How to Self-Learn European History (A 7-Step Roadmap)

The history of Europe is a vast and fascinating field of study. 

It contains exciting revolutions, terrifying wars, profound social, religious, and political changes, groundbreaking ideas and works of art, and, perhaps most notably, people and events that remind us of ourselves and our time.  

By studying European history, you’ll gain a better understanding of the present, and develop a firm historical foundation of knowledge that’ll make you a stronger debater, thinker, and learner across all other fields of study. 

This article is a 7-step process for learning European History on your own, outside of school. It’s systematically structured, with each step building on the former. 

It’s ideal for those who want to become history buffs or test out the field as a possible path in academia. Or if you’re just interested in learning more about the history of Europe. 

Even though it’s meant to be followed in order, feel free to hop around the guide and use the techniques that best fit your self-education needs and interests. 

1. Watch Crash Course European History for an Intro 

Crash course is one of my favorite ways to get a broad introduction to whatever field of inquiry I’m considering studying.  

They happen to have an entertaining European History course that starts in medieval Europe:

Give this one a watch if you want to get a feel for the timeline and bring the most significant events into your awareness. 

It’s forgivable, but the producers seem to have passed over some key events in their series, like the rise of Sauron and the battle of Minis Tirith. But I guess Tolkien was right when he wrote “History became legend. Legend became myth”. 

Also, if you doubt that you can learn history independently, read this article on why it’s possible to self-learn history

2. Read a Few Popular & Modern European History Books 

Now that you have a mental map of the field of European history, consider picking a topic and reading a popular and modern history book about it. 

Maybe you find yourself mysteriously drawn to beheadings and executions and therefore want to learn more about the French Revolution:

Image via Britannica

I specify modern books (written in the last 50 years) in the heading because the language in these books will likely be more similar to the style you’re used to reading. 

Something written in the 18th century by an academic might be hardgoing, and when first breaking into a subject you don’t want a book that’s hard to read to force you to give up entirely on studying it. 

And I say popular (commercially popular, that is) because it’s a good sign that these books have been written for people with no specialized knowledge of the topic covered. 

Of course, make sure any book is also respected by historians and trustworthy institutions. You can often find reviews on the back cover or online. The Goodreads community is also pretty critical and hard on writers.

One of my favorite modern classics is A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara Tuchman. 

It happens to be both commercially successful and respected by scholars. The book covers the black death, chivalry, the hundred years’ war, and other big events, while also tracing the life of a French knight.

Tuchman is one of the best non-fiction writers I’ve ever encountered, and she did a good job of making me incredibly grateful that I wasn’t born in 14th century France.

There’s another book on my list that I have yet to read but that I think many people might find interesting. It’s called Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich, and details Nazi Germany’s reliance on drugs. 

Interested in the intellectual benefits of self-studying history? Read why every self education plan should include history

Want to Read More Books This Year?

Consider getting an Audible membership to listen to audiobooks on the go. They offer a 30-day free trial where you get 1 free audiobook to start (2 if you’re a Prime member).

I love the ability to listen to books at night when my eyes are tired or on my long walks around town when I just can’t sit in a chair any longer.

3. Read a Survey History of Europe

Next, read a survey history book, one that will give you a sweeping view of European history, from the middle ages to the mid-twentieth century. 

Compared to Crash Course’s introduction, books are more detailed and provide more nuance. 

A survey book will fill in gaps in your foundational knowledge of European History and help you discover which regions, periods, and events are most worthy of future study. 

Plus, knowing the timeline of history will give you much needed context for understanding any period you study in the next steps. You’ll know what happened before and after the period. 

For a survey text, consider Europe: A History, by Norman Davies:

This behemoth weighs in at 1400 pages, making it a great way to get a foundational education in European history, not to mention to defend yourself in a home invasion either with a series of clubbings or with a long tedious lecture about the Norman Conquests. 

Pro Reading Tip: As a big fan of the fantasy genre, I’ve found that the Lord of the Rings score or Skyrim soundtrack pairs very well with reading European history, especially topics in the middle ages. I’m actually listening to the Rivendell ambience as I write this. 

