Getting Medieval on Your Worldbuilding
By Paula R. Stiles
Possessing a quixotic fondness for difficult careers, Paula Stiles has driven ambulances, taught fish farming for the Peace Corps in West Africa and earned a Scottish PhD in medieval history, studying Templars and non-Christians in Spain. She has also sold fiction to Strange Horizons, Writers of the Future, Jim Baen’s Universe, Shine, Futures, Black Gate‘s “Warrior Woman” issue, and other markets, as well as a co-written supernatural mystery novel, Fraterfamilias. She is Editor in Chief of the Lovecraft/Mythos ‘zine Innsmouth Free Press. You can find her on Twitter (@thesnowleopard) and Facebook, or at: http://thesnowleopard.net.
As a medieval historian, I love historical fantasy and science fiction. And Lord knows, there’s a lot out there, what with Arthurian fantasy, the Arabian Nights and the Tolkien Default Medieval Setting. Sadly, too often, my jones is rudely interrupted and diluted by historical errors and Things That Make No Sense. I don’t mind a few minor errors or controversial opinions, but many authors come across either as ignorant of historical depth or simply uncaring about their worldbuilding, which translates to derivative and boring and usually not something that jumps your story or novel out of the slush.
But I can understand why authors struggle with fantasy set in this period (c.300-1500 CE). It’s hard to do right. I’m an historian and even I sometimes wonder where to start. So, here are five, one-word pieces of advice to follow:
In a recent interview, steampunk genre co-founder Tim Powers stated that he does research because the more he bases his stories in established facts, the lower the reader’s suspension of disbelief come time for the fantasy elements. If you’ve ever met Tim Powers, or taken one of his workshops, you’ll know that he’s quite fond of this piece of advice. And he’s right.
This is why you establish even basic things about your world that never bear directly on the story. For example, in Showtime’s The Borgias, an assassin regularly disposes of his victims’ bodies in the Tiber River. But the river doesn’t exist just for an assassin’s convenience. Most medieval and ancient cities were founded near water, the number one “scarce” resource in every culture. The rest were either hill fortresses for easy defense, crossroads of trade, or religious centers, and all of the latter had some kind of access to a reliable water source. Rivers, lakes, seas, and oceans provided a source of water, transport, and a way to dispose of waste (hence the Tiber’s use for dumping bodies). Working out how your culture(s) deals with water, food, transport, labor, and telling timeare all critical to your worldbuilding. Not all cultures solve these problems in the same way.
But where do you start in your research? The usual advice is to use general sources like encyclopedias, but these can be iffy on accuracy (unless they are academic ones like Medieval Islamic Civilization: An Encyclopedia [http://www.amazon.com/dp/0415966906]). For example, since medieval European calendars often based their New Year’s Day on Easter not a secular Julian calendar, and Easter and the Chinese New Year are moveable feasts based on the lunar month, dates in the early part of the year for Europe and China can be an entire year off. To make it even more fun, not everyone in Europe agreed on when Easter occurred. So, we’re not sure if the Church council that confirmed the military religious order of the Knights Templar was in January 1128 or 1129 (which can be awkward if you’re mixing that with other events in the same year), but most encyclopedias don’t tell you that. Nor do they mention that the “Knights” Templar were mostly non-noble sergeants and lay people (and even women and non-Christians), and perhaps ten percent at best were knights. So, don’t stop with encyclopedias.
With popular sources, try to keep to print. Online sources tend to reference each other. Reliable online sources include Internet Medieval Sourcebook and its companions [http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbook2.html], Middle East Medievalists [http://www.middleeastmedievalists.org/], Society for the Study of the Crusades and the Latin East [http://www.sscle.org/], and LIBRO [http://libro.uca.edu/], a huge online library of books about Spanish history. Don’t rely on the Catholic Encyclopedia, which has some good information, but is also very biased and riddled with factual errors. Ditto with Wikipedia, which is a good place to start (if an expert on the field bothered to jump through the moderator hoops and post an article with references there), but definitely not a good place to stop.
There is no academic consensus on good general books about medieval history (aside from: “Stay away from Barbara Tuchman and William Manchester”) because the period is so broad. But you can get bibliographies of the areas you need from the above online resources. Also look at academic publishers like Boydell & Brewer, Brill, Cambridge, and Oxford for the newer and more indepth research. There’s also the academic article database, JSTOR (Journal Storage) [http://www.jstor.org/], if you have access to a library, or can pay.
