As an historian, or even as someone who just really loves books, it’s always hard to pick a top ten, let alone a top two. But here goes:
Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 (Yale, 2nd ed. 2005)
This is one of those books that come along every so often and tears up the rule book, making historians think differently about particular topics. For many years, the Reformation in England was thought to be an inevitable, yet popular, response to a moribund and corrupt Catholic Church. Duffy, however, bypassing the various religious orders and concentrating on the laity, shows that the reality was very different, and the way in which centuries of symbolism and ritual were systematically dismantled over such a short period of time represented a painful rupture with the past. It’s almost impossible to ‘do’ medieval history without at least thinking about the role the church played in ordinary people’s everyday lives, and this book was a starting point for me to think about how people experienced religion and ritual, and even ideas about magic.
Henry Kraus, Gold Was the Mortar: The Economics of Cathedral Building (Barnes and Noble, 2nd ed. 2009)
Anyone with even a slight interest in architectural history will be enamoured of European Gothic cathedrals – beautiful structures that dominate the landscape, even today. On the one hand, Gothic cathedrals were a symbol of the power of the church writ large, yet on the other, they were vanity projects unwanted by many – a kind of episcopal ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. Kraus has selected eight cathedrals and charts their sometimes painful genesis, asking the question ‘why’ were these churches built. Cathedral building was hampered by a number of factors: financing, a suitable supply of master-craftsmen, and whether or not it was really wanted (this last is most obvious at York, where concern about the effect the Minster would have on nearby churches was keenly felt, and the building took two and half centuries to complete). The financial, political, and social cost of a cathedral was high, yet these buildings were built and retain their power to inspire awe.