Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Z is for Zoroastrianism


This A-Z, I’m looking at aspects of medieval history that might be relevant to writers, and to finish, I wanted to look at a what if scenario, to see how that kind of alternate history might work. Also because it gives me an interesting Z word. Zoroastrianism, for those who don’t know, is an ancient (and still continuing, obviously) Persian religion focused on a division of the universe into positive and evil aspects, each represented by divine beings (which is obviously a massive oversimplification, and apologies to any Zoroastrians out there). Is there a scenario in which it could ever have been the religion of Medieval Europe, instead of Christianity?

It’s not as far-fetched as you might think. Why was medieval Europe Christian? Partly because of the influence of the late Roman Empire, and partly because of missionary efforts at the back end of what people call the Dark Ages. When the Emperor Constantine won the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, he made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. If he had lost the battle, one of the Empire’s other religions might have gotten the gig. And one of the most popular cults in the later Roman Empire was a kind of offshoot of Zoroastrianism that was particularly popular with its military. Even in the Middle Ages, ideas that link to Zoroastrianism were around. The Cathars put down in one of the more brutal crusades against heresy believed in a kind of equal positioning between good and evil, with a figure for evil given almost equal billing as the only real solution to the theological problem of suffering. So it’s easy to see how things could have gone another way while remaining very similar.

Of course, this alternate history game is one that has been played in many forms by many writers. Mary Gentle does it brilliantly in Ash. Jacqueline Carey does it in large parts of her world building. It’s great fun as a writer to take something small but fundamental, twist it, and see where the world you’re working with ends up.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Y is for Youth


This A-Z I’m looking at aspects of medieval history that might be useful to writers. If you’re writing about young people in a medieval type setting, what might they have expected? We can say that there was some concept of children as something separate from adults, but that any childhood didn’t last nearly as long. By twelve or so, many young people would have been working, apprenticed, possibly married.

Childhood, such as it was, seems to have been a weird mixture of child appropriate things such as games and learning, with more adult appropriate things. Even those still deemed children would have been made to work with their parents before they matured enough to work alone. All of them would have drunk beer or wine (because the water was not safe. There was “small beer” specifically for this kind of day to day consumption).

Youth could also be a violent time. Parents generally didn’t hesitate to beat children. Indeed, it was considered a desirable thing by many, so that one key way of getting a young person to remember something was to give them a whack as you told them it, on the basis that pain was an aid to remembering. They were subject to adult courts, with any account for their age based on the personal feelings of the lord or priest judging them. There was only the most basic provision for orphans in many places.

The extent to which you want to reflect that is obviously down to you. Yet it always feels just a little odd when characters in fantasy novels with medieval settings have essentially modern childhoods, so it’s worth at least thinking about the balance there.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

X is for signing with one


This A-Z, I’m looking at aspects of medieval history useful for writers (and cheating just a little today). How literate were medieval people? We used to think of them as largely illiterate, yet the answer is probably more complex than that. It seems to have varied by period, with the introduction of schools allowing for a lot of basic literacy by the end of the period.

We also need to think about the evidence for illiteracy. Often it is making a cross for a name, but we know that a number of otherwise literate people did that, sometimes while writing their full name elsewhere. Then there is the evidence of secular writing, such as chansons de geste and other stories. Who do we think was reading them? I’m not saying that the average peasant would have been an Oxford professor (particularly when Oxford hadn’t become a university in the early bit of the period. Bologna beat you to it, people), but I’d suggest that nobles would generally be able to write. Chroniclers tended to mock those who couldn’t.

Or at least, they used to mock those they considered illiterate, but it doesn’t always seem to have meant the same thing. Literacy for much of the Middle Ages meant “literate in Latin”. So I’m semi-literate by those standards, and many of those reading this perfectly easily… Oh, and that’s another thing. There’s a difference between reading and writing. We often find that concept weird today, but in the Middle Ages, it was perfectly possible to be able to read with only the vaguest idea of the skill of writing. Writing well was sufficiently uncommon that it actually makes the identification of documents easier, since there were distinct local and regional variations in handwriting.

