Chivalry and carnage: After decades of neglect, medieval themes are more popular than ever

Two weeks ago, as swift and sure as an arrow fired from an English longbow, a novel about the battle of Agincourt shot to number one in the hardback fiction chart. Nicholas Hook, the latest of Bernard Cornwell's protagonists to take up arms, stands in a long line of fictional Englishmen marching off to have a crack at the French. Just as Richard Sharpe, the hero of Cornwell's prodigiously successful series of novels set in the Napoleonic wars, owed much to CS Forester's Hornblower, so does Hook have an even more venerable pedigree.

His truest ancestor is Sir Nigel Loring, the eponymous hero of a novel by Arthur Conan Doyle, now almost forgotten, but still capable of gripping a reader in the authentic Cornwell manner. Like Cornwell's Azincourt, it is set against a backdrop of the Hundred Years War; like Azincourt, it climaxes with a heroic English victory against the odds. Cornered with his comrades on a hill outside Poitiers, Nigel ends up capturing the King of France, being knighted by the Black Prince, and returning home, there to play his part in what are cast as the timeless rhythms of English history. "The body may lie in mouldering chancel," Conan Doyle concludes, "or in crumbling vault, but the rumour of noble lives, the record of valour and truth, can never die, but lives on in the soul of the people."

So wrote a man who had no doubt that there were continuities weaving together the present and the medieval past, and that these were to be cherished as the very fabric of national life. Whether it was Barry rebuilding the Houses of Parliament in a self-consciously Gothic style, or Stubbs tracing the origins of the party system back to the time of the Plantagenets, or Tennyson casting Arthurian chivalry as a fitting code of conduct for an English gentleman, the Victorians invariably found in the Middle Ages both an inspiration and a reproach.

Over time, however, this habit of identifying with the medieval mindset was lost. Nowadays it tends to be seen as something to be avoided at all costs – like the plague, one might almost say. Despite Cornwell's patent admiration for the martial traditions of the medieval archer, the world in which Hook fights is crueller and more brutal than that in which Sir Nigel wins his spurs. "Blood-red mist and ribboned meat": Azincourt is recognisably the product of an age in which getting "medieval" on someone's ass is the most menacing threat that even Quentin Tarantino can think up.

Why the change? In part, no doubt, it reflects the sheer scale of the myth-busting unleashed by historians over the past century against the Victorian fantasy of Camelot. We have simply learnt too much about the brute realities of medieval society to believe that an age when knights were bold might ever have been a golden one. It is telling, no doubt, that the increasing professionalisation of the study of the Middle Ages should have coincided with the spectacular boom in a whole new literary sub-genre: one founded, ironically enough, by an Oxford professor of Anglo-Saxon. The Lord of the Rings established a template for sword-and-sorcery fiction that continues to shape it to this day: one potently informed by Tolkien's lifelong immersion in the literature of the Middle Ages.

Now, it is in fantasy that medieval values and settings are likeliest to be found, rather than in the realist historical fiction that began with Ivanhoe, and was exemplified by Sir Nigel. Contemporary novels such as Azincourt and Ken Follett's best-selling The Pillars of the Earth are merely the exceptions on the fiction shelf that prove the rule. Like the great cathedral of Kingsbridge, laboriously constructed over the course of Follett's epic narrative, they dominate the horizon by virtue of standing in such relative isolation.

Nor, compared to other fields of history, has the medieval era had any great presence on the non-fiction shelves. There too, the increasing sophistication and subtlety of academic research into the period has revealed a society infinitely more complex than the Victorians had ever imagined. Infinitely harder to get to grips with, as well: for to work as a medievalist is forever to be gnawed at by a sense of the patchiness and ambiguity of the sources.

