship in the monastery, Stephen realizes he must flee its confines. In a twist of fortune, he becomes squire to a wise knight and then attains knighthood himself. The death of his own young squire causes the twenty-six-year-old Stephen to re-examine his ambitions. In doing so, he makes an important discovery: His journey through dangerous times has instilled in him the strength and self-confidence to find his true place in the world. One is One portrays a man ready to heed his mentor’s maxim: “Do not be afraid to do what you want to do.”
2. Caedmon’s Song by Ruth Ashby and Bill Slavin
I really, really want this one, but it’s a little pricey.
Long ago, when hardly anyone knew how to read or write, people recited stories by heart. They sat around the hearth at night, telling of heroes and monsters, great battles fought, and fortunes made and lost. On feast days, they passed the harp around the room so that everyone could sing a poem. But when the harp reached Caedmon, his thoughts dried up. He opened his mouth and nothing at all came out. It was embarrassing. No wonder he hated poetry.A quiet man who loved tending his cows, Caedmon couldn’t recite poetry because he thought he had no stories to tell. Then after one especially upsetting experience, Caedmon stormed home, fell asleep in the barn, and began to dream. That night, everything changed for Caedmon . . . With jovial, heartwarming illustrations and beautifully illuminated letters, this tale is based on the true story of Caedmon, the seventh-century cowherd who became known as the first English poet.
3. The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Boy has always been relegated to the outskirts of his small village. With a hump on his back, a mysterious past, and a tendency to talk to animals, he is often mocked by others in his town—until the arrival of a shadowy pilgrim named Secondus. Impressed with Boy’s climbing and jumping abilities, Secondus engages Boy as his servant, pulling him into an action-packed and suspenseful expedition across Europe to gather seven precious relics of Saint Peter.
Boy quickly realizes this journey is not an innocent one. They are stealing the relics and accumulating dangerous enemies in the process. But Boy is determined to see this pilgrimage through until the end—for what if St. Peter has the power to make him the same as the other boys?
Books for Older Readers?
1. The Striped Ships by Eloise McGraw
I read this one aloud when Bella was too young and she didn’t love it. But I really liked it a lot.
It follows the sad wanderings of a Saxon girl after the Norman invasion. She sees her family’s home overrun and runs away and then wanders around with her younger brother trying to find other members of her family. What I really loved is that she finds work as a needle threader and then as an embroiderer working on the Bayeux Tapestry. But the beginning is scary and parts of the book are sad.
The following are books that Bella has read, but I have not. Since I’ve not previewed them and based solely on her feedback, I’m putting them in a separate list of books that might want parental oversight because of themes that might be intense for younger readers. After I read them I might put them in the list with the other chapter books.
2. Catherine Called Birdy by Karen Cushman
Diary of a 13th century girl of noble family. It sounded to me like it might have been a little anachronistic in some of the attitudes attributed to the narrator, that she thinks more like a modern girl would in the same situation than a girl of her time and place. But again, I haven’t read it yet.
3. A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver by E.L. Konigsburg
Bella liked this one quite a bit, but I admit the conceit of the frame narrative gives me pause. I like Eleanor of Aquitaine and I like E.L. Konigsburg, so I really should give it a try. It’s on my to-read list.
Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife to two kings, mother to two others, has been waiting in Heaven a long time — eight centuries, more or less — to be reunited with her second husband, Henry II of England. Finally, the day has come when Henry will be judged for admission. While Eleanor, never a patient woman in life or afterlife, waits, three people, each of whom was close to Eleanor during a time of her life, join her. Their reminiscences do far more than help distract Eleanor — they also paint a rich portrait of an extraordinary woman who was front and center in a remarkable period in history and whose accomplishments have had an important influence on society through the ages.