So the next time you have a knight walk into a bar, can he read the menu? That’s down to what fits best, but I’d like to suggest that neither having every character able to read nor assuming that they all can’t is entirely the right way to go.

Friday, 25 April 2014

W is for Women


This month, I’m going through aspects of medieval history that are relevant to writers. It feels a bit weird having “women” as one of my categories here, since I don't want to create the impression that all the other categories didn't apply to them. I’ve been envisioning both men and women with almost every other category with the possible exception of knights (and if there were female knights, I’d love to hear about it). All the issues I’ve been talking about affected everyone’s lives.

Yet there are some separate things we need to consider in addition to all the things that applied to everyone. Every medieval society I’ve studied was extremely male dominated, while history was kept by largely male religious orders, writing about battles full of men. That tends to mean that direct evidence for women in the historical record is even rarer than the already limited records for men.

It also meant often quite restrained lives for many women. It is hard for us to underestimate just how oppressed many women of the period would have been. They were often tightly controlled by male relatives, or by their lords in the absence of such. Their opportunities for education and personal freedom were often very limited. Most could not own land in their own right (unless they were widows, for which see below). Marriages among the nobility were often arranged, and a noble daughter was to many noble families essentially an asset to sell off to the highest bidder. Even though the witch trials hadn’t come around yet, ecclesiastical courts tended to round on women who spoke up as heretics, particularly if they ever dared to preach. They also roundly condemned any women found having sex outside of marriage, while doing relatively little about the levels of violence and sexual violence they faced from day to day from men.

Yet having reminded everyone of just how bleak life could be for women in the period, I would also quickly like to remember that there were women who achieved considerable recognition/notoriety in the period. A few I’ve already mentioned include Eleanor of Acquitaine, who married two kings and kept her own court that promoted most of the arts we take for granted. There was the Empress Matilda, who challenged for the English throne for many years. There was St Hilda, who founded Whitby Abbey and taught many respected figures. And there were the countless unnamed widows who found that in that one situation, they suddenly had control of their own lands, and made full use of them. Women could, and did, play a full role in medieval life, and they certainly should in your stories.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

V is for Visions


This month, I’m looking at elements of medieval history that might be of use to writers. Now obviously, visions show up in a lot of fantasy literature, but they were also a major thing in the Middle Ages. They showed up in literature (Dante being only the tip of the iceberg), in apparent “histories” such as Bede’s work, and in numerous documents attached to religious houses.

In some ways, visions can be seen as a way that the people of the time claimed control of a religion that still wasn’t quite as centralised as it would come to be, and in which systematic teaching of the “correct” thing to believe wasn’t always very efficiently conducted. Visions represented a way for groups who would otherwise not have had power within the Church, notably women but also lay figures and the poor, to comment on the highly religious society around them. In some ways, they were also a product of that society, where having visions was considered normal.

Well, up to a point. There has been a lot of work done on medieval visions of the afterlife (including mine. I did my initial MA on them), and some of that work shows that even in the Middle Ages, there was a range of reactions to them. Some were seen as genuine visions, while others were treated as heresy. Some were seen as tricks by the devil, some as simple entertainment, and some as symptoms of mental illness. It might be interesting to build in that kind of range of responses the next time one of your characters has the obligatory fantasy prophetic vision.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

U is for Unknown Lands


This month, I’m looking at aspects of medieval history that might be useful for writers. The idea of Unknown Lands has been with us for millennia, and while the great ages of exploration weren’t quite on the European world, there was still a fascination with the lands outside Christendom in Europe. There were half remembered memories from Roman conquests, stories brought back by travellers like Marco Polo, and of course, plenty of places that were still wild.

