Oxford medieval historian Hannah Skoda chooses her top five books on the Middle Ages, explaining why she finds the whole idea of their 'middleness' problematic and how a more global approach tends to shatter many long-held assumptions about the period.
Before we get onto your books on the Middle Ages, I want to start by asking you—what are the Middle Ages?
The most obvious way of answering the question would be simply to say they are the period, roughly, from the fall of the Roman Empire to the 16th century. But it depends completely on who you ask and where in the world you’re thinking about. It equally depends on whether you’re happy with the concept of ‘middleness’. I’m not completely convinced that any of us are actually that keen on the idea of something that is ‘in between’ two ‘great moments’ any longer, but we stick with the label because it’s there. It defines and pigeonholes us, even if it does so in ways that are probably extremely problematic.
The idea of ‘the Middle Ages’ suggests something transitional and stuck between two great moments, but the more one thinks about it, whichever century you’re working on, you start off with a sense that, say, the 14th century is the moment that really matters because this is the moment when everything changes and then you think about it a bit more and you realize all kinds of more complex continuities and interweavings are going on. Point is, I don’t think it’s a terribly helpful term.
As a layman, my assumption would have been that it’s the period where Christianity was the established religion of Western Europe, from the conversion of Constantine to the Reformation. But perhaps even that’s unhelpful. There was a schism between the Eastern and the Western churches in the period, for a start.
Exactly. And part of the problem now is that everybody’s trying to think more globally about what’s going on, as well. So the idea that this is the moment of the birth of Christendom is a great way of thinking about particular geographical regions, but perhaps a bit more problematic if you’re thinking more widely.
Get the weekly Five Books newsletter
Another thing struck me recently, actually. My own work is on nostalgia in the 14th century at the moment. Nostalgia is something people tend to associate with modernity, so it seems a bit odd to find this being expressed so stridently in the 14th century. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that actually there are aspects of modernity which are really present in the 14th century, like the rise of commerce and urbanization and a sense that the pace of change is really accelerating. All the ways in which we might have categorized the Middle Ages as being pre-modern—slightly more naïve, slower paced and without a proper sense of the relationship between past and future—become more and more problematic, the more one thinks about it.
What were our 14th-century forebears nostalgic about?
All kinds of things. The main argument of my forthcoming book is that the 14th century is a period of cataclysmic change. Most relevantly and most obviously now on a demographic level with pandemic disease, but also in terms of endemic warfare, rapid commercialization and urbanization. One of the ways in which people respond to this is by harking back to an imagined past when everything seemed more predictable, when people seemed to behave more honestly, when you could trust your neighbour.
I think the 14th century saw the invention of merchant banking as well as plagues, right?
Yes. It’s a really intriguing century in terms of the resonances with what we’re going through now in the early 21st century, even before Covid-19 struck, because anxiety about the meteoric rise of new commercial practices and what that might imply both for morality and for social structures.
Let’s move on to your books on the Middle Ages. The first one is Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400 to 800 by Chris Wickham. Why have you chosen this one?
Partly just because it’s written by one of the most inspiring historians I know—many of us have been taught by Chris Wickham and felt immensely inspired and supported by him—and partly because it’s a model of what we should all aspire to, though virtually none of us will ever achieve.
“He shows the ways in which race and ethnicity becomes operative as a concept. But at the same time, he shows that what that concept is is perhaps very different from what we might assume”
What he does is draw from an astonishingly wide range of sources—written, material and archaeological—and put together an extraordinarily wide-ranging survey of historiography of the early Middle Ages. The book ranges from Denmark to Palestine and Egypt. He constructs an utterly compelling and original argument about what Europe might have looked like after the fall of the Roman Empire, and the effects of what was a cataclysmic set of events.
