I’ve been sharing some of my top picks for Middle Ages and Renaissance books for different age groups. Today I want to talk about my favorite books for grades 10 through 12.
Now, remember, these are not the typical high school textbooks that you probably used during your own school years. These are living books—books written in either narrative or conversational style; books centered on people who lived in that historical time period and their stories. Biographies are so valuable for studying history; for when you read about a person’s experiences in a time period, you begin to understand what else was going on in the world around him and all of the other factors that influenced his decisions. And that person’s life makes the time period come alive for your student.
There is also one book of original documents, which is an important aspect for the high school years. In these upper grades, you want your student to go to the original source, when possible, and read a person’s own words, rather than just a summary statement of what somebody thinks that person believed.
Let’s start with the historical fiction books that I love to recommend for high school students. And this time, we’ll go in chronological order.
The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff (c. 450)
Eighteen-year-old Aquila is serving in the Roman army on the island of Britain and gets leave to go home and visit his family. When he receives word that all Roman troops are withdrawing from Britain, he decides to desert and stay to defend his homeland from the invading Saxons. Two days later Saxon raiders attack his family home, killing his father and kidnapping his sister. Aquila vows to have his revenge on the barbarians. The rest of the story, with its twists and turns, traces Aquila’s life as he pursues that goal and deals with the subsequent battles within his heart.
This is a great book for older teens, because neither its plot nor its characters are simple. There is no neat and tidy, happily-ever-after ending. Yet it gives a fantastic glimpse into life in that turbulent time period at the beginning of the Middle Ages, as well as a glimpse into inner struggles that are very much a part of life today.
Men of Iron by Howard Pyle (1400)
As you get into the Middle Ages proper, you need a good book on knights and castles and such. This is the book for that! Howard Pyle was an excellent author and illustrator. (You may recall that I recommended his The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood for grades 4–6.) The plot in Men of Iron is all about Myles Falworth, whose father was killed when accused of being involved in a plot against the king. In this coming-of-age tale, Myles sets his sights on becoming a knight and defending his family’s honor. Your student will learn much about what it took to become a knight and what the code of chivalry really meant. Howard Pyle’s books are in public domain, so you will be able to find this one free online.
The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson (c. 1470–1471)
Your teen will get an unforgettable look inside the civil war in England near the end of the Middle Ages/beginning of the Renaissance: the War of the Roses. Written by a master story-teller (and poet), The Black Arrow is a swashbuckling tale that centers on Richard Shelton and his guardian Sir Daniel Brackley. Sir Daniel has become a target in this civil war. A band of archers, who call themselves the Fellowship of the Black Arrow, have set themselves against Sir Daniel and all of his allies; Richard is caught in the middle. Throughout this story of intrigue and action, Richard learns many lessons about loyalty, honor, and discerning good from evil when the issues aren’t necessary black and white. As your student grows into high school years, be sure to take advantage of these opportunities to discuss the principles that are presented in these wonderful books. Those timeless principles are what will instruct your teen’s conscience and help her make future decisions in her own life. The Black Arrow is in public domain, so you will find it available free online.
The Second Mrs. Giaconda by E. L. Konigsburg (1490—1503)
This book is set in the Renaissance and explores a couple of mysteries that surround Leonardo da Vinci. The first mystery is why he befriended a lying and thieving little boy named Salai; kept him as an apprentice, even though he caused so much mischief and trouble; and then named him in his will. The second mystery is the story behind the Mona Lisa: why Leonardo worked on it for so many years; why it held a special place in his heart. This book does a masterful job of weaving together the pieces that connect those two questions and giving a believable answer. Keep in mind, this is historical fiction; but it will give your high school student a great look at life in Italy during Leonardo da Vinci’s lifetime.
The King’s Fifth by Scott O’Dell (c. 1540–1542)
This Newberry Honor book is set in the time of the conquistadors, as they explored the Americas and looked for gold. This particular tale relates the story of a young mapmaker who was with Coronado’s army. Esteban was part of a group of seven men who left that army and struck out on their own, ending up in what is now the southwest states of the U.S. The narrative is written in a jail cell, for Esteban is the only man left alive of the original seven. He knows where the gold was hidden, and the king is demanding his portion of the treasure: the king’s fifth. A great story about history and about what greed can do to people.
Now for the biographies and original source documents. These first two books tell the stories of the lives of prominent men and help trace a connecting thread through the centuries.
Famous Men of the Middle Ages by Poland & Haaren, with extra chapters by Rob Shearer (c. 394—1468)
I know the original edition of this book is available free online, but I much prefer the newer edition that has been edited and updated by Rob Shearer with extra chapters. This is the version published by Greenleaf Press. We know a lot more today about those famous men of the Middle Ages than was known in 1904, when Poland and Haaren originally wrote it, and that updated information is masterfully woven into the Greenleaf Press edition, copyright 2008. So I recommend this version, not the older one. Plus, Rob added chapters on some famous men who were left out of the Poland and Haaren edition. All in all, this book gives living biographies of about 40 prominent characters from the Middle Ages, from Alaric the Visigoth through John Gutenberg and the beginning of the Renaissance. Classic artwork is included, so your student can put a face with a name and also see how people have depicted these famous events in history. The chapters are shorter, about four pages each, so this book can easily be brought alongside to give great details and encourage independent learning for your high schooler.
Famous Men of the Renaissance and Reformation (1304—1572), by Rob Shearer, picks up where Famous Men of the Middle Ages leaves off. Well, not exactly, because our historical names for time periods make it seem like they were abrupt stops and starts, when really there are years of overlap as the transition is happening. But your student will read the stories of fourteen prominent individuals who lived during the Renaissance. Those stories will depict how the literature and learning of the classical world became widely available because of Gutenberg’s printing system and influenced people’s thinking.
The second half of the book presents biographies of fifteen prominent men in the Reformation movement. Those of you who are not Protestant in your beliefs could easily skip those chapters; or you could use them to encourage some great discussions with your teens. Rob Shearer is careful to tell about both highs and lows of this time in history. He says, “Among the figures from this turbulent time, there is much to admire, and much to lament. There are examples of tremendous courage and examples of treachery, cowardice, and betrayal. The famous men of the Reformation teach us that matters of theology are critically important.” And I think that high school is the perfect time to go in-depth on those matters of theology.
Voices of the Renaissance and Reformation (1304—1547) is a supplement to the Famous Men biographies. This book, compiled and edited by Rob Shearer, contains original documents that allow your student to read the person’s own words (translated into English). It has Petrarch’s autobiography, a letter from Lorenzo de’ Medici to his son, sermon excerpts by Savonarola, excerpts from Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, poems by Michelangelo, as well as many writings, letters, and sermons by the Reformers. Historical images are included, so your teen can see portraits of the writers and also see what the documents looked like in their original forms. Voices of the Renaissance and Reformation is a great collection and a valuable addition to any study of that time period.
All right. Those are my top picks for high school students covering the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Reformation. I’d love to know what your favorites are. Leave a comment and let’s talk books!