Not everywhere outside a city counted as wild. The Middle Ages were a great period for human transformation of land. The city of Hull, for example, only exists because a bunch of Cistercian monks from Meaux were able to drain the swamp it stood on. Yet there were many wild and untamed places. The claims of many kingdoms over their less hospitable parts were often only theoretical.

It was also in this period that a fascination with great voyages of discovery started to come in, both actually and in literature. We have Marco Polo’s journey, the many Viking voyages of which Lief Erikson’s expedition to Greenland was only the best known, but also the literary journey of St Brendan in his coracle, and the mysterious journeys into strange lands that Arthur’s knights undertook. There was also a sense of Western Europe as one of the unknown lands, occasionally, as Islamic invaders from the south and Mongol ones from the East pushed into this strange, unexplored world.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

T is for Travel and Transport


This A-Z, I’m looking at aspects of medieval history that might be useful for writers. Travel in the Middle Ages is an intriguing one, because I think sometimes writers can be a bit inconsistent with it. They treat individual villages as entirely cut off, and journeys to foreign lands as huge adventures to be undertaken only with care, yet at the same time the heroes have no qualms about wandering around the place and messages seem to get through okay whenever the story demands.

Actually though, that’s probably a reasonable enough reflection of the reality. A lot of people wouldn’t have travelled that far (and would have been considered fugitives if they did in the case of serfs). Travel was also quite difficult at times, with walking, horses, and boats the only real options. There were bandits, animals, areas of poor roads, swamps, and more. There was also frequently a lack of convenient little inns along the way, meaning that people had to seek hospitality with nobles, in monasteries, or in villages.

Yet people did travel. Pilgrims, messengers, itinerant nobles… they all wandered around England regularly. The Canterbury tales were about a group of travellers and pilgrims, remember. Ship travel was dangerous, as with the disasters of the White Ship and the Second Crusade, but it could also cover large distances. People did end up in all kinds of places.

S is for Swordplay


This month, I’m looking at elements of medieval history that might be of use to writers. Swordplay shows up in most fantasy novels somewhere, and while obviously the main things about writing it are that it should fit your story and read well, understanding medieval swordplay can help.

For a full look at it, I’d recommend some of the historical texts accessible through http://www.wiktenauer.com/ but we can cover some basics here. First is that a wide variety of weapons and tactics were used. It was not all about sword against sword. Secondly, most people would have done something with both hands when they were using a sword, whether it was using a shield, using a second weapon, or holding a long sword with both hands.

Third, some common tactics to try including: attacking and defending in one movement, rather than parrying and riposting. Wrestling at close range, having crashed into the opponent’s sword with yours. Reversing your sword to hit them with the blunt end as a hammer (people really did all of these). Resting your sword against your shoulder baseball bat style in the basic stance, because it’s a waste of energy not to. Try writing in all of these, for that extra bit of authenticity.

Monday, 21 April 2014

R is for Royalty


This A-Z, I’m looking at aspects of medieval history that might be useful for writers. Today, I want to look at the different ways some medieval societies thought about royalty. Writers tend to portray fantasy rulers one of two ways: either as an absolute ruler whose word is law, or as a failed absolute ruler whose word is still law but who is controlled by his or her advisors.

Yet absolute rulership wasn’t really the case for much of the Middle Ages. Kings were bound by convention and precedent, and had to take oaths to abide by pre-existing laws. Most routinely renewed the charters of their ancestors. They were frequently great landholders, but they did not own all land in some neat “feudal” pyramid. Nor were they seen as divinely chosen in the early part of the period. Abbot Suger of St Denis is credited for introducing that notion to France, but it was far from universal.

