Literature

10 Classic Novels about the Middle Ages

Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle

The Middle Ages, especially the period from the Norman Conquest of 1066 in England until the Renaissance in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, has been popular in fiction at least since Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott’s hugely influential historical novel from 1819. Below, we introduce ten of our favourite novels, from over two centuries of the English novel, which are set in medieval times, and depict, variously, the chivalry and brutality, the mud and the romance, of that historical period. Rather than pick the very best historical novels (and there has been a slew of great novels in the last few decades) we’ve instead opted for ten from among the older classics as well as some more recent titles.

1. Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe.

It’s hard to overstate the influence of Sir Walter Scott’s most successful novel to be set in England. This 1819 novel takes the English midlands of the 1190s as its setting, and focuses on a whole cast of characters, from the titular Wilfred of Ivanhoe (a disinherited Saxon knight) and the love of his life, Rowena, to the Jewish character Isaac and his daughter Rebecca. Robin Hood, known as ‘Locksley’, also features, as does Richard the Lionheart. What more do you need? Shakespearean in conception and sweeping scope, Ivanhoe is an entertaining novel full of chivalry, jousting, daring rescues, and good versus evil. John Henry Newman asserted that it ‘had first turned men’s minds in the direction of the middle ages’.

Recommended edition: Ivanhoe (Oxford World’s Classics)

2. Charles Reade, The Cloister and the Hearth.

Set in various countries in Europe in the fifteenth century, this novel from 1861 was hugely popular during the Victorian era, perhaps partly because the Victorians loved all things medieval. It was Arthur Conan Doyle’s favourite novel. The plot focuses on a scribe who sets off to Rome in order to earn money to support his wife and children. He later becomes a friar and preacher, but the plot is less interesting than the rich historical detail about the Middle Ages with which Reade imbues his novel.

Recommended edition: Internet Archive

3. George Eliot, Romola.

George Eliot (1819-80) is well-known for Middlemarch, The Mill on the Floss, and other realist novels of the Victorian era, but she was also a historical novelist. Romola (1862-3) is not widely read or studied now: set in Florence in the 1490s in the run-up to the famous Bonfire of the Vanities, the novel brings medieval (or early Renaissance) Italy to life thanks to Eliot’s painstaking historical research into the period.

Recommended edition: Romola (Penguin Classics)

4. Robert Louis Stevenson, The Black Arrow.

Subtitled A Tale of the Two Roses, this 1888 novel is an adventure tale set during the Wars of the Roses, and draws on the famous Paston letters for its historical detail. Dick, the young protagonist, becomes a knight in the wars, learning much about courage, honour, and loyalty as he journeys through fifteenth-century England.

Recommended edition: The Black Arrow (Penguin Classics)

5. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The White Company.

This 1891 novel, which came out the same year that the first short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes appeared in the Strand magazine, transforming Conan Doyle’s fortunes forever, is about the titular company of mercenaries who go to fight in the Hundred Years’ War between England and France in the 1360s. They fight in battles, have a series of adventures, and Doyle keeps the pace and narrative tension up throughout. Doyle wrote a sequel – technically a prequel – Sir Nigel (1906), focusing on Sir Nigel Loring’s exploits earlier in the Hundred Years’ War, leading up to the Battle of Poitiers in 1356, although The White Company is the finer novel, with better pacing and a more engaging cast of characters.

Recommended edition: The White Company (Wordsworth Classics)

6. H. Rider Haggard, The Brethren.

Published in 1904, The Brethren is one of Rider Haggard’s historical novels, but it displays the same flair for storytelling and exciting adventure as we find in his novels set in contemporary Africa, such as She and King Solomon’s Mines. This novel is set at the time of the Third Crusade of the 1190s, and like Ivanhoe features Richard the Lionheart (as well as Saladin, the Muslim leader in the Holy Land). 

Recommended edition: Internet Archive

7. Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time.

Although it’s set in the twentieth century, this classic novel from the 1950s is a masterpiece of modern detective fiction which takes a ‘cold case’ from the Middle Ages as its cue. The whole novel is a kind of investigation of the alleged crimes that King Richard III has been accused of, ever since the Tudor smear-campaign against him. Upon its publication it was acclaimed an instant classic of detective fiction, and the way Tey’s character Inspector Grant examines the case for Richard’s guilt (or innocence, in fact) is deftly handled with recourse to historical documents.

Recommended edition: The Daughter Of Time

8. Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose.

Eco was a semiotician (a philosopher of signs) as well as a novelist, and this 1980 novel, his most famous work of fiction, draws on his interest in semiotics. The main character is a monk named William of Baskerville, whose name summons The Hound of the Baskervilles – and with good reason, since Eco’s character clearly pays tribute to Sherlock Holmes.

