Finding the Balance between Readable and Rigorous
When writing about medieval history, one of the trickiest feats to pull off is making your subject both enjoyable and academically sound. While there is something to be said for writing a book so thorough that its footnotes need footnotes, I would argue that it’s rarer to find something that can be read for pleasure and study alike.
Usually it’s pretty easy to spot books that are on the lightest extreme of the spectrum. The biggest giveaway is the lack of any cited sources. These can be good coffee table books, but sometimes they’re so poorly researched that they contain outright falsehoods or severe errors. They’re usually page-turners, but when that comes at the expense of accuracy, is it really worth it?
The other extreme can be just as frustrating. There have been days when I’ve cracked open a new medieval history book, hoping to find a helpful introduction to an unfamiliar topic, and then it hits me. It’s another book by experts, for experts, written exclusively in passive-voice paragraphs that go on for pages.
Thankfully, I have run across several books that, in my opinion, strike an excellent balance between scholarship and readability. This list contains only a few of them. These works take their subjects seriously, but never talk down to their audience. They’re smart without being pretentious and thorough without being obsessive. Sometimes this readability does come at the expense of tackling every little side debate and scholarly feud, but that’s okay. Maybe it’s even a benefit if it’s your first time reading about the subject. Behold, my list of Balanced Anglo-Saxon History Books:
The King’s Body: Burial and Succession in Late Anglo-Saxon England by Nicole Marafioti
I cannot stress enough what a good book this is. Marafioti has a true talent for writing and an uncanny ability to explain the most complex issues in ways that appear magically simple. Even better, the topic of this book is one the most dramatic, but universal, ones in medieval history: the ever-present cycle of royal death, struggle, and succession. Pick up The King’s Body if you’re looking for an engaging page-turner of a book with some serious academic firepower behind it. (Note: I have an electronic copy of this book, which is the only reason it does not appear in the cover image)
Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources translated and edited by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge
Alfred the Great, the only translation to crack this list, is a must-have for anyone who is getting into primary sources for the Anglo-Saxon period. The crown jewel of this collection is obviously Asser’s Life of King Alfred, but also included are early annals of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, extracts of Alfred’s own writing, and yes, even a section on the Alfred and the Cakes legend. This Penguin Classics title is cheap, widely available, and largely avoids the stilted style than can plague translations.
Dragon Lords: The History and Legends of Viking England by Eleanor Parker
Eleanor Parker is perhaps best known for her long-running blog, A Clerk of Oxford, which has won widespread acclaim and proven that academics can indeed connect with the general public. Her book, Dragon Lords, provides exactly what the subtitle promises: a look at the history and legends of Viking England. Better yet, there’s nothing to be afraid of here: Dragon Lords earns a spot on this list because it’s written by an academic who has plenty of experience making medieval history come alive for the public, not just for other experts.
Reassessing Anglo-Saxon England by Eric John
In a sense, this book represents the culmination of John’s lifelong research, where he skips from topic to topic in chronological order, only focusing on the ones that interest him, but that’s a good thing. It helps avoid the tediousness that plagues so many other books that cover such a wide time frame and ensures that John is always fully invested in what he’s writing about. In typical Eric John fashion, Reassessing Anglo-Saxon England is sometimes flippant, sometimes funny, and sometimes reckless, but always entertaining. This is a book that you won’t always agree with, but it’s one you’ll never forget.
Athelstan: The Making of England by Tom Holland
Is that Sarah Foot biography of Athelstan looking a little intimidating? If so, start off with Athelstan by Tom Holland. As part of the Penguin Monarchs series, this book is short and easy to follow. In a recent tweet, I described this book as “concise, punchy, and gripping from start to finish: an engaging introduction to one of England’s most important, but under-appreciated, monarchs.” This book is affordable, small enough to fit in your back pocket, and brief enough to read in an afternoon. Then, once you’re comfortable with Athelstan, you can dive into that excellent Sarah Foot book without fear.
The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium – An Englishman’s World by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger
If you want to get away from Great Man History, try The Year 1000, which has become a favorite in the last couple decades. Lacey and Danziger write in a tone that is approachable and amiable. Although this book is on the lighter end of this list, if you judge by the acknowledgements, the authors consulted every expert imaginable in the making of this book. The Year 1000 focuses on everyday life in late Anglo-Saxon times, delivered in a way that even a total newcomer will feel welcomed.