4. Take a Few Online Beginner European History Courses 

There are plenty of online European history courses created by teachers at top universities for beginners studying from home. 

Below are some worth taking. Respectively, they cover the early middle ages, early modern and modern Europe, and Winston Churchill. The first two courses are free. 

The Early Middle Ages, 284 AD – 1000

Yale’s free online course Early Middle Ages teaches you the key political, social, and religious developments of this period. 

You’ll learn about the fall of Rome, the rise of Islam and Christianity, Charlemagne, and the all so lovable vikings. 

European Civilization, 1648 – 1945

Another free Yale course is European Civilization, which focuses on the rise of modern Europe and discusses the most significant events and people of the era, such as as Peter the Great, the rise of absolute monarchy, and the Napoleonic wars. 

I listened to the first 7 lectures because I felt my knowledge of early modern Europe to be a bit lacking. Overall, I found the professor to be interesting and informed. 

He also seizes every chance he has to demonstrate his mastery over the French accent. 

His lectures on the rise of absolutism and British exceptinalism were especially enlightening. I’d say they’re worth watching even if you don’t take the full course. 

Textbook: The professor also wrote a textbook called A History of Modern Europe that he uses to teach the course. If this era interests you, then it’s worth reading it, since the book goes much more in-depth than his lectures.  

How Winston Churchill Changed the World

Many of you Winston Churchill fans will love this series of 24 lectures tracing the former prime minister’s career. It’s hosted by The Great Courses, rocks a 4.8/5, and is called How Winston Churchill Changed the World.

By following the life of this active man, you’ll learn about WW1, WW2, postwar England, and the decisions and habits of this cigar-puffing, sausage-eating, hardheaded national hero of 20th century England. 

If you can’t get enough of Churchill and English history, I highly recommend reading Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, a wonderful dual biography of two of England’s most important political figures. 

5. Tackle the Penguin History of Europe 8-Book Series

Next, consider working your way through Penguin Random House’s 8-book series on the History of Europe

The series covers the classical era, the low and high middle ages, the renaissance, the enlightenment, and the modern era. It’s meant to give you a broad and deep understanding of the main events, people, and trends of European history. 

Because of the size of this undertaking, it’s probably best to spread it out over the course of a year or two. 

One day I’d like to read this series over the course of two years. That amounts to one book every three months. So each night I’d read around 10 pages. 

Ten pages every evening would be a solid background activity to do while you’re tackling other self-education projects or reading plans. 

According to Thomas Jefferson, the evening is a particularly good time to read history as opposed to more intellectually taxing genres like philosophy: 

“There are portions of the day too when the mind should be eased, particularly after dinner it should be applied to lighter occupation: history is of this kind. It exercises principally the memory. Reflection also indeed is necessary but not generally in a laborious degree.”

— Thomas Jefferson, Letters to Thomas Randolph

Despite the challenge, the payoff of reading all these works would be huge. You’d surely be considered a relative expert on the topic of European History across all its eras. You’d also definitely find a few specific periods that you want to explore more in-depth. 

6. Read Canonical Works of European History 

Canonical works of European history are the books that historians specializing in European history are expected to be familiar with. 

These are the books that have most influenced historians in their academic work and shaped the public’s understanding of European history. 

Their arguments, analyses, and interpretations have stood the test of time.

Below are a three of the classic works of European history from Susan Wise Bauer’s history reading list

  • The Histories: Widely considered the first history ever written, The Histories was written in ancient Greece. It documents the rise of the Persian empire and the clash between the Greeks and Persians, among other events and peoples. Definitely feel free to skip around this one and focus on the parts that you find most interesting. I sure did.
  • Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy: Published in 1860, this book still influences our understanding of the renaissance era as the beginning of the modern era, a time of extreme cultural and intellectual transition out of the middle ages. 
  • The Road to Wigan Pier: Part sociological investigation of a mining town in North England pre-WW2, part analysis of why socialism isn’t catching on, and why it must in order to defeat fascism, this book is one of Orwell’s best, and one of my favorites.
  • A Distant Mirror: I’m 250 pages into this tome and had to stop for a while because it’s a lot of information and I want to let it soak. It’s a breathtaking work that focuses on the insane and horrifying 14th century, and shares the life of a uniquely active French knight. 

