I talked in a previous post about using primary sources to get inside the head of your historical character. It can be much trickier to find a secondary source whose author really has a feel for the period, but nevertheless, here is a sampling of resources, in no particular order, for the Middle Ages through to the 17th century that I’d recommend. It’s an admittedly personal list, compiled from my years as a graduate student, teacher and writer, but I hope it offers insight. Several of the books cover specialized topics rather than overviews of a period, but I’ve chosen them because they address underlying values or ideas that will get you to the core of a character. Your additions are welcome!
For the medieval and early Renaissance world, I cannot praise C.S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image highly enough. Thankfully for all of us, Lewis was involved in academics before one had to prove one’s ability by writing textbooks full of obscure technical terms. He presents both literary and theological concepts in a style perfectly accessible to the average educated person. I’d recommend The Discarded Image to a student or ‘layperson’ interested in the Middle Ages. Although first published in 1964, it is, in my opinion, still the most balanced and coherent introduction to the worldview of the Middle Ages you will find.
More specialized but useful is Writers and Readers in Medieval Italy: Studies in the History of Written Culture by Armando Petrucci (trans. Charles M. Radding) for an understanding of the way books, reading and libraries were viewed from late antiquity through the Middle Ages.
Despite what school history might suggest, the English did not become Protestant overnight. Renaissance Drama and the English Church Year, by R. Chris Hassel is a stepping stone into the liturgical way of seeing the year that is lost to most of us. Add The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 by Eamon Duffy, and you’ll get a much better idea of the mindset of the nation in this period of transition.
If you want to stretch your brain cells a little more, celebrity professor Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning is almost compulsory reading for the college English student on the formation of the Elizabethan (mostly male) mind.
I’ve yet to forgive Simon Schama for being disrespectful about the Queen Mother during her funeral but I have to admit that An Embarrassment of Riches gave me a whole new insight into European Protestant thought, although its focus is Dutch culture in the seventeenth century. (However, I gave my copy away after he offended me.)
On an opposite note from my displeasure with Mr. Schama, I’d recommend both the person and writings of Neil Keeble (N.H. Keeble). His seminal The Literary Culture of Nonconformity in Later Seventeenth Century England was constantly at my side as a graduate student. It covers about every type of nonconformity, from Baptists to Diggers, and is invaluable to anyone interested in the topic. A more general survey is found in The Puritan Experience by Owen C. Watkins. For New England, Charles E. Hambrick’s The Practice of Piety delves into the religious mindset of the first generations of Puritan colonists.
Also on my list of people who are erudite and just plain nice is Margaret Spufford. Her study of Cambridgeshire nonconformity, Contrasting Communities, gives insight into the way these new beliefs played out in smaller communities. Tessa Watt’s Cheap Print and Popular Piety 1550-1640 also shows the impact of the newly emerging cheap print culture on communities and belief (and will give you lots of titles to cleverly throw into your novel).
I had fun digging through old notes to compile this list – so more may be forthcoming!