The fact is that practically nothing was. There were Kings and there were Emperors. There were principalities and city states. There were areas where the nominal authority of kings was ignored by their barons (as in much of France or as with the lords who owned Yorkshire during the Anarchy), and kingdoms where there were regents or councils of regents. Even our most accepted ideas about royalty, with automatic succession by the eldest son/child, weren’t the case in England before the Norman invasion. Prior to that, a successor was chosen by key barons from a group of “Aethlings” qualified by blood. So be prepared to do what you want with your royalty. You can bet that the medieval period did.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Q is for Quests


This A-Z, I’m looking at aspects of medieval history that are relevant to writers. Today, I want to make a simple point: medieval people went on quests. Well, sort of, at least if we define a quest as “going on a journey to do a special thing”. They certainly went on plenty of pilgrimages, with there being a kind of regular circuit of saints’ relics to get around. People even set out on long journeys with the explicit aim of acquiring as many such relics as they could. The most extreme version of this kind of pilgrimage was going on crusade, with people taking the cross for all kinds of reasons before heading off often years later. Not always to the Holy Land, incidentally. Quite a lot of later "crusades" (there has been some argument over what counts) were focussed things against heresies in Europe.

But even aspects of everyday life could fulfil some of the requirements. Travel to more remote areas was always something of an adventure, and there were such things as bandits and dangerous animals around, as well as more mundane concerns such as being treated with suspicion whenever travelling somewhere strange. Messages moved at the pace of a horse or running man, but they could still cover the length of England in a few days. An urgent message really could be an adventure, and often a terrifying one.

Princesses and Princes


I’m looking at topics in medieval history this A-Z that might be of use to writers. Today, I’m looking at those heirs to the throne who keep showing up in so much fantasy. Princesses show up either as objects to be rescued in the more depressingly blinkered traditional sort of fantasy, or as the MCs of large portions of more modern stuff. Princes are often handsome or devious. Both seem to be there as love interests quite often.

 Of course, in the Middle Ages, being the love interest was more or less their lot in life. Both princes and princesses were mostly valuable to their parents and the barons around them for their potential, rather than who they were. Barons typically out ranked princes. Their usefulness came in their potential to carry on the line, and to make useful alliances. Many of them found themselves betrothed far younger than those around them, although the marriages weren’t completed until they came of age.

In the meantime though, their main role seemed to be to get into trouble. Henry the Younger spent his time following the tournament, before dying on the White Ship and drastically changing the succession. Several rebelled against their parents (the classic way of getting your inheritance a bit early being to conquer the kingdom from under them) and found themselves exiled for a while. Even when the time came to do their job and become a ruler, things didn’t always go to plan. The Empress Matilda, for example, was told by Henry I that she would succeed him, but the barons’ refusal to accept that and the Anarchy that followed meant she never truly ruled England.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

O is for Old Age


This A-Z, I’m looking at aspects of the Middle Ages that are relevant for writers. Old Age is an important one here, because it’s easy to forget that life expectancy was much lower then. Exactly how much lower probably varies by time and location, and in any case the lack of consistent public records means that it’s impossible to be accurate about, but we can make some general points.

First, there was very high infant mortality. There was also a higher than now risk to women in childbirth. There were the additional factors of common violence and disease. The end result was that even for those nobles we know about, making it to fifty (only three countries in the world today have life expectancies lower than that) was not common. Peasants would probably have had even lower life expectancies.

Yet there were older people than that. People could occasionally survive well into their seventies or eighties, typically within monastic institutions or royal houses. What does this mean for your writing? For one thing, it means that YA characters will find themselves pushed into adult roles and that will be normal. For another, it means that the contrast with the long lived creatures of fantasy will be all the greater. And those few wizards with long white beards who have clearly been around for longer than anyone else alive? Well, if you’re authentically medieval, that might only be sixty or seventy years.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

N is for Northmen


This A-Z, I’m looking at aspects of medieval history that might add some flavour to your fantasy or historical fiction. Today, I’m talking about Vikings. No, wait, that doesn’t work, does it? Northmen, then, which is a corruption of Norse men, and allows me to make the first point here, which is that your basic Vikings weren’t all one thing. “Viking” just meant the act of raiding, as in “we Northmen are going Viking”. Those who did it came from a variety of countries and attacked different places in different waves, with different tactics. North Men tended to refer to those from what is now Norway, but the Anglo Saxon Chronicle also says a lot about Danes, and the Swedes also did a lot. Generalising massively, we can say that in England at least, the Northmen raided, while the Danes conquered and the Swedes were too busy either in Ireland or off exploring elsewhere. One of the Byzantine empresses had an honour guard composed almost entirely of Swedish Vikings, because at least she could trust that they weren’t caught up in all the politics.