But, at the same time, he resists any temptation to produce anything that’s even remotely teleological, or to try and fit a hugely complex picture into a single overarching argument. So, while the book’s very coherent, at the same time, it really does what it says on the tin, in the sense that this is about framing: it’s about coming up with a set of concepts and a set of hermeneutic frames that enable us to think about the kinds of changes which are happening. And all this is achieved through rich and detailed comparisons between regions.
Part of the overall point of the book is about the fragmentation and diversification of what’s happening across the early Middle Ages. That point can be made by really fine-tuned comparisons between what’s happening in different regions.
Fragmentation politically, in the sense of the disintegration of the structures of the Roman Empire, or is it more broad than that?
Politically, but also socially, economically and demographically. All the systems that one might want to describe in a previous period fragmenting so that one sees a very, very different picture of what society looked like in different places. For example, he’s extremely interested in fiscality and tax. He looks in great detail at the ways in which taxation occurred in many different areas of Europe and beyond. It looked wildly different. Then he draws out the implications of that: how one might think about states, how one might think about what political power can achieve in different regions—all because fiscality starts to look so different in different regions, in a way that it hadn’t in a Roman imperial context.
I noticed this book on the Middle Ages ends in 800, the year of Charlemagne’s coronation. Is that subsequent period one of dramatic change as well, or was Charlemagne’s reconstitution of the Empire bit of a damp squib in that respect?
The epilogue of The Framing of the Middle Ages really is suggesting that something quite new and different is happening at that point. It’s not a reconstitution of the Roman Empire in any way, but at the same time there is a kind of pulling together of ways of thinking and of structures of society, which really does mark quite a turning point.
In terms of its methodology, what’s really appealing about this book is the way he resists the temptation to homogenize and pull together an overarching argument, as well as his very detailed comparative work. From a more personal perspective, what I like about the way in which he presents early medieval society is the fluidity of categories that he presents. He says, “Titles and social labels were usually vaguer, and often little more than ad hoc status markers, which could be claimed, negotiated over, rather than assigned according to a set of rules.”
Support Five Books
Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you're enjoying this interview, please support us by donating a small amount.
Chris Wickham’s work in general on thinking about how law works is very inspiring in terms of the anthropological flexibility of his approach. What comes across about the early Middle Ages is not only which categories are being developed, but also the fact that they’re being developed in such flexible negotiable, processive ways.
One of the things that I think is most interesting about law more generally is the way in which law tries, on the face of it, to construct generalizing categories, or put society into black and white boxes; to say that we can understand a certain kind of behaviour in this particular way. Of course, human behaviour and societies are so much more complex than that. Hence the rise of equity in the later period, a sense that the messy complexity of life always spills out of those categories. What emerges from Chris Wickham’s book is a really appealing sense that in the early Middle Ages people were acutely aware of that. People can’t be boxed straightforwardly into a set of categories which are homogenized across Europe.
Let’s move on to the next of your books on the Middle Ages, African Dominion: A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa. What period does this book cover?
It covers an absolutely vast period. The bulk of it is from the late 12th century through to the 16th century. It covers the periods before and after that at the beginning and the end of the book, but that’s where the real meat of it is.
What story does it tell about the Middle Ages?
It’s effectively de-centering traditional narratives of what global history might look like by refocusing us on this area of the middle Niger River. It tells the story largely of the Mali Empire followed by the Songhai Empire.
I have to say it is quite an opaque book to read. He doesn’t have the easiest writing style, but the material he presents is immensely appealing. It overturns the ways that we think about things geographically. It leaves one astounded to discover that history could have been written for so long with such an unawareness of the sophistication of political thinking and political action in these areas.
He presents the Mali Empire first of all. It’s vast, absolutely huge, incredibly ambitious and really sophisticated in the ways in which it manages power. I think scholarly assumptions hitherto have been that it was very decentralised, in the sense that the reality of power was perhaps rather shallow. What Gomez shows is actually a much much more sophisticated way of thinking about the relationship between the local, the regional and the supra-regional, or the centre.
Was the Mali Empire an Islamic empire?
