Historical Resources for the Medieval Period

readingAs a reviewer at AAR I tend to review mostly contemporary and category romances, with a bit of paranormal thrown in. However, in my non-AAR time I read quite a bit of historical fiction, historical mystery, and even historical romance. Over the years, much of the historical fiction I’ve read has sparked my interest in learning more about the actual history of the period I’m reading about.

Over the holidays I listened to Philippa Gregory’s The Lady of the Rivers for audio review at AAR. The book is set in Medieval England during the 1400s and the start of the War of the Roses. Before starting the book I knew nothing about the main character, Jacquetta, the mother of the future Queen Elizabeth (wife of Edward IV). Most of what I know about the War of the Roses I picked up from various Shakespearean plays. After listening for just a few moments I found myself wanting more information about the main characters and the events both prior to and during the War of the Roses.

The first thing I did was pull out some of my own reference books. The first book I consulted was Kings & Queens of England & Scotland. It’s a tiny little book with about a one-page write-up on each of the Kings and Queens of England. It’s helpful when I’m confused about which Henry or which Edward is being referred to in a book. But in this case it just didn’t provide enough information. I immediately ordered, and now own, The Mammoth Book of British Kings & Queens, which provides much more information about all of the Kings and Queens. I also consulted some of my old college world history texts, but they didn’t prove particularly satisfying.

I next turned to one of the oldest features at AAR, the history section, and in particular, Articles about the History of Great Britain. After perusing some of the articles, I was off to do some Google searches. The Luminarium Encyclopedia Project offers extensive information about Jacquetta, Elizabeth, and the War of the Roses. I know I’ll be visiting that site again. I also found useful information about Henry VI at the New World Encyclopedia.

But once I get going, it’s not just the history of the period I want to learn more about. I also find myself curious about the art and culture of the times. Shortly after finishing The Lady of the Rivers, I headed to a nearby art museum to look at paintings and artifacts from the period.

After returning from the museum, I thumbed through one the books I own on life during the Middle Ages.  Daily Life in Medieval Times by Frances and Joseph Gies has some wonderful photos of art and architecture of the period and includes sections on life in a medieval castle, a medieval village, and a medieval city.

Quickly, though, I again turned back to the Web.  I found myself searching out museum collections online with outstanding collections of medieval art and artifacts. First up, and one of my favorite museums, is the Musee National du Moyen Age in Paris. Among their wonderful collection of art from the period are the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. I’ve also found interesting online medieval collections at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, and the British Museum. The Medieval London gallery at the Museum of London is filled with facts about life in medieval London.

The Web site of Les Enluminures – a gallery in Paris by the Louvre – contains incredible photographs of art work from the period. They also have an entire section devoted to the Books of Hours.

Does your reading of historical fiction ever send you off in search of additional historical information? What types of things have you looked for? I know that there have to be many more wonderful Web sites filled with information about Medieval England and Europe as well as many books that I’ve missed out on.  In particular, I’ve been frustrated in my efforts to find good sites on the clothing of the period.  Any suggestions?

- LinnieGayl AAR

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23 Responses to Historical Resources for the Medieval Period

  1. Leigh says:

    Wow LinnieGayl, that book really sparked an interest. How exciting that an author’s fictional work ultimately lead to this period coming alive for you.
    I have sought out additional information but not to the extent of buying reference material. Usually I just do an Internet search. Hope others can help you with some great web sites.

  2. maggie b. says:

    It depends but yes, sometimes it encourages me to do research. I haven’t done the museum aspect though. But I will try to find music from the period.

  3. LeeB. says:

    I do love reading follow up material in books or online when something really interests me in books, especially when the author provides her or his resources.

    As for medieval clothing, I know the Victoria & Albert Museum has an excellent collection of medieval art. Have you ever tried emailing someone at the museums you’ve looked at online to ask about medieval clothing?

