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 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.