A quick primer on what constitutes a “good resource”: 1. It has ample footnotes or endnotes. Every time the author makes an argument or references a source, you should know where that statement came from. At least some of those sources should be medieval and in their original languages. Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization is a good example of a bad book in this respect. Avoid it. 2. The resource should have a broad and extensive bibliography. Every good resource should be a great launching point in your research. 3. It avoids circular reasoning. No Von Daniken School of History. If the author tells you that some Templars fled their order’s suppression (We know some did), then that some of them may have fled to Scotland (very unlikely and there is no evidence), with a treasure (again, no evidence), which was the Holy Grail (which is confusing Arthurian fantasy literature of the time with fact), and then continued to the New World a century later (based on some very creative interpretations of a 16th century travelogue about an alleged 14th century trip), you’ll know that book is not reliable. Essentially, the Circular Reasoning con involves taking a few facts that are real, spinning an outrageous theory from them, pretending you’ve proven it true, and then basing even wilder theories on the first, unproven theory. Which is great…but not when you’re calling your story “non-fiction”. 4. The author promotes an agenda, particularly one that is racist, sexist, or attacking the reputation of the subject. Edward Gibbon, Godfrey Higgins, and Pyotr Rachkovsky, I am looking at you.
Rather than going for broad histories, try books about a specific group in a specific culture (for example, Daughters of Isis: Women of Egypt by Joyce Tyldesley) and, especially, about technology. A book like From Muslim Fortress to Christian Castle: Social and Cultural Change in Medieval Spain by Thomas F. Glick can tell you a huge amount, relative to its size, on how to create one type of medieval culture from the ground up. You don’t have to be completely faithful to history if you are creating your own world (say, Vikings attacking monasteries with balloons), but the combinations you make must still work. Establishing the basics of your worldbuilding helps you do that.
Google Books is your friend. There are many history books, even newer ones, listed there. Also try history listservs and groups like Mediev-L . And if you can afford it, you’ll find exciting new ideas at conferences like the two major ones in Kalamazoo, Michiganand Leeds, EnglandIf you can’t afford to go, you can still peruse their websites for paper titles to spark your muse.
So, you have some facts, but facts are external. What about your characters’ internal lives? The big things to consider for writing about how medieval people thought are: religion, gender, systems of magic, and class (which we’ll get to in a moment). Religion is critical regardless of the level of belief about it. It shapes how even skeptics (and the Middle Ages had more than you might think) see and organize their world. On a smaller scale, gender inevitably divides humanity in two.
We get much of our popular view of the Middle Ages from 19th century romantic notions about the period, which were often racist, very sexist, and quite wrong. Medieval men and women were different from Victorian men and women.
For example, in some medieval cultures, men showed a lot of emotion and wept frequently because weeping was considered a sign of sanctity (Two words for why: “Jesus wept”). They also loved nice clothes and preening to attract women. Some of the affection they regularly showed for each other would be considered super-homoerotic today (though not by them). Women, in the same cultures, were accused of liking sex entirely too much and being cold and calculating (as opposed to the cerebral coolness versus warm emotionalism of Victorian men and women). The genders tended to be segregated, both encouraging and defining homoerotic behavior in different ways than we now perceive, even though these cultures were, by our standards, homophobic in many ways.
If you choose to use magic (as most medieval fantasies do), try to base it on a real historical system of magic and relate it to the technology. Medieval magic was the dark face of a technological coin and also often a popular or secularized form of religion. European and Arab alchemy evolved into chemistry and physics. Astronomy derived from astrology. In Precolumbian Chaco Canyon, a megalithic observatorywas created to observe and record the complex dance of the sun and moon for rituals in underground kivas.
Personal experience also helps in figuring out how your characters might react to situations. Medieval people were our ancestors, not aliens from Mars, after all. Our cultures and our genes are based in theirs. Naturally, like any good writer, you begin by mining your own experience. But good writers do eventually push out beyond their own experiences. Most of us have friends and those friends have experiences and expertise. Don’t be afraid to ask.
For the past, biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, and chronicles are useful. Julian of Norwich: Showings, The Nazi Officer’s Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust and Monique and the Mango Rains: Two Years with a Midwife in Mali can put you in the shoes of a medieval mystic nun, a Jewish woman hiding out in Nazi Germany and an African midwife from the late-20th century AIDS pandemic, respectively. You can extrapolate from these real-life women to your own fictional characters by determining which situations your characters are likely to encounter and how they might react.
Class was important in the Middle Ages and its presence is universal in medieval fantasy. And it’s usually poorly done. Less than 1% of anyone in history was a noble, let alone royalty. And nobles often led boring lives. Think of it this way: If you want to write a spy thriller set in 21st century England, are you going to make Prince William your protagonist? Of course not! His life completely lacks the scope and mobility you need for a spy thriller. He’s a sitting duck surrounded by people who dictate and plan his every move, and you don’t want one of those for such a story.
Similarly, if you wanted to write a boots-on-the-ground story about the war in Iraq, would you write it from the viewpoint of a five-star general at the Pentagon? Of course not. No boots on the ground, there.