It becomes Islamic, yes. He concentrates on a late 13th-/early 14th-century ruler called Mansa Musa, who organizes a huge set-piece pilgrimage to Mecca, stopping off in Cairo. The pilgrimage obviously has a religious motivation but, at the same time, as Gomez presents it, it was a huge political statement to make the entire Islamic world aware that the Mali Empire was this great expanding empire, controlling nodes of commerce, stretching not only eastwards, but also with ambitions westwards across the Atlantic.
Was it largely a sub-Saharan Empire, or did it occupy parts of North Africa as well?
It had powerful connections to North Africa, but the focus of its power was West Africa. It stretches really widely.
And what sort of commerce, both mercantile and cultural or military does this book suggest that the Empire had with the Northern Mediterranean?
They’re trading all kinds of things, but perhaps the thing Gomez is most interested in, for a range of reasons, is the slave trade, or rather the slave trades. What’s really interesting is the way that he presents just how diverse the meaning of slavery might have been in this period. That then relates to a series of really interesting points about gender, about the relationship between slaves and political power, and about race and ethnicity as well.
One of the things I read about the book was that he talks about the development, or construction, of ideas around ethnicity, race, gender and caste in a way that people did not imagine existed prior to European colonization, perhaps.
Yes, he really does. To take race and ethnicity separately from gender, he shows the ways in which race and ethnicity become operative as concepts. But at the same time, he shows that what that concept is is perhaps very different from what we might assume. It’s all based on detailed analysis of a range of primary sources. What becomes quite clear in the 14th-century thinking about race is that they are as much interested in cultural traits and in religious and moral modes as they are in physical traits. They are defining these concepts as much in terms of those sorts of cultural and religious affiliations.
On the sources that he uses, are there lots of internal written sources from the Mali Empire? Where are they now housed?
Part of the challenge of the book is that the range of sources is actually quite limited. There’s not a huge amount of source material, although there’s loads more than many would assume. But what he does is pull together very effectively external written accounts, written by figures like Ibn Battuta, travelogues in a sense; internal written sources; written versions of oral sources, like epics about the origin myths of the Malian dynasty; and then archaeological sources, as well. He’s also very honest about the spots where we just don’t know that much.
There’s a really interesting section on fiscal systems—I never thought fiscality would be so interesting!—but he’s got very little evidence to be going on, so much of it is quite speculative. But he’s good at admitting the distinction between the two.
There’s another book that’s just come out about Medieval Africa by Francois-Xavier Fauvelle called The Golden Rhinoceros, which is really really fun, but, I think, historiographically, Gomez’s is a slightly more significant book in that he’s using a wider range of sources and because of that there isn’t the same kind of exoticizing implications in the choice of sources.
The next of your books on the Middle Ages is Marco Polo’s Travels. One of the things I hadn’t realized is that there’s a debate about how much of it Marco Polo actually wrote. Can you tell us a bit about this book and why you chose it?
Marco Polo’s dates are 1254 to 1324. He’s an Italian merchant. He travels astonishingly widely with his father and his uncle through the Mongol Empire and to China under the Yuan Dynasty, and according to the text he becomes an emissary for the Kublai Khan.
“Marco Polo—and presumably also the contemporary readership, because it was so popular—seems to be driven very often just by a sense that he’s interested in stuff”
I chose it partly because it’s really fun to read. Part of the debate about what this text actually is and the extent to which it genuinely reflects his travels arises from the sense that it’s such a joy to read. It reads a lot more like a medieval romance at times than a practical merchant manual for how you conduct travels along the Silk Roads.
For better or for worse, it makes a very good read and it’s extremely fun. It’s also intriguing in the way it reveals just how interconnected this world is. It’s so tempting to think that the world opens up to Europeans in the late 16th and into the 17th centuries, but what you find from reading this is a world where people are highly aware of being part of a very intricate set of extremely extensive networks from a much earlier period, and that the trade which is going on is sophisticated and intensive as well.
