History Book Recs

I am often asked for book recommendations by people who have enjoyed my essays here and are looking for some historical pleasure reading.

The sources listed below (updated from time to time) are the ones I recommend for general reading, introductions, or looking into specific details for your curiosity (or for world building for writing or gaming etc.)  These aren’t the same ones I have my grad students read for their Ph.D. preparation since they need to focus more on historiography, i.e. what the hot debates are among historians that new scholars have to respond to in their work. If anyone wants that (constantly updated) list I can e-share it on request.

A number of great histories are absent from this list because, while great, they come from academic publishers who charge $80+ for them (even as e-books!) so it doesn’t feel right recommending them for general reading (they’re excellent but not THAT excellent).  The economics of academic big publishing are one of the big challenges of this moment in scholarship, and I hope very much that we’ll see improvement over the coming years as book publication models generally continue to transform.

Great History Introductions and Overviews

Guido Ruggiero The Renaissance in Italy: A Social and Cultural History of the Renaissance Cambridge University Press, December 2014

It’s hard to express how good this book is — comprehensive, well written, illuminating and thought provoking on both small and large points. It’s full of the kind of details that illuminate as well as insights that draw everything together. This is the one Renaissance secondary source everyone will get something out of.

John Najemy A History of Florence 1200-1575, Blackwell, 2006

A terrific general history of Florence in the Renaissance.

James Hankins, Virtue Politics: Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy, Harvard 2019

Giant comprehensive masterful examination of what Renaissance humanists & philosophers were really trying to achieve. It’s not really a generalist’s overview but a synthesis of a lot of core elements of the period that really leaves you with a deep understanding. The key argument is that humanism was both philosophically sincere and political in its goals, since humanists and their supporters believed that by improving the moral education and health-of-the-soul of the rulers and leaders of Italy/Europe they would create more successful rulers who would bring about peace and stability, ending the factionalism and strife that dominated the period.  Thus unlike Medieval moral education which focused more on the heavenly importance of virtue, offering people guidance for how to get to Heaven, or how to implore aide from Heaven, humanism was the first active attempt at intentionally transforming the world itself, focused on earthly consequences as well as personal and heavenly ones.  It thus resembles the Enlightenment and later ideas of progress in its self-conscious attempt to change/reengineer society.  This is my dissertation adviser’s magnum opus finally coming out after years and years and its publication finally ends my endless frustration at only being able to cite “lunch with Jim Hankins” as the source when I talk about what humanism really was, and aimed to do.

Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation, Penguin, 2003.

You need to understand the Renaissance to understand the Reformation and vice versa, but good Reformation books are rare because so many histories of it are biased for one side of the other, anti-Catholic or pro-Catholic. This particular Reformation overview is thorough, well written, comprehensive, and reliable.

And if you want to go earlier or later…

Matthew Gabriele & David M. Perry, The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe, freshly published 2021 and so so fun and so so brilliant!

Alan Kors, the Birth of the Modern Mind, The Teaching Company

This is not a book but a set of lectures, an absolutely brilliant overview of the changes in western thought over the course of the 17th to 18th centuries that were so pivotal to the development of the modern world, especially science, democracy, and current ideas of ethics and politics. Available as video lectures, audio lectures, or a transcript. It’s hard to express how totally this series can transform the way you understand our society today, unlocking the layers of how we got to hold the values we do.  His lecture series on Voltaire is also great.

Peter Gay The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1967

Peter Gay The Enlightenment: The Science of Freedom Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1969

There are many variant readings of the Enlightenment period, but for someone who wants an enjoyable overview these are very rich and nicely balanced, resisting the tendency to make certain people heroes or villains, and Peter Gay has a beautifully warm and human way of writing about history that makes him a joy to read.  Peter Gay’s memoire is also really great, and the introduction to his The Freud Reader is one of the most deeply moving little reflections on the value of scholarship that I’ve ever read.

If you want to focus more on the history-of-ideas side of things…

Pierre Hadot, What Is Ancient Philosophy

Good solid and approachable introduction to the key characteristics and schools of classical thought.

