This post might seem like an anachronism in our days of Wikipedia, YouTube and always-on broadband. We have a world of knowledge at our fingertips, and yet I still refer to books for a great deal of my research in matters of world-building.
This is likely a hang-up from my university days. The web was young then, and couldn’t be trusted in the same way as a properly edited, fact-checked and peer-reviewed book or journal article. Over the years, I’ve been privileged to have collected a great many books and articles relating to history and archaeology. There’s a perceived permanence and authority in books, something I’ve taken for granted, but am particularly grateful for in these uncertain times.
In the post, I’ll share my top-ten recommendations — five non-fiction and five primary sources. These books have really helped me to improve my world-building.
Note that my fantasy setting is based on Middle Ages Europe — and despite writing fantasy, I like to keep things as close this model as a historical novel set in the period. Accordingly, many of my references related to the period. However, I’ve picked a selection that can help other fantasy flavours, such as those based on Classical or Renaissance models.
Note, the links in this post are affiliate links. If you click them and make a purchase, I’ll get a tiny commission at no cost to you. Thank you for supporting my writing.
Non-fiction scholarly or general works
Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, ambitiously attempts to answer why there is inequality in the world. He argues this is because of the advantage conferred to Europeans and Asians by their geographic positions in the world. To support his argument, Diamond delves deep in how geography and access to resources shape culture, economies and empires. It is packed with information that can help you construct worlds and cultures with some excellent historical models.
If I could recommend only one book that covers almost all aspects of world-building, this would be it.
While this sounds dry, A History of Business in Medieval Europe is anything but. It’s a survey of economic conditions between 1200—1500, following the collapse of the Roman Empire and the transition to feudalism. It’s packed with information about agriculture, trade, merchants, banks, and guilds — along with the calamities that forced change. If you are constructing a classic medieval fantasy world, this work is invaluable in building a credible economy.
As an archaeology student, one of my favourite areas of study was the origins of complex societies. Charles Redman’s The Rise of Civilization presents sound evidence-based theories as to how complex, state-level civilisations arose. There’s a lot of modelling in this book, and lots of information about geography, agriculture, material culture and trade.
Conflict, conquest and war is a major theme of many fantasy stories. Peter Connelly’s Greece and Rome at War, is the best survey on classical warfare I’ve ever read. It’s also beautifully illustrated as Connelly is an accomplished artist — it’s really worth getting the hardback edition. If you write epic fantasy where empires battle each other for dominance, a look at classic models will serve you better than Medieval sources. Not only does this book cover the Greeks and Romans, but Connolly also examines their adversaries, including the Celts, Persians and Carthaginians. In addition to pitched infantry warfare, it also examines siege and naval warfare.
This is the least scholarly of my picks, but that’s by no means a deficiency. This book by Sherrilyn Kenyon is written for writes, students and historians. It covers a lot of social aspects that more scholarly works ignore. It’s packed with information about fashion, weapons, festivals, customs, women and children — all neatly ordered in a logical and approachable manner. It also contains a valuable bibliography, which you can use if you want to explore any topic further.
At Blackwell are 2 hides assigned to the sustenance of the monks. In demesne are 3 ploughs; and 10 villains and 6 bordars with 4 ploughs. There are 6 slaves and 1 female slave, and 10 acres of meadow. It was and is worth 50s.
The Domesday Book was William the Conquerer’s kingdom-wide accounting of the farms, villages, manors and counties of Anglo-Saxon England. There is a ruthlessness behind the sheer scale and thoroughness of this massive work — a conqueror assessing his conquests. About as thick as a phone book, it’s packed with thousands of pages detailing the life and possessions of England’s people in the late 11th century. As a piece of history, it’s priceless. As a tool for world-builders, it has no equal in the amount of information available. How many hides in a typical village, what was the size of a lord’s demesne? What was the population of free men and serfs? How much land was under tillage? How many cattle and sheep were in a county? All these answers and more are addressed in the Domesday Book.
If extant journalism and travel writing in the background of a vicious dynastic war is your thing, Froissart’s Chronicles is an excellent read. It narrates the beginnings of The Hundred Years War. It is an invaluable resource for those who want to get first-hand accounts of Medieval politics and warfare, and even society at large. Froissart was an observant and curious chap. Some of the period’s most famous and decisive battles, such as Crecy and Poitiers are documented here, as is the Peasant’s Revolt and the Black Death. The Penguin Classics edition I have almost reads like a historical novel, thanks to its translation into modern English.
A particular favourite topic mine in university was the work of John of Salisbury, an English (and Saxon) theologian and philosopher who was as influential as Thomas Aquinas. Policraticus is John of Salibury’s attempt to marry Neoplatonic Christianity to recently rediscovered Aristotelean philosophy. It’s hard to ignore the importance of philosophy, religion and theology in pre-industrial societies. This book encapsulates the very essence of how the educated elite went about their musings. It’s also a monumental work of Medieval scholasticism, a type of inquiry we don’t see much in our post-Enlightenment age. Well worth the read if you want to get into a very different mind, yet one that still thought about the kinds of problems we still face today.
Another chronicle, this one concerned with daily life or a people considered quite alien to the Anglo-Saxons and their Norman rulers in England. Gerald himself was half-Welsh, half-Norman and never truly accepted by either people. In these two books (typically published as a single volume), Gerald takes it upon himself to describe the customs, lineage, living conditions and history of the Welsh. As a piece of social history, it is invaluable. There’s also his History of Topography of Ireland which is also worth reading. If you want a peak of daily life and customs of everyday people, this is a great resource.
Bucking the stereotype that Medieval women were silent and illiterate, Christine De Pizan’s City Book of the City of Ladies is a work of allegory written in defence of women against the misogyny of the age. It’s often heralded as one of the first examples of feminism in Western Culture. I personally find it valuable as an insight into the lives and thoughts of Medieval women. Christine was a remarkable woman, with a keen eye for observation, and a keen sense of wit.
Despite our hyper-connected world, I still find it most satisfying to pick up a book and do my research the old-fashioned way. The resources I list above have served me well over the years in constructing my pseudo-medieval fantasy world. I’m confident that some of them have enough information that they would serve other types of setting too.
If you have particular resources you swear by, I’d love to know about them. No library is complete, and there are not enough years in one mortal life to read everything, but I’m always on the lookout for something new.
7 days done, 23 to go.