The third reason that I love this book is just the sense of curiosity that drives it. Marco Polo—and presumably also the contemporary readership, because it was so popular—seems to be driven very often just by a sense that he’s interested in stuff. He gets sent off on missions by the Kublai Khan in the Travels; he’s sending him off to find out about some remote region just because he wants to know about it. I just love their sense of curiosity-driven travel and almost anthropological sense of why one wants to encounter peoples in different areas, and find out about what animals are like in different places and so on.
What drove Marco Polo there in the first place? You said he was a merchant. Was his initial interest trade, or did he give up being a merchant and just go off on his travels out of curiosity?
As far as we know, it’s trade. He comes from a merchant family. They’re trading and trying to develop these commercial ties. But he gets picked up by the Mongol court, partly because he seems to be a rather charismatic sort of figure and somebody who is also really adept at picking up different languages.
There are comments scattered throughout the text—obviously slightly less than trustworthy—by the Kublai Khan about how he would far rather have Marco Polo going off during these missions for him, because he’s so good at gathering information and knows how to ask the right kind of questions. He doesn’t just stick to the original brief that he’s given. You really do have a sense of someone whose personality took him beyond the bounds of his initial task.
I also read that the papacy was in touch with the Mongol court at this time. Is that right? Were there much broader links with the Mongol world than this one Italian merchant?
Yes, exactly. One of the interesting things about TheTravels of Marco Polo is how the book quickly becomes so popular. That indicates not only that there were a lot of armchair travellers out there, but also that people genuinely wanted to know for very practical reasons what they might encounter in the Mongol world. The papacy is partly interested because of its interest in missionary activity in this period. The Dominicans in particular want to convert people. But there are increasing concerns about the Islamic world and there’s a tentative sense that an alliance with the Mongols might be a useful way of responding to the rise of Islam.
And does the book end in China, or does he get back to Italy?
He did get home, but the book doesn’t recount his homecoming. The book’s actually written when he’s in prison, and the story of the book is that he’s been telling these tales to his cell mate, Rustichello da Pisa, who writes them up. Again, that’s part of the reason that people aren’t quite sure what’s going on in terms of the authenticity of the text, because Rustichello da Pisa was known for writing various other romances.
My favourite episode in the Travels is a passage where he describes an amazing creature that he’s encountered, which is a kind of unicorn. He describes it and he says, I’m paraphrasing here, ‘It’s not at all like the unicorns that we find in Europe because it’s really ugly and it’s kind of a brown-grey colour and it’s really hairy and it wallows in mud and its really really fierce.’ The description carries on like this and, of course, it’s the rhinoceros he’s describing.
But what’s really intriguing is that in the illuminated manuscript copies of this, where the illuminators have been asked to depict what he’s describing, they invariably paint a pearly white unicorn alongside this description. There’s this lovely sense of curiosity-driven travel and people wanting to hear about these things but, at the same time, the only ways in which they’re prepared to conceptualize them is within their familiar categories.
Which is probably not so distant from our own approach to tourism . . .
One other thing I want to ask about the book. Does it tell us something about what he, or what Europeans, thought about Asia or the Orient? Did they have a sense of Asia being a very different type, of it being ‘other’?
It’s a really interesting question. I have a sense that the text oscillates in a way. There are some passages where there’s this almost Orientalist sense of exoticizing what he finds, pandering to the armchair travellers who want to hear about very strange and fantastical things. But at the same time, there’s also a sense of the familiar, a sense that Marco Polo understands how political machinations work and how he needs to take care in these kinds of environments. And that kind of manoeuvring feels familiar.
If he became an official of the Kublai Khan, he was obviously pretty good at it, right?
Yes, but I think there’s a sense as well that whilst this is very different kind of environment, at the same time, the ways in which you work as a political operator are familiar in a European court.
Excellent. Next up on your list of books on the Middle Ages is Montaillou by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. This is this is a very famous book of bottom-up history.