  4. Ell says:

    If a book really catches me, then I will buy reference books to have on hand. One big fat book I have used over and over is a history of European royalty. Fascinating stuff! I also have a book filled with pictures of European clothes through the ages. Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to find a picture of a pelisse, or a spencer, and in contemporary British novels some characters wear jumpers, but they are clearly not what Americans think of as jumpers. Can anybody help me out with these?

  5. JFTEE-Auburn says:

    I listened to the audio version of The Widow of the South and was so intrigued about Carnton Plantation and the Battle of Franklin (Tenn.) that my husband and I made a side trip to visit the plantation and battlefield. I love to read and when you are moved to do more than close the book when done, then the author has certainly succeeded in bringing something to life. Santa left a copy of Gregory’s The Lady of the Rivers and the White Queen under the tree this year. I know what I’ll be reading next. Thanks.

  6. Mary Beth says:

    Ell – I believe that a jumper is a sweater, or pullover.

  7. Mary Beth says:

    LinnieGayle – Yes, I have had this happen to me. I think of it as a reading digression! After I read Valerie Anand’s trilogy set in preConquest England, I researched, read and generally became obsessed with all things 1066. This led me to the Bayeux Tapestry which became another obsession.

    Two books which I can suggest are Medieval Lives by Terry Jones and A History of Private Life, Revelations of the Medieval World edited by Georges Duby. Medieval Lives was written to accompany a bbc series which I thoroughly enjoyed.

  8. jcscot says:

    A pelisse is a close-fitting, empire line coat – usually the same length or a little shorter than the dress worn beneath.

    A jumper (as already stated above) is not a sweater (that’s made of jersey and is worn for playing sport only) but a woollen pullover. I believe that what Americans call a jumper, we call a pinafore and is a sleevless dress worn over a blouse/shirt/top (or even a jumper ;) ).

    I can also recommend Ian Mortimer’s “The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England” for great descriptions of daily life in that period.

  9. Elaine C. says:

    You will find pictures and descriptions of Pelisses(coats) and spencers(jackets) at Candice Hern’s website. It is a treasure-trove of information. I suggest going to it when you have some time because of the fascination level it inspires. You might want to stay for an hour at a time. :-) I have gone back to it many times in the last right years.
    A jumper is indeed a sweater. I believe it is still in common usage in Britain.

  10. Christine says:

    I think one of the problems of trying to research “Medieval History” is that the Medieval period covers about 1000 years of history. While there are no strict parameters it is usually considered to begin with the fall of the (Western) Roman Empire and end with the beginning of the Renaissance. In essence it would be as if 2012 were considered part of the long running “Tudor” period. The world of 800 AD in Europe was wildly different than the world of 1360 AD. While overview books are great to give you a general feeling of the evolution of Europe over those 1000 years, if there is a book someone particularly liked, they would probably be better off targeting that era for a clearer picture. Barbara Tuchman’s “A Distant Mirror” is a very interesting book on 14th century Europe.

    There are not huge amounts of extant Medieval clothing. Most of what remains is either Religious garb, clothing of Kings or Queens and some pieces found in bogs etc. A lot of what is known about Medival dress is gleaned from sculpture and art work of the period. Here is a link to most of the famous Medieval clothing that remains today.


    Hope you enjoy it.

  11. kathy says:

    LinnieGayle, Thank you for all that wonderful information. I’ve always wanted to learn more about the history of our books but I never knew where to look!

  12. LinnieGayl says:

    Thanks, everyone. You’ve given me some great ideas.

    Maggie B. I’ve never thought about seeking out music of the period. Now I will!

    Lee, I didn’t remember the medieval art at the V&A. I’m going to have to check them out online.

    Ell, your big fat book of European royalty sounds great.

    JFTEE-Auburn, it sounds as if The Widow of the South really touched you. I do enjoy it when a book causes me to learn more about a place or a time period.

    Mary Beth, I love your notion of a reading digression! I’ve definitely been on one. I’m going to check into the two books you suggested.

