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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.