Yes, it’s just so fun. There are two reasons for picking it: partly that I find the Annales school of history utterly inspiring and it’s proved so seminal in terms of the ways in which we think about what we’re trying to do as historians now. And Leroy Ladurie is one of the most appealing figures in the Annales school, I think. It’s just a lovely read. The other reason for picking it is that the Cathar heresy is such an intriguing topic. And, I should admit, on some level there’s a sort of romantic element to it.
The book tells us about a village called Montaillou in the foothills of the Pyrenees in the early 14th century and the Inquisition came to the village because there was ‘outbreak’ of Catharism there. Catharism is a dualist heresy, possibly originating with the Bogomil heresy much further east. It seems to have come to the south of France via Lombardy and northern Italy. Cathars believed that the entire material world was created by Satan and that the spiritual world was created by God. So, sort of related to Christianity, but quite obviously not the same.
It sounds like Manicheanism.
Yes, exactly. The main spread of Catharism is in the early 13th century. Then, it appears to disappear in southern France in the second half of the 13th century. But you have this strange reflourishing of it in the early 14th century. The inquisitorial effort against it at this point is led by Bishop Jacques Fournier, who later becomes Benedict XII. Surprisingly for an inquisitor, he is a really appealing figure and truly seems to be driven by curiosity, certainly not a desire to burn heretics.
The wish would be to convert them back to the true path of faith, but he’s just fascinated by the lives of the people he’s investigating. Though he could just ask them a series of straightforward questions in the way that an inquisitor’s handbook might tell him to, he lets them go on for hours and hours about all the details of their personal lives. And things like the transhumance, when they take their flocks up to the higher pastures in the summer—he wants to know about that. He wants to know what they ate, who was having an affair with whom in the village—all that.
The fact that this book is possible is thanks to this particular inquisitor who allowed the peasants to talk and talk and talk about what they thought and how their little community worked.
Is there anything particularly remarkable that emerges as a result of this very detailed trove of information on the life of a medieval village? Did it transform the way people thought about medieval life at that grassroots?
Yes, I think so. Most obviously, it transforms our way of thinking about this by uncovering what the Annales historians would call the mentalités of medieval peasants. And it reveals them to be highly subjective and highly individualized, or individuated maybe, and very thoughtful, as well.
The temptation is to say that Cathars they fit into this box of Cathar heretics and therefore they got burned, but what emerges from these inquisitorial depositions and then from Le Roy Ladurie’s analyses of them is a series of individuals who thought about Catholicism and thought about their Cathar beliefs very, very carefully and very problematically and who really cared about the way in which they interpreted the world around them.
“Wickham constructs an utterly compelling and original argument about what Europe might have looked like after the fall of the Roman Empire and the effects of what was a cataclysmic set of events”
My favourite is the shepherd, Pierre Maury. He’s just a humble shepherd and an ordinary Cathar and he talks at great length about the ways in which he understands Catharism and what it means to him personally. There’s this incredible lyrical passage where he describes taking his flocks up into the high pastures for the summer and he looks up at the sky and it’s so blue and he looks at the pastures and they’re so green and beautiful and he’s just overwhelmed by the beauty of the natural world. And when he sees all this, even though he’s a good Cathar, he’s part of this Cathar community and he knows he owes loyalty to his Cathar friends, he sees all this and he just cannot believe that this material world is all created by Satan.
It’s a beautiful passage and it’s a passage where a peasant is expressing himself in sophisticated and lyrical terms and he’s not accepting what the Catholic Church is telling him, but he’s not straightforwardly accepting what the Cathars are telling him either. He’s reflecting and being a fully rounded individual in a really inspiring sort of way.
You mentioned that the Annales school of history was very influential. In a nutshell, what was the Annales school? What was its particular contribution to the study of history?