Recommended edition: The Name Of The Rose (Vintage Classics)

9. Bernard Cornwell, Harlequin.

The first novel in Cornwell’s Grail Quest trilogy, Harlequin (2003) focuses on Thomas of Hookton, a strong young archer who ends up fighting in the battle of Crécy while seeking his revenge against his father’s French killers. The whole trilogy is enjoyably gritty and showcases Cornwell’s magnificent talent for storytelling, but for our money, this novel is the strongest in the series.

Recommended edition: Harlequin (The Grail Quest, Book 1)

10. Philippa Gregory, The White Queen.

One of the most popular contemporary novelists writing about the Middle Ages, Gregory is probably best-known for this 2009 novel, the first in a trilogy of novels set during the Wars of the Roses but paying as much attention to the female players in that bloody drama as it does to the kings and earls.

Recommended edition: The White Queen

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

25 Comments

  1. I keep reading Philippa Gregory’s books, but the historical inaccuracy does my head in!

    • Talya Baker

      She has a PhD in history. Her novels are fiction though. She discusses the difference in the introductory essay in The Women of the Cousins War.

  2. Robin Dixon

    It would be great to have a similar list for the 1700s. They seem to me to be few and far between.

  3. Hilary Mantel’s Thomas cromwell trilogy is superlative! Of the Cousins’ wars novels by Gregory I prefer The kingmaker’s daughters. Ken Follett’s two medieval novels are very good, maybe not for the writing but the narrative, the characters’ interaction.

    • We need to do a list for the Tudors! Mantel would be on there, as would Scott’s Kenilworth, and perhaps Ford Madox Ford’s Fifth Queen trilogy too. Follett is very good with plot and character…

    • trinitybeach

      100 agree! The final ‘The Mirror and the Light’ is dazzling. The only novel that comes close to Mantel’s incredible achievement of taking us inside Cromwell’s head it ‘The Book Thief’ by Markus Zusak. I recommend it to the millions of readers who love Mantel’s trilogy. It is narrated by Death and takes place in WW2. Death, who is desperately overworked and longs for a trade union, has something of a crush on Sophie, ‘The Book Thief’ of the title who specialises in snitching books from Nazi book burnings. Do read it. Just as Mantel makes us appreciate Crum Cromwell, so Zusac entices us to appreciate Death as much as Sophie.

    • Would also add Katherine by Anya Seton and books from the Valois romances by Alexandre Dumas

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  5. On a side note, that Ivanhoe classic comic is actually pretty good.

    I think Harlequin is the same book as The Archer’s Tale, which was pretty darn good, much better (I thought) than the two following books. Where I come from, we thought of Harlequin as a romance book company/series/publisher(?)

    • Ah good point about the title difference – I think that’s why the publishers must have changed it from Harlequin in the US! I agree that the first book is certainly the best. I’m also not sure I agree with Cornwell that the Black Death was anthrax that came from cattle (!). Still, a masterly storyteller…

  6. Not a novel, but I would highly recommend Barbara Tuchman’s history of the 14th century, ‘A Distant Mirror’.

  7. I also recommend Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael mystery series. Peters wrote historical crime, and the history was just as important as the mystery.

  8. Great list – and as ever. Trying to select only 10 books must be torture… My favourite is Doomsday Book by the fabulous Connie Willis. And as the Tudor era – alongside Hilary Mantel’s fabulous offerings, C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series is very good.

  9. Wright Parkes

    Among my favorites are Paul Doherty’s Hugh Corbett mysteries and his new Dark Queen series. Wr

  10. Blue Norther

    I’m speechless. You didn’t include Sigrid Undset’s 1000 page masterpiece “Kristin Lavransdatter” ? For which she won a Nobel prize? Truly it the greatest book no one has ever read.

  11. Bonnie Hicks

    How can we not include the many medieval historical fiction novels by Elizabeth Chadwick and Sharon Kay Penman?
    BTW, I read “Kristin Lavransdatter” It is my understanding that the novel was prized not for its literary value(looong, slooow) but as a memorial to the cultural history of (was it?) Sweden.
    Lastly, I very much appreciate this list. I had nearly given up finding quality historical fiction set in the Middle Ages. I’ll just start at the top! Thank you.

    • Seconded. Elizabeth Chadwick is very good. ” A place beyond courage” is a fine read.
      Haven’t got round to Sharon Kay Penman yet.

    • Wendy Ehrlich

      Bonnie Hicks–

      I agree, Elizabeth Chadwick and Sharon Kay Penman are two of my favorite medieval historical fiction authors. Add to that Ken Follet’s Pillar’s of the Earth series and you have a trifecta!

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