So, why would you write an adventure story set in 14th century France from the viewpoint of the King or Queen? Even more, why would you make the only characters with any lines or depth knights and ladies? Most of them led sheltered, restricted lives.
Instead, you want characters with mobility. Go with the characters who are doing all the work. These can be male or female because medieval societies valued group and familial identity much more than the individual (which gave women power that they lacked in later societies that sheltered women while allowing individual men a lot of freedom). Joan of Arc’s life is exciting because her meteoric rise through Renaissance French society took her from farm girl to warrior saint in a few short years. You see lots of her world through her eyes. Similarly, the Black Death often appears in medieval fantasy (especially horror) because the social upheavals of that pandemic are a source of ample dramatic conflict.
If you want to write a fresh and exciting story, you need a character who can move between classes and be in a position to observe a lot. Ariana Franklin’s heroine, Adelia, in Mistress of the Art of Death is a physician who tangles with King Henry II and his wife, Eleanor the Grand Duchess of Aquitaine, while investigating the death of Henry’s mistress. Some women in medieval Europe were, indeed, physicians, though they were rare. So, Adelia is not anachronistic, just unusual. Both Adelia’s gender and her profession put her in a position that is highly fluid and extremely dangerous – and that allows her to see and even influence much behind the scenes.
If you must use a noble, try one of the formidable ruling warrior queens like Urraca of Castile or Matilda of England – or Aisha, widow of the Prophet Muhammad, who fought her stepson-in-law at the Battle of Bassorah. Or show Eleanor fighting her civil war against her husband to keep her own realm from his chauvinistic grasp. Because these powerful women were forced by circumstances to supersede the restrictions of their class and gender, they fit the bill of good templates for compelling protagonists.
J.R.R. Tolkien was a respected medievalist whose academic work still influences the field today and informed his fictional worldbuilding with great depth. Imitating him third-hand does not make you a respected medievalist, let alone an original author. Between him and C.S. Lewis , western and northern European medieval fantasy has been thoroughly covered. And the Celtic aspects have been done, too. Try to leave northwestern Europe alone.
What you need is a fresh setting on which to build. Well, you’re in luck. My medieval colleagues frequently complain that popular culture ignores the great geographical and temporal expanse of medieval history: 1200 years and an entire world’s worth of cultures. It’s improved (particularly with more stories about the Byzantine Empire, like Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s A Flame in Byzantium), but too much medieval fantasy remains derivative.
Africa, in particular, has been neglected (though heroic fantasy author Charles R. Saunders has done his level best to remedy this). You would think that no one had ever heard of the Kingdom of Ghana or the Sultanate of Foumban (in Cameroon), or the powerful sorceresses of the medieval Malian Epic of Son-Jara. The Great Zimbabwe might as well have never existed before its “discovery” by Europeans.
Where is the fiction about fantasy versions of medieval Indonesia or pre-European Australia, the Maori arrival in New Zealand, Mughal India? How I wish there were more stories like Tanith Lee’s Hindu-influenced collection, Tamastara, or Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s trilogy about female samurai Tomoe Gozen, or Guy Gavriel Kay’s wonderful The Lions of Al-Rassan, set in a fantasy world based on medieval Muslim Spain.
Pick something that everyone else is not doing and you will automatically bring freshness to your worldbuilding. Readers like a little variety. Doing the extra research will be worth not having to fight others for space in already-crowded fantasy settings.
Two misconceptions about the past you should avoid: First, contrary to the theory of “progress”, most medieval people wouldn’t have wanted to be in our modern shoes. People throughout history were adapted to their own circumstances and cultures and would not have thrived in modern times, no matter how many nice amenities we have today. This is not the same as saying that their lives were easier or healthier, but there were tradeoffs for them that they would not give up (There’s a very funny scene in the film Les visiteurs, in which a medieval knight and his squire are flummoxed by the mysteries of indoor plumbing). In order to steer a course between Jolly Olde Middle Ages and Nasty, Brutish and Short, find out what those tradeoffs would be for your characters.
Second, people from other times were not “inferior” to us. Keep in mind that a lot of what we “know” about the Middle Ages stems from 18th and 19th century people (often English or American) recasting the period to make their own look good and to reinforce their own cultural values. This attitude even goes back to the 14th century. Italian scholar Petrarch, enamored of ancient Greek and Roman culture, dismissed the previous thousand years as a ‘dark age’ in a spasm of nostalgia, so now we call that period “The Dark Ages”.
Writing medieval (or any historical) fantasy can seem very intimidating. Remember that you are basing your story in a specific period for a reason – so that your world will be consistent. Just because it’s fantasy doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to make sense. But at the same time, that doesn’t mean you’re limited in what you can do. History should be the skeleton to support your story, not a cage, so don’t be afraid to have some fun with it.