One of the challenges that arises when trying to list the things an educated man should know about the past is that the past keeps happening. By that I mean we keep expanding what we know about the past and updating our views about what is important. It used to be that the period after the fall of Rome was the Dark Ages, meaning that nothing much happened that anyone needed to know. Now, the early Middle Ages gets a lot of attention because it helps explain why the West came to dominate the world.
The fall of the Western Roman Empire used to be thought of as a collapse of civilization, leaving a great void into which swarmed barbarians. Out of the rubble, the people of Europe slowly rebuilt civilization into what we think of as the Middle Ages. The reality is the fall of Rome was a process. Roman rule was replaced by something else, something local and indigenous. A good way to start thinking about this is with The End of Empire: Attila the Hun & the Fall of Rome.
The first significant, post Roman, population to cast a shadow on our time are the Franks, who can probably be credited with the Christianisation of Europe. That’s debatable, but they played a large role in spreading the new religion. The Franks also gave us an important legal tradition. Frankish law was overwhelmingly concerned with the protection of individuals and less concerned with protecting the interests of the state, a sharp departure from Roman legal tradition, which was focused on the state.
The required reading when it comes to the Franks is Gregory of Tours. If you want something a bit easier to read, then this is a pretty good book for the casual reader. It’s short and covers the important bits. Reading up on Germanic tribes almost always means references to the Goths. While they did not leave much of an impression on the West, beyond the name, this is an interesting book on them that is worth reading. Of course, you cannot know the history of Europe without knowing about Charlemagne. This is the best book I’ve read on the subject.
Once you get to Charlemagne, you get to his British analog, King Offa and the history of Britain. For the general reader, this is a great book on the topic. Free of endless footnotes and scholarly jargon, it covers the material and makes it fun. This is a great time to introduce an excellent podcast. The British History Podcast done by an American lawyer, if you can believe it, is well done and entertaining. He plans to carry on until the present, but he does a great job with the early, post-Roman history of Britain.
The text most commonly used for learning about the Vikings is the Gwyn Jones History of the Vikings, but it is more than a little dry. It was written when acquiring knowledge was supposed to be painful. It does cover everything, without the PC claptrap you get from modern histories of the Norse. A more readable book that is good for an airplane ride is The Sea Wolves: A History of the Vikings. The truth is, the Norse were not all that interesting, but their impact on the West was very interesting. They changed Britain and northern Europe in very important ways.
In a similar way, the Mongols are not all that interesting as a civilization, but their impact on the world is interesting. Like the Norse, they also did some outlandish things, that still characterize them to this day. Everyone has heard of Genghis Khan so it is a good idea to know something about him and the Mongols. I know of no book that is as good as the Dan Carlin podcast on the Mongols. For $10 you get more than twenty hours of great entertainment and a great lesson in history.
It is impossible to know anything about the history of the West without knowing the history of the Catholic Church. In Part II of this series I suggested Paul Johnson’s History of Christianity, but for a history of the Catholic Church that is specific to this period, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization is a great read. If you are more ambitious, you can take on the three volume The Founding of Christendom: A History of Christendom, but it is a bit of a slog, unless you are a faithful Christian with a strong interest in the subject.
Of course, you cannot study the history of the Church without learning about The Crusades. A pretty good podcast is on iTunes conveniently called The History of the Crusades. Strangely, there are not a lot of good books on the subject. Most are multicultural nonsense polemics against the Church. The best book I’ve read on the subject is The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land. It is a big book that covers a lot, but it is free of the nonsense and it is written to be read.
One of the most important events in the medieval period is the Hundred Years War, because it is the first flicker of nationalism in the West. The idea of a nation that transcends tribal identity was born in the war between the English and the French from 1337 to 1453. The start of the war featured multi-ethnic armies, led by kings, facing one another in what is now France. At the end, it was Frenchman versus English, two nations at war. The best book on the subject is The Hundred Years War by Desmod Seward.
Similarly, the Thirty Years War is one of those great events that still casts a shadow today. It was one of the deadliest conflicts in European history and arguably began the process of de-Christianization in Europe. It also gave us the Peace of Westphalia, which established concepts like national sovereignty, balance of power diplomacy and the prohibition against intervening in the domestic affairs of other states. The definitive book on the subject is C. V. Wedgewood’s The Thirty Years War.
Finishing up, it is a good time to mention the History of Germany podcast. It is the only podcast I know of that covers the early history of German tribes. Like the British History Podcast, it covers much more than this period, but it is one of the few that bothers with early Germanic history. If you really prefer to get your history via audio, this series is supposed to be one of the best. The Great Courses series is mostly for adults, who want to learn something about the topic, so they are excellent introductory resources.