Marenbon, Medieval Philosophy: An Historical and Philosophical Introduction

Good solid introduction to Medieval thought, for those who want the overview background.

Brian Copenhaver & Charles Schmitt, Renaissance Philosophy

Good overview of key thinkers and intellectual innovations of the Renaissance.

Renaissance: Particularly Fun Renaissance Primary Sources

Baldassare Castiglione The Book of the Courtier 1528

Benvenuto Cellini The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini 

One of the most entertaining primary sources ever written. Born in 1500, Cellini was a goldsmith, sculptor, assassin, necromancer, escape artist, soldier, and this is his utterly unapologetic autobiography. It’s available free in an old but perfectly readable translation on Project Gutenberg.

Marsilio Ficino Meditations on the Soul, Inner Traditions press, 1996.

A collection of Ficino’s lovely and touching humanistic moral letters written to a variety of people, from close-friends and fellow scholars to popes and cardinals. A readable and less esoteric way to sample humanist efforts to turn classical scholarship into rich moral education.

Lisa Kaborycha ed., A Corresponding Renaissance, Oxford University Press 2015.

Collection of letters by 52 different Renaissance women from many different walks of life, organized thematically, each with a miniature biography of the woman in question. In addition to many of the letters being fascinating, we see the huge range of things women did: scholars, courtesans, spiritual leaders, business women, women running banks, women ruling cities, women discussing the pros and cons of marriage, women opposing sumptuary law, women endorsing sumptuary law, women disagreeing, women using profanity, challenging our tendency to imagine all pre-modern women’s lives as fundamentally homogenous. Gorgeously translated, brilliant collection.

Petrarch, Letters

Hailed widely as the founder of the humanist pro-classicizing movement of the Renaissance and looked to as a father and model by later scholars, Petrarch’s letters which stimulated excitement about classical scholarship and virtue across Italy and beyond are available in English from Italica Press, translated by Also Bernardi, in six volumes. A few of his letters are also available free online in a Victorian translation, and in two beautiful selected best-of volumes edited by Elaine Fantham put out by the Harvard University Press I Tatti Renaissance Library series.

Janet Ross Lives of the Early Medici As Told in Their Correspondence 1910, reprinted Laconia Publishers 2016

Despite the modern author and title this is mainly a primary source — just the letters of three generations of Medici, Cosimo, Piero the Gouty, and Lorenzo de’ Medici, their wives and friends, arranged to be readable, informative, and enjoyable. Invaluable.

The I Tatti Renaissance Library from Harvard University Press

The ITRL is a series of facing-page editions of Renaissance primary sources (Latin texts specifically), edited by my dissertation adviser James Hankins and designed to make available some of the amazing range of Renaissance works that have been out of print since the period. There are now more than 50 volumes in print, and treat a huge range of topics.  Below I list a few of the ones I think might be most interesting to a casual reader, but they’re all amazing and more and more keep coming:

  • Antonio Beccadelli, The Hermaphrodite, controversial celebration of homosexuality and transgression, condemned and burned in the period
  • Pietro Bembo, History of Venice, a later Renaissance history by the great Venetian scholar-editor, covering both legendary history and the tense drama around 1500
  • Flavio Biondo, Italy Illustrated, travel overview of Italy focusing on antiquities & archaeology
  • Boccaccio Famous Women, shows us ideas about female excellence in the period
  • Bruni History of the Florentine People, the first post-Medieval attempt to write a history in the style of classical histories, introduces the idea of dividing history into 3 parts instead of 2, creating the Middle Ages or Dark Ages
  • Paolo Giovio, Notable Men and Women of Our Time, short praise of notable figures, shows a lot about the characteristics they celebrated, and the remarkable art of fawning on patrons
  • Aldus Manutius, Humanism and the Latin Classics and The Greek Classics, the editor’s prefaces to the famous Venetian printer’s editions of classics, the first well-edited scholarly editions of the classics which revolutionized printing, punctuation, and set the shape of the future of classical scholarship.
  • Manetti, On Human Worth and Excellence, great treatise on moral and political thought from the royal court of Renaissance Naples, excellent sample of period ideas of statecraft & virtue
  • Petrarch, Selected Letters, two great volumes of the letters that spared the classical revival
  • Zabarella On Methodsgreat window on the state of science in the Renaissance

Renaissance: secondary sourcebooks on specific topics that are also very enjoyable to read.

