An Oxford Historian
Oxford History: Reading Recommendations
Updated: Apr 26, 2021
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I thought I'd take everyone through a walkthrough of my bookshelf, and the books that have helped me on my academic journey so far. Here you'll find a wide range of recommendations to help you out to start or continue your path through history.
Now, this could come across as a bit of an arrogant post - that's definitely not the plan. Hopefully, some of the examples here will help expand your library or hunt down books for further research/to get started on a topic. I've included a complete Amazon bibliography at the end of this article. If you want any of the books, do consider getting them through the links - it cost no more money but I get a little reward from Amazon.
HOW TO USE THIS RESOURCE : I know, this is a big list. Feel free to read it from end to end if you want - I'd be most impressed. It's broken down into 6 major categories: Primary Sources, Secondary Works, Archaeology, Languages, General Academia and Fiction - feel free to jump in at the areas that interest you most.
Particular recommendations that go beyond the obvious, of special note, are highlighted in a fetching red.
Primary sources are a great way to get into early Medieval history. Don't be intimidated by the language and content - most take some effort, but are well worth the struggle. Most are also, mercilessly, pretty cheap in paperback form.
A crucial source to round off the Anglo-Saxon period, there's some debate over the most practical and accessible edition available. Undoubtedly the best, and scholarly standard, is the Phillimore Edition - at 35 volumes long, and about £500, this is impractical to most. The Folio Society did a nice 3 volume copy, but this is also expensive, and currently out of print. Practically, then, the Penguin Edition is the best bet for most.
Ecclesiastical History - Bede
The obvious classic, and a great way to get into reading primary sources about the Anglo-Saxons.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles
Certainly a less accessible read than Bede, do not make the mistake of sitting down to read this from cover to cover if you are just starting out. Still, it's a crucial resource for a broad set of events and timelines and is very useful as a reference work.
Absolutely worth reading, or re-reading, at any time. If you've seen the terrible, terrible film please PLEASE try reading the original - it's surprisingly accessible, and not as long as you'd expect. My personal preference is Tolkien's translation, the volume of which comes with useful and interesting notes.
The Complete Old English Poems
An impressive translated corpus of all Old English poems (including Beowulf) - of particular interest are the riddles and the ecclesiastical poetry. Although it doesn't include the original Old English for cross-comparison this is still a weighty tome, and an impressive bookcase filler.
Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North
Islamic travel writing is a woefully under-read set of early medieval sources, which is a terrible shame. This is perhaps the most famous example to those previously unaware of the genre - it contains the famous account of a 'Viking' ship burial among the Rus. There is much here besides, however, and it is well worth a read.
Prose Edda and Poetic Edda
Interested in Viking myth - gods, creation stories and Ragnarok? These are the ones for you! For anyone starting out, I would strongly recommend the Prose over the Poetic Edda, just for simplicity of reading.
An account of the settlement of Iceland by 'Vikings', I have written at length about the benefits of reading Landnamabok here. The most accessible edition is still the Huginn and Muggin version.
The Viking World - Brink and Price
An amazing overall summary of the Vikings, stretching very broadly in both geographical and chronological terms. The perfect reference work for those interested in the period.
The Anglo-Saxons - Campbell
Older perhaps than many works, and not as cutting edge in its content, I still stand by Campbell's masterful work as an amazing introduction and broad overview of the period.
Viking Age Iceland - Byock
A more in-depth look at the settling and early history of Iceland - certainly a good read for those who want to escape the narrative of Vikings as blood-thirsty raiders.
A History of Ukraine - Magocsi
A slightly strange one I got to continue my interest in the Kievan Rus. A huge and extensive tome, this is a really good reference work, but perhaps not quite for the casual reader.
The Feudal Kingdom of England 1042-1216 - Barlow
A staple of my undergraduate studies, this is an in-depth look at the development of England through Norman rule, a period of history often sadly under-explored.
Yorkshire: A Gazetteer of Anglo-Saxon and Viking Sites - Points
Extremely niche, but a really artful examination of the historical/archaeological remains that can still be found. Well worth getting if you live in or near Yorkshire and want a tour!
Any historian of early Medieval Europe needs to also have at least a basic grip on archaeology.
Archaeological Theory in the New Millenium - Harris and Cipola
If I was to recommend an introduction to archaeological theory it would be this, without a shadow of a doubt. Covering some complex and fundamental topics for an accessible angle, this is the one book you should read to really get your head around the minefield of theory.
