Chronicles of the Crusades by Jean de Joinville and Geoffroy de Villehardouin
This is a rare book which offers us two contemporary accounts of the crusades through the eyes of participants -- and not just monkish chroniclers but fighting men.
Although the two accounts are by different authors (Geoffroy de Villehardouin for the Fourth Crusade and Jean de Joinville for the Seventh), they both offer stark, un-romanticized and often critical reports. These men are describing military campaigns not creating works of art. They are both soldiers and statesmen, intimates of the leaders of the respective campaigns, offering an analysis of events rather than poets trying to inspire. The clear, unembellished style is in part attributable to an outstanding modern translation of the medieval French by M.R.B. Shaw, but the descriptions of appalling conditions, fear, brutality, and betrayal are all the work of the original authors.
To be sure, Joinville's stated intention is to pay tribute to his beloved late King and to justify King Louis' reputation for saintliness. Joinville's handling of Louis is, in this sense, unabashedly biased. But this in no way detracts from the authenticity of his account of the Seventh Crusade. On the contrary, Joinville's Louis can only shine if he shows how very dark the surroundings were. I was particularly struck by Joinville's willingness to admit and describe his own fears, uncertainties and mistakes.
These accounts are also invaluable to historians because the narrators explain events in terms they consider self-evident -- but which are often alien to us, reminding us of the great differences in social attitudes between then and now. Thus, while human emotions, motives and behavior is strikingly similar to today, other aspects of society are strikingly different. Likewise, details like how horses were loaded on ships or how provisions were pre-positioned and stored for the king of France are described lucidly, providing the novelist and historian with invaluable details of medieval military operations.
I highly recommend these accounts -- just don't expect them to be tales of brave knights and fair ladies. These are the accounts of real men about real wars.
Everything is Light by Robert Shea
This is a surprisingly well written tale, with an excellent portrayal of King Louis IX of France. Although the book starts with the fall of the last Cathar fortress of Montsegur in 1244, it provides a historically sound, comprehensible and (again) un-romaticized introduction to the key issues involved in the Albigensian crusades. It avoids the use of magic and mystery, far too common in modern writing about the Cathars, and instead presents complex, believable characters deserving of sympathy but flawed and inconsistent -- as we all are. This is without doubt the best book I have read on this fascinating episode in history.