* Niall Atkinson, The Noisy Renaissance, Penn State University Press, 2016

A terrific book about the soundscape of Renaissance Florence. This is well written, thorough, scholarly, and also a ton of fun.

* William Caferro Petrarch’s War: Florence and the Black Death in Context Cambridge University Press 2018

Detailed close up study of the war prosecuted in the immediate aftermath of the Black Death to avenge Petrarch’s friends. Interrogates specific details that contradict received wisdom.

* Elizabeth Cohen and Thomas Cohen Daily Life in Renaissance Italy Greenwood 2001

Thorough detailed immensely useful.

* Anton Gill, Il Gigante: Michelangelo, Florence, and the David, 1492-1504 Thomas Dunne Books, 2013.

A surprisingly good book that is almost more a biography of a decade of Florence using Michelangelo and the David as a focal point. Engagingly written and full of colour without sensationalism. This would make a very good introduction to the Renaissance, as it assumes no starting knowledge.

* Elizabeth Lev The Tigress of Forli: Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de Medici Mariner Books, 2011

Well researched, thorough and well written, the amazing life of the fascinating Caterina Sforza.

* Paul D. MacLean The Art of the Network: Strategic Interaction and Patronage in Renaissance Florence. Duke University Press, 2003

Fascinating detailed study of patronage via letters.

* Thomas F Madden Venice: A New History, Penguin 2012

This starts at the foundation of Venice at the Fall of Rome and goes through to 2012, so it’s not Renaissance specific, but it’s an excellent book that manages to explain the mysterious exceptionality of Venice through all of time.

* Thomas F. Madden Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World Penguin, 2016

Similar to his Venice book, a biography of a city. It’s not quite as fabulous as his Venice book, but still great.

* Michael Rocke, Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence. Oxford University Press 2014.

Solid, well researched, fascinating and endlessly unexpected book.

* Guido Ruggiero, Binding Passions: Tales of Magic, Marriage and Power at the End of the Renaissance, Oxford University Press, 1993

Ruggiero not only researches fascinating subjects, he also writes about them in a wonderful way. This fascinating book is about gender and magical beliefs as they interacted with the law in Venice in the sixteenth century.

* Guido Ruggiero Machiavelli in Love, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010

A fascinating consideration of the place of sexuality and identity in the Renaissance, with a particularly good discussion of the trick Brunelleschi played on Grosso.

It’s not as much about Machiavelli as you might imagine from the title, but none the worse for that. It’s really a set of essays considering various aspects of the subject from a variety of angles — everything from the role of the devil to playfulness, and from Boccaccio to Castiglione, with consideration of literary and judicial texts. Thoroughly readable and extremely thought provoking.

* Nicholas Terpstra The Art of Executing Well, Truman State University Press, 2008

There are some books that cover very esoteric subjects extremely well, and this is one of them. This is an in depth academic examination of the confraternities of comforters who stayed with condemned prisoners on their last night and accompanied them to their executions in the Renaissance.

* Paul Robert Walker The Feud That Sparked the Renaissance Morrow 2002

Brunelleschi and Ghiberti, their lives, rivalry, architecture and sculpture. Does not assume any background knowledge but does not talk down.

Renaissance: books on specific topics that have great research and information but might not be so suitable as pleasure reading.

David Abulafia The French Descent into Renaissance Italy 1494-5, Antecedents and Effects Routledge 1995

Book of academic essays on various aspects and issues around the 1494 invasion. Very valuable.