And then there are the Vikings who succeeded in conquering England. There are actually two lots involved here, because for many years, it did have what was called the Danelaw in the north of the country, while several English kings were Danish or Norwegian. Cnut is the obvious example. For a long time, then, it was essentially the southernmost point of a Viking empire. Ironically, it was another lot of Northmen, who had raided even further south and eventually become the Normans, who changed that.

Monday, 14 April 2014

M is for Monastic Orders


This A-Z I’m looking at aspects of the Middle Ages that might help writers looking to set writing in something like a medieval Western European setting.

Monks and nuns were an important part of the period. Today, that doesn’t seem obvious. Even if we think of a religious society, we tend to think in terms of priests. Yet monks and nuns were critically involved in all kinds of episodes in the Middle Ages. We have St Bernard of Clairvaux, for example, persuading Louis VII to promote the disastrous Second Crusade in 1147. We have someone like St Hilda setting up her school in the early middle ages. We have the staff of the newly developing universities, and many of the clerics who accompanied nobles.

It was a period of new monastic orders, often fuelled by the nobles’ desire to give money to a cause designed to both save their souls and show their status. The Cistercians were one of the most successful (at least until they invested too heavily in sheep futures and lost everything), but it’s important to recognise that monasticism wasn’t all one thing. There were many different orders, following many different rules. There were orders such as the Gilbertines that had men and women living side by side, and others like the various friars who weren’t bound by the requirement to stay in one place. There were also orders of canons, who were somewhere between monks and priests, and who frequently filled administrative roles both in cathedrals and for kings. Remember that in an authentically medieval setting, any favourite of a royal who doesn’t have a lot of lands to hand out is likely to be given a benefice or prebend in a religious order instead. Probably while only occasionally showing up and leaving his junior vicar to do the job.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

L is for Love and Ladies


I’m looking at bits of medieval history that might be useful for writers this month. Today, I’m looking at the notion of love, and more specifically, courtly love. It’s strange, in a time when the Catholic church was asserting its primacy, and when sex outside of marriage was deeply stigmatised, that a kind of cult following should have grown up almost simultaneously. The idea of courtly love idolised love in its slightly over the top romantic form, emphasising praise for the beauty of great ladies, romantic poetry (or lays in the old French), and a kind of institutionalised idea that all the young men and women of the court should be at least a little in love. The idea of ‘favours’ or scarves/flowers from ladies being worn in the joust is probably the key intersection of this idea with that of chivalry.

Like chivalry it was obviously a much larger than life idea, and like a lot of the ideas we have about the Middle Ages, including chivalry, it probably didn’t represent reality so much as a fantasy promoted at the time. The ecclesiastical court records showed just how much trouble young men and women got into when they actually acted on these romantic ideals.

We can’t finish here without mentioning Eleanor of Aquitaine. She was in many ways the heart of the courtly love idea in the Central Middle Ages. She was a great noblewoman who was married to two kings, who managed a great deal of power for herself in a largely male dominated society, and whose court was seen as a key centre for musicians, troubadours, poets and romance. If there was a romantic ideal of the medieval noble lady, then a large portion of that ideal was built on her.

K is for Knights


This A-Z, I’m using my PhD in medieval history to look at aspects of the Middle Ages that might be useful to writers, trying to show how the history can make for a slightly different world. Today, it’s the turn of knights. We all know them in the stories. Noble men, bound by codes of chivalry, wearing nothing but the heaviest plate armour and going around righting wrongs.

