A Few Things Writers Need To Know About Medieval Period

Does the Medieval era factor into one of your projects somehow? Have you been considering perhaps making something inspired by the Middle Ages? Here are a few things you should know, if you don't know them already.

Note that this page is not intended to be a one-stop source for everything anyone might possibly need to know about the Middle Ages, but rather a starting point to help people begin forming a more accurate image, to help them understand where they might need to do more research, and to point them to resources they can use for further research.

Just because you're writing fantasy, doesn't mean you don't need to research the historical Middle Ages. There's a lot more to the Medieval era than swords, nobility, and pretty dresses, so if you truly aim to write a Medieval-inspired fantasy, then you need to know this stuff. While you are ultimately free to decide what you wish to keep and what you wish to discard, you still need to know what the Medieval period was really and truly like before you can honestly claim to be writing a fantasy inspired by it.

When it took place. The exact dates which the Medieval period started and ended depend on who you ask and which country you're talking about, but quite a few agree that it began in the early fifth century when the western Roman Empire began to collapse, and that it started ending sometime around the fifteenth century.

That the Roman Empire wasn't completely gone. Although the western Roman Empire fell, the Eastern half survived the entire Middle Ages in the form of the Byzantine Empire.

That people didn't completely shun knowledge and learning during this period. On the contrary, people (particularly the church) made an effort to preserve knowledge, and universities rose during the Middle Ages. And no, people didn't believe the Earth was flat. They believed it was the center of the universe (and in their defense, they really didn't have any way to prove otherwise), but they didn't believe it was flat.

That progress and advancement happened during this period. Some people tend to imagine that the Medieval era as a long period where nothing really changed or progressed, but nothing could be further from the truth. While progress may have been relatively slow compared to other eras, progress was made nonetheless - and thanks to it, the late Medieval period was an entirely different world from the early Medieval period.

Many things that people consider to be staples of the Medieval era are younger than they think. A good example of this is full body plate armor, which only came into the picture in the fifteenth century. Neuschwanstein Castle, which some have assumed to be a Medieval castle, was built in the nineteenth century. So make sure that whatever you're thinking about using didn't come from the wrong era!

That different countries had different cultures, values, and sensibilities. Just because something was done in Medieval England doesn't mean it happened in Medieval Italy, and vice-versa. A trend that may have started in one country might have taken years to really take hold in another. Different countries' governments sometimes did things quite differently from each other. So make sure that you account for this when doing your research and writing.

The amount of torture and violence that went on during the time isn't as extreme as many think. As for many alleged tortures and torture devices, there's no record of the Iron Maiden having ever been used to torture anyone - if anything, evidence points to it being a 18th century fabrication. There's also no evidence that the so-called "Pear of Anguish" was ever used as a torture device. The Rack, while it did exist, does not seem to have been in widespread use. And contrary to the belief that executions were common, they were relatively rare, usually reserved for severe crimes such as arson, murder, and treason.

That most people were not royalty and nobility. Many people seem to have a sort of impression of the Medieval period as being mainly populated by royalty, nobility, and their immediate servants. But back then, just as now, most people were of the ordinary working class, with peasants comprising around the vast majority of the population. Here's a thought exercise to put things into perspective: go visit a few news sites and notice just how much of the news is about leaders, politicians, business magnates, celebrities, and "famous for being famous" types. Now ask yourself: how many people actually fit into these categories? You don't need to know exact numbers to know that the answer is "very very few" and that most people are pretty ordinary and unremarkable. The same goes for people in the Medieval period - most people were not nobility or their servants, but were just ordinary working class people.

That most people would never meet royalty or nobility. Let's run a similar thought exercise - how many people today personally meet their country's leaders? How many meet even their governors? How many people have personally met a celebrity? Even including public events, the answer is "pretty few."

How the feudal system worked. If you're writing any kind of story where any of the trappings of feudal governments are involved - like, say, kings, queens, lords, ladies, peasants, and serfs - then you need to know how the feudal system worked. On the surface, it's a typical multi-tiered government system, but there are some specific particulars to know if that's the type of government you're trying to write. Also important to understand is how peerage worked - you know, all those titles like baron, duke, etc. Even if your setting doesn't use these titles exactly, it's still important to understand this system if you're using Medieval England as your inspiration.

