Source of book image: http://www.cs.princeton.edu/~aahobor/Lucy-Day/Images/Covers-50/A-World-Lit-Only-by-Fire.jpg
William Manchester was better known for other books, but I recommend A World Lit Only by Fire. It is not always pleasant reading, but it is often fascinating, and sometimes amusing or edifying. Unlike some historians, who are afraid to call the Dark Ages dark because they are afraid to make value judgments, Manchester details just how ‘brutish, nasty and short’ life was during the centuries from 400 AD to 1000 AD (and to a large extent even up to 1600).
He also exposes the failings of institutions and historical individuals who are now revered, including martial Popes who lived ostentatiously with funds extracted from starving peasants, and Protestant ‘reformers’ who burned books and murdered those they considered heretics.
Only a few hundred years separates us from the times that Manchester chronicles. It is useful to contemplate how far we have come, and how far we may fall, if we do not recognize and defend the values upon which civilization depends.
Manchester, William. A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance, Portrait of an Age. Back Bay Publishers, 1993.