Well, let’s knock those four things off the list, shall we? Certainly in the earlier part of the period, knights wouldn’t have been very noble. If you were being called a knight, it was because you weren’t noble enough to call yourself a baron or a lord. You were just a fighter with the money to afford a horse and armour. Later lords and kings affected some of the styles of knights, but not as often as you’d think. Codes of chivalry were mostly a later imposition, or an attempt by the clergy to get those borderline psychopaths in armour to behave themselves for once. “Chivalry” when it is used in earlier sources is not a reference to a code of honour. Instead, they say “the chivalry” in exactly the same way we would say “the cavalry”. It’s where we get the word, and it’s the people on the horses, not their behaviour. As for the armour, until the later Middle Ages, you only have to look at sources like the Bayeux Tapestry. Chain mail, not heavy plate, was the order of the day.

Then there’s righting wrongs. Read La Morte de Arthur. Even Arthur’s fictional, flower of chivalry round table knights spend their time fighting random strangers over petty arguments, sleeping with whoever they liked (often through trickery or force) and killing people for little reason. Believe me, the real ones were worse.

Friday, 11 April 2014

J is for Jousting


For the A-Z, I’m looking at aspects of the middle ages that might be useful to writers in constructing their worlds. People who like the middle ages tend to be a little in love with jousting. Two heavily armoured figures, charging down the lists at one another…

Certainly in the earlier part of the Middle Ages, the tournament wasn’t much like that. It wasn’t nearly so controlled. It was more like a battle, with numerous sides, no requirement to focus on the use of the lance, and occasionally even units of foot soldiers employed. Knights would ride in and try to capture one another for ransoms or forfeits, using blunted but still frankly dangerous weapons. The playing area was often loosely defined in terms of the space between two villages, and cheating was common. At least one “side” made a habit of hanging around on the edges, pretending that they weren’t playing, and then charging in at the end to capture people.

It’s certain from the historical sources that knights did joust with one another, but the formal affair of jousting as we know it is probably a later medieval thing, and those who try to push it earlier tend to conflate it with the more chaotic tournament I’ve just described.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

I is for Intinerant Nobles


I Itinerant Nobles

This year, I’m looking at aspects of medieval history that might be useful to writers in lending flavour to their fantasy or historical worlds. Today, I’m looking at one crucial fact about kings, nobles, bishops and just about anyone else who was important: they rarely stayed in one place.

I only really got this into my head while looking at the itineraries of successive Archbishops of York. In general, if they spent more than a week at a time in York, it was a rarity. Instead, they travelled between a succession of archiepiscopal palaces and minster churches, bouncing around like an ecclesiastical pinball. The same is true of kings and more important nobles.

Why? Partly as a way of imposing their power and reminding their further flung tenants that they owed them loyalty (and cash). Mostly, because all these figures were surrounded by large courts or retinues that would quickly have eaten any one place out of all resources if they had stayed still for long. The royal court in particular wasn’t some room down in London, but an army, moving about the countryside at the pace of its carts, setting up camp or demanding hospitality along the way. It’s worth remembering the next time you have a king sitting in a castle somewhere.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

H is for Histories


This A-Z, I’m looking at some bits of medieval history, and thinking about ways they could add to the detail and interest of fiction. It’s worth remembering that while historians pick apart medieval life today, there were also historians in the Middle Ages. They wrote chronicles such as the Anglo Saxon ones, or works such as Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, or rather lopsided accounts of the crusades such as the Gesta Francorum. We also find some of the earliest biographies of non-kings/emperors, such as the one commissioned about William Marshal by his son.

Historians/chroniclers can be fun characters for historical or fantasy fiction. No, really, they can. They give you an excuse for asking questions as an author, and for the characters to try to interpret the story themselves as they go along. It can make for more complex and interesting takes on events, so that you have characters simultaneously living events and trying to interpret them. Which is something we all do.