It is telling that many of the most accessible recent books on the Middle Ages, from Emmanuel LeRoy Ladurie's portrait of the Cathar village of Montaillou, to Blood and Roses, Helen Castor's study of the 15th-century Paston Letters, have drawn on caches of written material that stand out as remarkable precisely because they are so rare. Telling too, no doubt, that some of the most distinctive books published this year by medievalists have sought to fill in gaps in the historical record in strikingly unorthodox ways. Ian Mortimer's The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England, for instance, is designed to provide, as its sub-title suggests, a "hand-book for visitors to the 14th century". The information provided ranges from tips on buying shoes to a quite staggeringly comprehensive survey of the kingdom's toilet facilities. Even more original is an extraordinary study by John Hatcher, a professor of social and economic history at Cambridge, relating the experience of a Suffolk village during the Black Death: drawing on a wealth of authentic sources, it fleshes them out with invented characters, incidents and even snatches of dialogue. Perhaps this, then, is what it takes to give to the raw material of medieval history, its cartularies, its chronicles and all, the breath of life.

Even so, it will hardly do to blame the paucity of the sources for the fact that medievalists, by and large, have struggled to capitalise on the past decade's boom in popular history. Classicists have even less written material to work with, after all, and yet that has not prevented a great flood of books published recently on ancient Greece and Rome. Nor, at a time when the public seems to have an insatiable appetite for reading about Nazis, can the relative neglect of the Middle Ages be explained merely by squeamishness.

Rather, it seems to reflect something profounder: a distaste for the period that verges almost on cultural disdain. It is not the violence of medieval society that puts off many readers, perhaps, so much as its superstitions. We may have outgrown the Victorian hero-worship of knights and abbots, but we have replaced it with something approximating to the verdict of the Enlightenment. "The triumph of barbarism and religion": Gibbon's withering judgement on the Middle Ages is one repeated almost daily, whenever politicians or commentators use the word "medieval" as a term of abuse.

Like the philosophes of the 18th century, there are many today as well who feel that they are menaced by barbarism and religion. Medieval Christendom, in all its infinite complexity, has found itself repeatedly simplified and traduced, caught in the crossfire of polemics generated by the War on Terror, or faith schools, or Richard Dawkins.

Yet if the spectacle of it being subjected to the enormous condescension of posterity is hardly an inspiring one, then so too does it offer to medievalists a faint glimmering of hope: for it suggests that the Middle Ages, at the very least, have begun once again to matter, and for good as well as ill. If interpretations of the Crusades have recently become a political hot potato, then so too have readings of Magna Carta. A Distant Mirror, the title given by Barbara Tuchman in 1978 to her bestselling study of the 14th century, can still serve us in the new millennium as a haunting description of the Middle Ages as a whole. The challenge and the opportunity for medievalists is to illumine for an often doubtful readership a rich and brilliant civilisation, in all its contradictions and ambivalences, its brutality and sophistication – a civilisation that is not something unfathomably alien, but our own.

"Looking at the Middle Ages," Umberto Eco once wrote, "means looking at our infancy, in the same way that a doctor, to understand our present state of health, asks us about our childhood, or in the same way that the psychoanalyst, to understand our present neuroses, makes a careful investigation of the primal scene." Analysis, in our current condition, that we can hardly afford to spurn.

Tom Holland's 'Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom' is published by Little, Brown

The best in medieval fiction

'Morality Play' by Barry Unsworth

"It was a death that began it all and another death that led us on..." Booker short-listed in 1995, Unsworth's novel featured murderous goings on in the 14th century, a hanging, a morality play and a dark secret. The events unfold over several days, in an unnamed village beneath a castle.

'The Name of the Rose' by Umberto Eco

Set in a Franciscan monastery in 1327, Umberto Eco's historical whodunnit had mysterious murders, secret ciphers and coded manuscripts and was first published (in Italian in 1980) a full quarter century before Dan Brown's pale imitation. Starring William of Baskerville as the friar-turned-detective, it was made into a film in 1986, with Sean Connery as William and Christian Slater as the narrator, Adso.

'The Castle of Crossed Destinies' by Italo Calvino

A 1973 novel, a homage to Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales', in which the characters are struck dumb around the dining table in an enchanted castle. Split into two parts, each one is represented by a pack of Tarot cards and a series of fantastical stories.