Everyone would give you a slightly different answer here, but I would say there are two principal things. Firstly, it was about changing the perspective of historians so that history is not just about the political causes behind certain events. But it’s also about relating larger structural shifts to the physical environment and thinking about history across what they called the longue durée. Then, alongside that comes this interest in mentalités—mentalities—the idea that one can take particular communities or particular societies across pretty broad sweeps of time and try to recover the ways in which they thought about who they were and the world around them—culture writ large, in some ways.
Thanks. Let’s move on to the last of your books on the Middle Ages, Medieval Market Morality by James Davis. What story does this book tell?
This is the only book from the period that I actually work on. I chose this one because the 14th century is an absolutely intriguing time of cataclysmic change. By picking the topic of market morality, James Davis gives us something which engages all those really huge shifts, but gives us a very different perspective on them, and one which shows the ways in which contemporaries weren’t only subject to these shifts, but how they engaged their own subjectivity. They’re constantly reflecting on the implications of commercialization and rapidly shifting social structures for themselves as moral beings and for their own sense of what it might mean to be a member of a community.
The story of the book quite simply is that it’s period when things are changing very dramatically, and he’s interested in thinking about the ways in which moral systems were developed to deal with economic changes.
Are we talking about things like the difficulty of running an international commercial system without charging interest on loans, that sort of thing? Is it about the tension between the religious prohibitions on some sorts of activity and practical requirements to breach those requirements in order to make these new emerging systems work?
That’s the backstory, or the broader canvas of what he’s doing. But his focus is at a more local level. It’s about England, and he looks more at humbler kinds of trade. He’s interested in bakers, butchers and brewsters and the kinds of trade that went on in local markets. But the conceptual backdrop for that is the broader canvas of theological anxiety about price and lending at interest that you mentioned.
Talking about ‘market morality’ suggests a morality rooted in the process of the exchange of goods and services. Is he making the point that the morality was changing as a result of the way that commerce was changing? Or is it more about the imposition of things like the ‘just price’, in other words trying to control the market and fit the exchange of goods and services into a pre-existing moral structure that governs how we should interact with each other?
It’s probably a bit of both, probably slightly more the latter. Chronologically, he’s doing two things. On the one hand, there’s a sense that markets are developing so rapidly that moral, theological and legal ways of thinking about them need to catch up, with a real acknowledgement that the market economy is crucial to the common good more generally. And on the other hand, there is indeed a sense that theological moral thinking about concepts like just price rendered commerce really problematic. What concerns them most, though, is trickery and deception.
Does it tell a story about the relationship between government and commerce as well?
It does, and part of the story is about the relationship between legal regulation and moralizing ways of thinking about it. He finds interesting disjunctions between the two, or at least a sort of slight lag between the two. For example, the assizes are a set of legal regulations about quality and quantity and this sort of thing, but very often, in practice, they seem to be used effectively as a kind of licensing system for brewers and bakers. Whereas the moral standards that might be applied tended to produce much more stringent ways of thinking about the limits to which people should be exploiting what they get up to.
Fundamentally, the point is that over the course the 14th century, there’s a real growing awareness that markets are a good thing. At least that’s what they reckon. But, at the same time, there’s a great deal of anxiety that it can so easily go wrong and that there are moral theological tensions there. So, the book’s about the working out of that lapse between the two.
Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Hannah Skoda is Fellow and Tutor in Medieval History at St John’s College, Oxford. She works on the social and cultural history of the later Middle Ages, and has published notably on Medieval Violence (OUP, 2012), and co-edited two volumes on Legalism (OUP, 2012 and 2018)
Hannah Skoda is Fellow and Tutor in Medieval History at St John’s College, Oxford. She works on the social and cultural history of the later Middle Ages, and has published notably on Medieval Violence (OUP, 2012), and co-edited two volumes on Legalism (OUP, 2012 and 2018)
We ask experts to recommend the five best books in their subject and explain their selection in an interview.
This site has an archive of more than one thousand interviews, or five thousand book recommendations. We publish at least two new interviews per week.
Five Books participates in the Amazon Associate program and earns money from qualifying purchases.