    Jcscot, I really like Mortimer’s book. I read it a few years ago at a friend’s recommendation, and pull it out every so often.

    Christine, you make an excellent point about how long the period is. I have read several books by Barbara Tuchman, but not A Distant Mirror. I’m going to look for it! Thank you. And oh my! Thank you so much for the link. I’ve done so many searches using different terms and never came up with that one!

  13. You might want to remember that Shakespeare was writing about the War of the Roses for the winners.
    I don’t have many medieval sources – it’s a little early for my needs – but I do have one called The Hound and the Hawk by John Cummins on medieval hunting. I also have a couple on the Black Death, John Speed’s Atlas of Britain (Tudor), Roger Lockyer – Tudor and Stuart Britain. I’ve also got snippets from other books dealing with specific subjects over a long period, such as Daniel Hahn’s The Tower Menagerie. The image of what was probably a polar bear fishing salmon out of the Thames is somewhat beguiling.


  14. Jane O says:

    Christine makes an excellent point when she talks about the enormous period of time covered by the “Middle Ages.” Most medieval romances are set in a sort of Victorian fantasy version of the period seen in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, or in the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, with knights and damsels in distress. In addition to the time spread, it makes an enormous difference where you are. The 12th century in Italy was not the same as the 12th century in Scotland was not the same as the 12th century in one of the German states.

    There are novels set in something resembling the real Middle Ages, but they generally aren’t romances. You might try Cecelia Holland’s THE GREAT MARIAH, Sigrid Undset’s KRISTEN LAVRENSDATTER, or something by H.F.M. Prescott. (None of these are at all recent.)

  15. Something else to consider is that no one woke up one New Year’s morning and announced the end of the so-called Dark Ages and beginning of the Middle Ages. Or the beginning of the Renaissance for that matter. These are labels coined in hindsight by historians for convenience in classification. Change was a gradual thing that you might only see looking back over a long period of time. Different artistic movements start at different times in different regions and in the various arts. I always laugh at the Elizabethan Blackadder saying to his thick-headed sidekick, “Baldrick, the Renaissance was something that happened to other people, wasn’t it.”

    Isolde Martyn wrote a couple of terrific and well-researched medieval romances, The Lady and the Unicorn, and The Silver Bride.


  16. Lanja says:

    Some books I’ve used for fashion in the Middle Ages include Fashion in the Age of the Black Prince (Stella Mary Newton) and Woven into the Earth: Textiles from Norse Greenland (ed. Else Østergård). I also have some pattern books, The Tudor Tailor and The Medieval Tailor’s Assistant, whose authors have developed patterns based on analysis of paintings and manuscripts.

    As stated by previous posters, it is difficult to find sources about medieval clothing since there is little extant from that period. Most of the scholarship that I know of is, in a sense, only indirectly related: funeral bronzes, statues, illuminated manuscripts, sumptuary laws, and ducal and royal court records of clothing/cloth/jewelry purchases and commissions. (For the latter, Malcolm Vale’s The Princely Court is quite detailed, although as a student it seemed like quite a slog ;-) However, these sources relate almost exclusively to the upper classes. I think Michel Pastoureau writes in passing about the significance of clothing colours, but his main focus is heraldry and I don’t know if his work is available in English.

    Barbara H. Rosenwein has done a lot of scholarship on emotions in the Middle Ages (e.g. Anger’s Past), which I found interesting from a romance standpoint.

  17. BRose says:

    Of course “jumper” is still in common usage – and not only in Britain, but in every English-speaking place except North America!

    How come we all know your American English, but Americans never understand anybody else’s version of it (including English English – the original?). It is strange.

  18. I wear jumpers every winter down here in Australia. In summer at times, too. I have a drawer full of them. Can be also known as a pullover. A knitted, woollen garment with long sleeves, pulled on over the head. The joke down here is; What do you get if you cross a sheep with a kangaroo? A woolly jumper.