Monday, 7 April 2014

G is for Guilds


In the A-Z this year, I’m looking at fragments of medieval history that might be of use to writers. Today, I want to look at guilds. Fantasy fiction is full of thieves guilds, mages’ guilds and so on, but what was it really like?

Well, the obvious point is that guilds tended to be more about crafts than anything like that, controlling standards within a particular city and driving people out of work who didn’t meet those standards. Interestingly though, there’s a case for saying that this wasn’t how they started out, since the earliest mentions of guilds I’ve found were all in a religious context. My father and I once argued about this when I mentioned them in the course of doing my PhD, since his essentially Marxist take on history couldn't accept the possibility that they were about anything other than workers banding together to fight against their oppressive employers.

Instead, at least some of them were about banding together to meet the medieval requirements of the Good Death (for which, see D) and fighting against Purgatory. The ones I’ve seen started life as a kind of funerary club, with members putting money in to see to their funeral arrangements, but also to pay for the celebration of masses for their members’ souls. I’m not saying that this is definitely how guilds started, or that they were all about this, but I do think it’s worth bearing in mind that they had a function beyond the jobs of their members. Mostly because, in too much fiction, that’s forgotten and supporting characters get pushed into these neat little boxes where they are nothing but their role in life.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

F is for Feudalism, Fiefs and Freedom


I’m looking at aspects of medieval history here that might be of use to writers of fantasy. Today it’s about the ways in which medieval societies were structured, and the amount of freedom that gave people. The idea of a fixed “feudal” system isn’t often accepted these days, since it’s all a bit neat and tidy. It’s the idea of everyone owing fealty to someone above them in this perfectly arranged feudal pyramid, when in fact, it was far more complex. People could owe formal fealty to a number of lords. Kings could do fealty for particular pieces of land to other kings, or even barons. Wars almost always featured the betrayal of various feudal “commitments”, so that it’s often more useful to think of a rough clump of friendships and attachments than a formal structure when describing medieval society.

If the feudal system is one medieval element that writers sometimes put too much emphasis on, one that modern writers shy away from is the lack of freedom in the lower echelons of medieval societies. These were societies that practiced slavery even if the Church nominally frowned on one Christian taking another as such. They were certainly societies with numerous serfs, who were as unfree as any slave, but tied to a particular piece of land.

It’s tempting for a modern writer to gloss over this, but doing so can paint an overly rosy and pleasant picture of the middle ages, and also ignore potential complications for your characters. If they’re in a generically medieval fantasy world, how do they feel about this big and frankly evil thing at the heart of their social structure? If they’re not noble, are they free to leave their land and go off on an adventure?

Friday, 4 April 2014

E is for Empires and Expeditions


I’m looking at bits of medieval history this A-Z that are useful to writers. Today, I’m talking about empires. A lot of people in fantasy fiction like to set their works in empires, often with a Western European flavour. Yet how common were empires? In the Central Middle Ages at least, Europe was mostly a lot more fragmented than that, consisting of many states or regions much smaller than those we know today. Even the “empires” we talk about today, like the brief Angevin one or the Holy Roman Empire, weren’t on the massive scale we imagine today. The Holy Roman Empire was more the memory of an empire than its reality, while the Angevin one consisted of a few bits of France, Britain and the surrounding regions.

Yet there were real empires. The Byzantine one springs to mind, as does the empire the Golden Horde Mongols carved out (getting as far West as Vienna in 1247). There was the Islamic Empire in North Africa that spilled over into southern Spain as well. And there were expeditions to them. The most famous was probably Marco Polo’s journey east but Harald Hadrada made his name before invading England by working as a mercenary in the Byzantine Empire, and the background to the First Crusade in 1096 included the closing of the routes to Jerusalem to European travellers. Implying that it had been open before. Those moments of connection between the established empires and the often fragmented and emerging nations provide all kinds of inspiration for writers.