This is also incredibly useful for those studying in an academic capacity - know any students of archaeology? Do them a favour and get them this book!
The Archaeology of Death and Burial - Pearson
Probably my number one recommendation for an archaeology book to actually sit down and read, this is a great look into the feature of archaeology that tends to interest people most - the dead, and the presentation of the dead.
Archaeology from Space - Parcak
Exploring the more cutting-edge approaches to archaeological methodology, this is a really interesting look into how the process of doing archaeology evolves in the modern era.
Looting or Missioning - Mikkelsen
An interesting look at the material cultural remains of Insular metalwork found in Scandinavia, challenging the argument that they result primarily from Viking raids. The pictures in this are also stunning - a great coffee-table book.
I must admit, I'm a terrible linguist. Even so, I've made an attempt to get to grips with the most relevant languages for my research, to better handle the sources. The recommendations here are practical and easy to use, and come wholeheartedly recommended.
A Guide to Old English - Mitchell and Robinson
There's a huge wealth of books for learning Old English, not least because thousands of English Literature students who signed up to study Byron and Carol Ann Duffy are forced to learn it each year. The one here is of immense use as a reference, for looking up linguistic rules, but is perhaps less useful as a beginner's guide.
Viking Language - Byock
Focusing also on historical background and contextualizing language learning in the Saga source material, this is a good starting place.
Latin: An Intensive Course - Moreland and Fleischer
As much as we all miss the Cambridge Latin course, needs must when the devil drives. And here, the devil drives with a vengeance - be prepared for some extremely rapid grammar lessons, but some great exercises and overall approach.
The Myth of Race - Sussman
An important work of anthropological science, this is an overarching look at how Race is a social construct rather than a biological reality - a valuable resource for anyone interested in the history of ethnicity and race.
The Constitution of Society - Giddens
Not as easy (or indeed particularly fun) read, but a classic work of theory none the less, this covers the concept of Structuration.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces
A classical work of comparative mythology, this is a great introduction to the topic. Perhaps in a more casual and popular tone than other articles on this list (there are references to Star Wars here, for example), this is definitely worth picking up for anyone interested in mythology in any capacity.
Finally, I have a small collection of fiction books too. Sadly, I don't really ever have the time or the motivation to read for pleasure these days, but it's nice to have them there just in case.
There is a lot of Tolkien here. When I decided to do a DPhil, I made myself one firm rule - the topic I chose had to be one that, had Professor Tolkien been alive, he would have supervised. Tolkien's works are what really got me into early medieval history. As my academic life has progressed I've tried to move into the more obscure corners of Tolkien's literature, especially as it becomes more and more relevant to my daily research.
The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit - Tolkien
Where everybody inevitably starts off with Tolkien, and for good reason! If you've not read them, they're a must buy. If you've only ever seen the films, it's 100% worth reading them through - although slower in pace, they're far more extensive and still perfect to this day. It is worth, however, being aware of the tonal difference between the two. The Hobbit was intended as a children's story - it's worth bearing this in mind as you read it.
Children of Hurin, Beren and Luthien, and The Fall of Gondolin - Tolkien
More of Tolkien's work - less read than his classics but well worth the time, especially if you;re returning to Middle Earth after some time, having previously read the Lord of the Rings.
The Silmarillion - Tolkien
I've left this one until after the others because, to be honest, it's the most difficult - don't make the mistake of taking your first steps in Tolkien's world with the Silmarillion. I always say the Silmarillion is like a history book where the history isn't real - it's an amazingly written and obviously adds a lot to the world, but beware it won't be an easy journey.
The Story of Kullervo - Tolkien
I've written a review of this book before here, but I think it's an absolute gem, for both fans of Tolkien and of mythology more generally.
Everybody should have a trusty complete works of Shakespeare! Both very useful for the historian and genuinely worth re-reading. If you're English you'll have been bored rigid by endlessly reading the more well-know plays at school but I can promise they're worth a re-read.
The Poems of Catullus
One of my supervisors gave me a piece of resounding advice when I first began my PhD - 'read all Roman poetry ever'. That seemed difficult to me, but I did at least invest in Catullus' work.
And that's it! Below you'll find the full bibliography with links to Amazon if you want to follow up on any of the books. Did I miss any books you'd recommend? Drop them in the comments below!
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Check out my previous articles on Anglo-Saxon (here), Viking (here) and obscene (here) nicknames. A new Deep-Dive article on Anglo-Saxon thegnly diets can be found here.
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