Monica Azzolini The Duke and the Stars: Astrology and Politics in Renaissance Milan Harvard University Press, 2013

There is very little about the Milanese court, and this is a thorough piece of scholarship from an unusual angle. For specialists only. Some day John Gagne’s great Milan book will come out… can’t wait for that…

Marina Belozerskaya To Wake the Dead: A Renaissance Merchant and the Birth of Archaeology

A great book on Cyriacus of Ancona and his relationship with the early humanists.

Nicholas Scott Baker The Fruit of Liberty Harvard University Press, 2013

A book that resists periodization and looks at Florence’s office holding class for a century starting in 1480. This is the best secondary source on the republic of 1530.

Patrick Baker Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror Cambridge University Press 2015

A close reading analysis of how Humanists saw themselves and their position.

Anthony F. D’Elia Pagan Virtue in a Christian World: Sigismundo Malatesta and the Italian Renaissance Harvard University Press, 2016

Using on the one hand Pope Pius’s denunciation of Sigismundo and on the other Sigismundo’s court poets’ epics about him, D’Elia examines his humanism and his Christianity. Specialised but interesting.

Stephen Epstein Genoa and the Genoese 958-1528  University of North Carolina Press, 1996

There are very few books that focus on the fascinating maritime republic of Genoa.

Carole Collier Frick Dressing Renaissance Florence Johns Hopkins 2005

A comprehensive look at clothes from both literary and visual records.

Richard Goldthwaite The Economy of Renaissance Florence  Johns Hopkins University Press 2009

Detailed and informative, but very dry indeed.

Sheila Hale Titian: His Life Harper, 2012

A good readable biography of Titian, who lived 1488-1576 and therefore saw a lot of history.

Christopher Hibbert The Borgias and their Enemies Houghton Mifflin 2008.

A pretty good general intro to the Borgias.

Mary Hollinsworth Patronage in Renaissance Italy John Murray 1996

Detailed look at patronage, with especially useful information on smaller cities.

Mary Hollinsworth The Family Medici: The Hidden History of the Medici Dynasty Head of Zeus 2017

An overview of the whole history of the Medici. Not deep, but covering a huge range of time, and with very useful dating and age reminders in each section.

John Kelly The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death Harper Collins 2005

Detailed and wide reaching account of the Black Death, drawing on modern science and primary sources.

Frank Klaasen The Transformations of Magic: Illicit Learned Magic in the Later Middle Ages and Renaissance Penn State University Press, 2013

An analysis of the texts of works of magic, what they were copied with and who copied them, and whether there was a difference between works of angelic and necromantic magic.

Thomas Kuehn Heirs Kin and Creditors in Renaissance Florence Cambridge University Press 2008

Close focus on who repudiated their inheritance and why. Fascinating and surprising.

Katherine A. MacIver Cooking and Eating in Renaissance Italy Rowman and Littlefield, 2014

A thorough, comprehensive, detailed and specific book about food and food culture. Amazingly useful.

Michael Malett Mercenaries and their Masters: Warfare in Renaissance Italy Pen and Sword, 2009

Very focused on military details.

Lauro Martines April Blood: Florence and the Plot Against the Medici Oxford University Press, 2003

The Pazzi conspiracy. Very detailed, very biased against the Medici.

Lauro Martines Fire in the City: Savonarola and the battle for the soul of Renaissance Florence 2006

Savonarola. Very detailed, very biased against the Medici.

Lauro Martines Power and Imagination: City States in Renaissance Italy Knopf, 2003

An interesting broad sweep.

Lauro Martines The Social World of the Florentine Humanists 1390-1460 Toronto University Press, 2011

A long thorough examination of the social class and civic positions held by every Florentine humanist in the period.

Tim Parks Medici Money: Banking, Metaphysics and Art in Fifteenth Century Florence W.W. Norton 2006

Anti-Medici argument, but well written and informative, especially on banking.

Andrew Pettegree The Book in the Renaissance Yale University Press, 2010

Excellent study of the move to print and its implications.