D is for Death


This A-Z, I'm trying to look at aspects of the Middle Ages that might be useful for writers. Death was a big deal in the period, and not just because disease, war and life in general made it so common. It was the period that Aries, in his The Hour of Our Death, characterised as the rise of the Good Death. The good death was the idea that while the Romans and the Greeks might have been a bit vague about death and the dead, those in the Middle Ages thought that it was important to have the right sort of death, with the right sort of rituals around it, and the right sort of commemoration. While his categories always strike me as a bit wide and weirdly argued, the Good Death is a concept that is extremely relevant for the medieval period.

There was a level almost of obsession when it came to death and remembrance in the period. Whole monastic orders sprang up, not because of some philanthropic tendency on the part of the nobility, but because they wanted their own monks to pray for their souls after death. This was also the period when chantry chapels started to spring up, and when many ideas about the afterlife were still being argued over through a combination of religious debate, popular culture, and records of visions.

Then there were the arguments over what you did with the bodies. This was the era of relics, after all, and getting hold of important bits of famous/saintly people was a niche industry. St Wilfred of Ripon's remains, for example, were dug up by the Archbishops of Canterbury and taken there to attract pilgrims, only for those at Ripon to insist that they'd managed to hide the real relics and he was still there.

Yet it wasn't just saints. This was an era when nobles started trying to buy burial space within churches, typically trying to get as close to the altar as possible. It was an era of effigies and remembrances. Of course, it wasn't unique in that. Unlike Aries, I suspect the Romans probably didn't forget the dead as soon as they keeled over. Yet in the Middle Ages, a sense of the dead was definitely all around, making it probably the most death focussed culture certainly since Ancient Egypt.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

C is for Castles


My goal here is to provide some glimpses of medieval history that might be useful for writers. Today I want to talk about castles. Castles weren’t one thing. They came in all kinds of shapes and sizes, from simple fortified keeps to motte and bailey constructions, through multiple concentric rings of defences, to the over-elaborate fantasies of Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria. Commonly, we tend to think of castles as a Norman introduction to Britain, and they certainly made the most of them. Yet if we think of a castle as simply a fortification with some living space, we have forts dating back to the Romans and before.


What were castles for? Defence is an obvious answer, but actually, there are many examples of country houses with castle-y features like moats or crenulations, but which would never function defensively. They might be overlooked, or lacking in real walls, or any one of a dozen other things. In these cases, castles were more about projecting authority and status. They were a big staple in the countryside, saying “I own this”. They were also a way of saying that the owner was of a level of nobility that allowed them to build castles.


Some kings required the building of castles (religious institutions only sometimes being exempt from the obligation), while others required licenses to build them. For a writer, that could provide a useful source of ongoing disputes with authority, if you need them. At the very least, you should consider doing something more than just a big ring of walls with a tower the next time you need a castle.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

B is for Burghers


My aim in these posts is to look at those bits of medieval history that are relevant to writers. I want to look at burghers here, or the wealthy but not noble inhabitants of cities. They’re a group who are often ignored in medieval sources. Even the most famous division of medieval society carves it up into those who work, those who fight and those who pray, meaning rural peasants, military nobles and priests/monks.

Where wealthy city dwellers and merchants were mentioned, it was typically to say how awful they were. Medieval fiction portrayed them as rapacious villains, or suggested that it was fine to pillage their possessions in a way it wasn’t when honest peasants were mentioned. It was essentially a reaction to the idea of non-nobles having wealth, coupled with a disdain for business. Harsh taxes and charges of usury were common. But the merchants and the business people were there.

What does this mean for writers? Well, it could help shape a few attitudes in your novels, if you like, but the main point here is not to forget that these people existed. It’s tempting to just go ‘peasants, fight-y people, priests’ and leave it at that, but always remember the people with whom they spend all the gold from their adventures.