That corsets weren't around yet. The corset that most of us know was invented in Italy in the sixteenth century, after the end of the Middle Ages.

...But hair coverings were. In certain times and places, it was considered quite indecent for a woman (particularly a married one) to go out and about with her hair uncovered.

That Europe's massive witch hunts didn't happen then. The only thing that really resembled a large-scale witch hunt was the Spanish Inquisition, but this happened very late in the Medieval period (1478), was targeted toward heretics and unorthodox worshipers in general, and only took place in Spain and its territories. While the Malleus Maleficarum was written in the late Medieval period (1486), it wouldn't be until the sixteenth century that wide-scale witch hunts started to take off.

What would and wouldn't have been around. Many things we take for granted today just wouldn't have been available to many people. For example, peppers, tomatoes, pumpkins, cranberries, maize, chocolate, and turkey are all foods that came from the American continents, and so would not have been available in Europe at the time. Anything that had to be transported over long distances - such as black pepper and silk from Asia to Europe - was exorbitantly expensive, and was often only available as luxury items for the very wealthy. So depending on how much realism you're going for, you might want to double-check and make sure that certain things were available.

That it wasn't standard for people to die at around age thirty. It certainly did happen sometimes, and life expectancy certainly wasn't as great as it is now. While it's true that the average lifespan was around thirty, it's not because people were dying left and right in what should have been the prime of their lives. It's also partly because the high infant mortality rate brought the average down quite a bit. Someone who survived into early adulthood still had a pretty good chance of making it into old age. (Though of course, there were no guarantees.)

That Medieval people practiced hygiene and manners. The notion that Medieval people rarely, if ever cleaned themselves up is a misconception. They did make an effort to keep themselves clean - sometimes even in Roman-style bathhouses. Medieval people even practiced dental hygiene, to the best of their ability. Likewise, they also had concepts of good table manners, even if they were somewhat different from ours today.

That yes, people did drink water. It's a common misconception that everybody drank alcoholic beverages all the time, but people did in fact drink water.

That swords weren't as common as many think. That swords were the weapon of choice during the Middle Ages is a misconception. Swords were fairly expensive as far as weapons went, and took a great deal of training to learn how to use well. For many, spears and axes were much more likely weapons. Creating & Writing Fantasy Armies - Things To Keep In Mind & Consider has more information.

Why the Middle Ages ended and why the Renaissance began. There really wasn't just one cause, but rather it was a confluence of factors. Europe's overpopulation by the late Middle Ages left it ripe for a plague - and one happened when the Black Death broke out in Europe in 1347 and killed a third of the population in five years. With so many people now gone, the existing socio-economic order was severely disrupted and peasants revolted. This lead to the downfall of feudalism and the rise of the wealthy merchant class. The invention of Johannes Gutenberg's printing press in 1445 made it possible to mass produce books, making knowledge and education available at unprecedented levels. Various wars and conflicts also reshaped political landscapes. And that's just the tip of the iceberg!

You might also like:

European Dragons: What You Might Not Know About Them
Writing Historically Accurate European Magic & Witchcraft: A Starting Guide

Tips To Create Richer & More Realistic Fantasy & Science Fiction Cultures & Civilizations
Tips & Ideas To Create More Believable Sword 'n Sorcery Worlds
Things Your Fantasy Or Science Fiction Story Needs
Things You Need To Do In Your Science Fiction Or Fantasy Story
Points To Remember When Worldbuilding
Country & Culture-Development Questions

Tips To Write Better Royalty, Nobility, & Other Upper-Class & Important Characters
Things To Know When Creating & Developing Fictional Governments
Things Writers Get Wrong About Bladed Weapons

More external resources:

How Real Is the 'Game of Thrones' Medieval World?
10 Worst Misconceptions About Medieval Life You'd Get From Fantasy Books
Why Are the Middle Ages Often Characterized as Dark or Less Civilized?
10 things you (probably) didn't know about the Middle Ages
An Examination Of Women's Rights In Medieval England

A time traveller’s guide to medieval shopping
Tables Of Medieval English Wages And Prices
For What It's Worth (Assorted Medieval prices)
Medieval Demographics Made Easy: Numbers For Fantasy Worlds

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