Andrew Pettegree The Invention of News: How the world came to know about itself  Yale University Press, 2014

Fascinating and full of detail.

Nancy Siraisi Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine: An Introduction to knowledge and practice University of Chicago Press 1990

Comprehensive book on medicine.

Sharon T. Strocchia Nuns and Nunneries in Renaissance Florence Johns Hopkins 2009

Solid well researched book on nuns.

Janet Ross Florentine Palaces and Their Stories 1906, reprinted 2016 Laconia Press

A list of all the palazzi in Florence, with their specific histories up to the time of writing. An odd book, but full of nuggets of information you can’t get anywhere else. Ross was an Englishwoman who lived in Florence for decades, she wasn’t a scholar but she had good Italian and access to papers.

Ramie Targoff Renaissance Woman: The Life of Vittoria Colonna 2018, Farrar Strauss Giroux

Colonna is a fascinating person, the first women since antiquity to have poetry published in her own lifetime, a friend of Michelangelo, Clement VII, and Cardinal Pole, a member of the powerful Roman aristocratic Colonna family, and a poet who modelled her poems for her dead husband on Petrarch and whose religious poetry flirted with Lutheranism. She’s fascinating, sadly the biography is pedestrian.

N.G. Wilson From Byzantium to Italy: Greek Studies in the Italian Renaissance Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.

Thorough scholarly analysis of the spread impact and penetration of Greek specifically.

Great/Fun History Books on Other Assorted Topics

Just a couple for now – more to come in time.

Brian Copenhaver, The Book of Magic, Penguin classics.

Brilliant collection on the history of magic in Europe from antiquity to the 17th century, consisting of primary source excerpts accompanied by short introductions. Absolutely one of the most enjoyable and fascinating history reads you can find anywhere

Brian Copenhaver, Magic in Western Culture from Antiquity to the Enlightenment, 2015

Secondary source version of the same chronology of magic history, analyzing how people understood it, its evolution over time, interactions between religion and magic, and between science and magic. Just brilliant. The physical book is quite expensive but the e-book is only $20

Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August

It my seem odd recommending such a famous book but it’s just luscious page by page, stunning language, and a fascinating and powerful model of a way narratives of events can be constructed, and how focusing on the beginning of a thing instead of the thing itself can be so powerful.  Big influence on my work especially book 3 of Terra Ignota.

David Bodaris, Passionate Minds Crown Publishing, 2006

A biography of Emilie du Chatelet and Voltaire — the subtitle is “the great love affair of the Enlightenment, featuring the scientist Emelie du Chatelet, the poet Voltaire, sword fights, book burnings, assorted kings, seditious verse, and the birth of the modern world” but it is a much better book than that makes it seem.

Robert Darnton, Censors at Work, Norton.

Fabulous history of how censorship operated in three different cases in history, comparing patterns over time.  Also highly recommend A Literary Tour de France (history of smuggling banned books into France) and The Great Cat Massacre.

Carlo M. Cipolla, Before the Industrial Revolution

The boring name is misleading, this is a collection of random detailed useful information about the pre-modern world, taking from mining innumerable dissertations and studies and presenting it all in compact tables and summaries. Need to know the plausible literacy rate for your fantasy world?  The frequency of windmills at a particular point in time?  Changes in the costs of food?  This is a dry read but a world-builder’s or novelists dream, all the info presented compact and right there.

Eric Slauter, Who Owns the News

History of copyright of news, looking at how transformations in the funding of news have led to its unique shape and position in the economy of information.

Adrian Johns, Piracy, the Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates

Massive, deeply researched history of the origin and development of intellectual property law from the print revolution through industrialization and radio to digital.

Irving Howe, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Text, Sources, Criticism

A confusingly titled but excellent volume which contains the novel along with a bunch of letters of Orwell that shed insight on the writing of it and his related political thought, and even reviews of the book when it first came out, which are fascinating to see since people at the time didn’t know it would be a giant genre-changing landmark, and reviewed it like any other novel.  Strongly enriches the historicity of reading the novel.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email