For more classics, you can always google “comprehensive exam reading list european history” to find college syllabi and reading lists from top universities. 

For example, here’s a reading list from Loyola Chicago University’s 19th century European history masters and PHD program: 

This is a good way to design a reading plan that mirrors what graduate-level students are doing. 

You could also read other books that aren’t necessarily classics. Here’s a good list of of 100 books on European history from BookAuthority. 

How to Organize Your Reading

As for how to organize your reading of classics, there are two main approaches— 1) chronologically by publication date, and 2) chronologically by period covered. 

The first will help you understand the development of historiography over time. This is useful for people who intend to write histories or become historians. 

The second will give you a feel for the changes of European society, economics, culture, and politics over time. 

This is an enlightening way to read history because each period and event naturally influences the next ones on the historical timeline. 

Of course, you don’t have to order your reading. 

Follow Your Curiosity to Find Your Next Book

Following curiosity is another wonderful guide when it comes to figuring out which books to read. 

Simply pick the books that you want to read most and start with them. 

Note that as you read you’ll also uncover your historical interests, and these can lead you to your next book.

While reading Battle Cry of Freedom, a US civil war history, I became fascinated by the industrial revolution in America, which the book only briefly covered. 

So I added What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America to my list of books to read. 

By the way, if you want to learn US History, I have a US History self education roadmap that slightly mirrors this one in structure. 

7. Narrow Your Focus & Keep Studying

European history is a vast subject. After exposing yourself to its different eras, themes, and regions, there’s likely something that calls to you. 

At this point in your self eduction, consider gaining some depth into one region/period or event that most interests you. 

Read everything you can get your hands on about it, and become so versed on it that you become a go-to expert, or even a famous YouTuber who educates people about this period and place. 

If, for example, it’s the French Revolution that grabs your curiosity, hit it from all sides: 

  • Read a survey of the event.
  • Peruse Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution. 
  • Tackle De Tocqueville’s Ancien Régime and the Revolution. 
  • Study biographies about your favorite French revolutionaries. 
  • Read social, cultural, intellectual, and political histories covering the period. 
  • Visit sites where its major events took place. 
  • Go on museum tours.
  • Curse at an American tourist in French. 
  • Read top-down histories focused on the elites. 
  • Read bottom-up histories focused on how the event affected the middle class or the peasants. 
  • Take online courses covering it. 
  • Read literature written during the period, or about it (Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities).

By taking such a diverse approach to studying the event or period/place, you’ll form a well-rounded view that’s informed, sophisticated, and original. 

You’ll also be more knowledgable than 99.99% of people on this topic. And with expertise comes confidence. 

Listen to Your Curiosity and Follow it With Abandon

The amount of time I’ve wasted reading books that I felt I should read but didn’t want to read is depressingly high. 

I think that every self-learner has to go through a phase of paying too much attention to recommendations from authorities and too little to the small voice inside of them. 

It’s only after wading through so much boredom and experiencing those lifts of the soul that accompany the fun reads that we come out of it and say screw what other people think. 

That said, when self-studying European history, remember to follow your interests, wherever they may lead. That’s the beauty of self-directed study. 

You get to learn about what you want to learn about, not what someone else tells you to learn about.

Also, there’s another benefit of following your curiosity when reading — you might discover your calling in the process. 


After graduating college with an econ degree I realized I was still anything but well-educated. Over the last 4 years, I've been trying to fix that, autodidact-mode — by reading books and engaging in self-directed study across multiple subjects. On this blog, my goal is to share my learnings and help others get a well-rounded education outside of school. Education, after all, is a lifelong process, one well worth the investment.

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