BBC History Magazine


Hannah Skoda on the medieval world

Medieval history is challenging, exciting and thought-provoking because it’s a constantly evolving field, with a cast of characters that are seemingly so recognisable, and yet inhabit such a different world.

My first recommendation for reading about this era is Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400–800 (2006). This is a huge book, full of fascinating insights into early medieval society. Wickham is interested in people right across the social spectrum, as well as the bigger social and economic structures through which individuals experienced life and related to one another. He writes about the dramatic period following the fall of the Roman empire, and covers a vast geographical sweep.

My second choice moves away from Europe entirely. François-Xavier Fauvelle’s The Golden Rhinoceros: Histories of the African Middle Ages (2018) tells the story of medieval Africa. Beautifully written, it offers an exciting set of insights into African societies, from the birth of Islam in the seventh century up to the 15th century. Fauvelle reminds us of the rich and diverse nature of African civilisations in this period, from South Africa’s sophisticated royalty to the commercial and cultural crossroads of the Sahara. He draws on an incredible array of sources, including archaeology and material objects.

Artefacts form the focus of my next choice: Elina Gertsman and Barbara Rosenwein’s (2018). In recent years, medieval historians have become more attuned to the importance of objects that provide us with a tangible connection to the past: in societies where literacy rates fluctuated, people experienced objects in powerful and emotive ways. Rosenwein and Gertman’s choices range globally, from a sixth-century Egyptian pilgrim’s flask to a 12th-century dragon’s head made from walrus ivory. These extraordinary objects remind us of the sheer strangeness of this

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