  19. lafemmetopaz says:

    Yes, I do read historical fiction. I usually pull out my kings/queen books to get more “factual” information about the time.

    In regards to the medieval period, there is a wealth of written knowledge during with England and British Isles during this time but very little printed works as to what what going on in France, Spain, Germany and other Western European nations. I’ve read a few books about Russian life during the Middle Ages. Russian life during the time of Ivan the Terrible is very very interesting. I’ve read a book about Medieval Russian Literature during this time and it was brilliant and I highly recommend it.

    Medieval Russia’s Epics, Chronicles, and Tales is the title.

  20. Christine says:

    BRose said “How come we all know your American English, but Americans never understand anybody else’s version of it (including English English – the original?). It is strange.”

    Unfortunately it is probably because most U.S. books, movies and TV shows go out unchanged to the world market while that is not the case here.

    So far as I know (and correct me if I am wrong) American TV shows such as “The Sopranos”, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Friends etc etc are broadcast in the UK on the main TV channels during prime time. UK viewers watching are hearing American accents, slang etc.

    In the U.S., apart from British programs shown on PBS, you will never find a TV series from another country broadcast on a major TV channel during prime time. To see British programs you must subscribe to BBC America etc or watch episodes of Ab Fab on Comedy Central. You have to look for it. In the U.S.- apart from watchers of BBC America- we are not exposed to modern speakers of UK English.

    It’s the same with books- even Harry Potter books (set in the UK and about an English boy) are “Americanized” before being published here.

    I guess the general idea is that we are too stupid or lazy to either figure out the speech/slang/vocabulary or heaven forbid, look it up. I personally find it really insulting.

    One author who’s English characters actually use “British English” terms is ironically a Canadian- Susanna Kearsley. I really appreciate reading “hair slide” for barrette and “wind cheater” for “wind breaker.” It didn’t take a genius IQ for me to figure out the term from context. I wish more author’s work would come here without the “conversions.”

    • even Harry Potter books (set in the UK and about an English boy) are “Americanized” before being published here.
      I guess the general idea is that we are too stupid or lazy to either figure out the speech/slang/vocabulary or heaven forbid, look it up. I personally find it really insulting.One author who’s English characters actually use “British English” terms is ironically a Canadian- Susanna Kearsley. I really appreciate reading “hair slide” for barrette and “wind cheater” for “wind breaker.” It didn’t take a genius IQ for me to figure out the term from context. I wish more author’s work would come here without the “conversions.”

      Hah! I have had at least one reader comment at Amazon or a reader email, can’t recall which, complaining that I can’t spell, because my books go out without conversions. I am afraid I just rolled my eyes. A friend gave me the US versions of the first two Harry Potters. I found the references to “Mom” completely distracting, which I wouldn’t in a US set book.

  21. Kari S. says:

    LinnieGayl, you didn’t mention whether you’ve discovered the new collective biography, The Women of the Cousins’ War by Philippa Gregory and two historians, David Baldwin and Michael Jones. It’s meant to fill that gap of information about the three women in Gregory’s trilogy. I read it a few months ago and found it very interesting.

    I can sympathize with your frustration concerning the lack of personal information about many medieval historical figures. A book I recently reread is Alison Weir’s Mistress of the Monarchy, a biography of Katherine Swynford, the mistress of John of Gaunt (whom he married after the death of his second wife, causing a great scandal). John’s son Henry later became Henry IV in one of the first struggles of the cousins’ war. A descendent of John and Katherine was Margaret Beaufort, the third heroine in Gregory’s trilogy, who became the mother of Henry VI. (I was a history major, and my preferred specialization was Medieval Britain.)

    Thanks for providing that wealth of information about medieval sources available online! I might never have found that on my own.

  22. I never thought about the subject in the manner you do, this gives it all a new perspective that makes one wonder if there are more in between heaven as well as earth that one would think, thanks for the input and keep all of them comming, I will view and read every time for sure!

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