Fantasy Worldbuilding: The Middle Ages

MIddle Ages: one of the main fonts of fantasy (Photo credit: Moyan_Brenn)

The European Medieval period serves as the inspiration of many books and movies, and of countless fantasy role-playing games. The connection is so strong that to say “fantasy” is to immediately connote Medieval castles and knights, along with the more fantastical tropes of elves and dragons. Although there are plenty of other time periods and regions that can provide equally fruitful inspiration (and with the additional virtue of being less familiar), there is nothing wrong with using the Middle Ages: it is a rich, multi-faceted period that connects to quite a few fantasy-loving hearts. However, for the fantasy writer, it is worth looking under the veneer of the Middle Ages to what really shaped it because to borrow from this period without care may cause you to build into your setting discordances that might cost you readers. Or more benign, but just as limiting, you might over look some treasure-troves of world-building and plot potential: if you bridge the gap between the historical Middle Ages and your fantasy world, you might create rich, memorable plot, characters and setting.

A (Very Brief) Historical Overview

The Wikipedia article on the Medieval period provides a good starting place for those not familiar with the period in detail. And there are, of course, countless books on the Middle Ages. One of my favorites is Barbara Tuchman‘s A Distant Mirror. While in this book she focuses only on the 14th century, it is an extraordinarily readable historical narrative that goes a long way towards giving the reader a real feel for what life was like in this period. Just keep in mind, this is towards the end of the Middle Ages.

Castle Durnstein (with YPaul)
The Icon of the MIddle Ages: a castle. Castle Durnstein (with YPaul) (Photo credit: muppetspanker)

The Middle Ages did not spring from nothing and disappear with a poof. It arose from the wreckage of the Roman Empire and it ended with both the “Rebirth” (Renaissance) of art and philosophy, but just as importantly, the birth of modern states.

At its dawn, the Early Middle Ages, circa 450 to 1000 CE, the Middle Ages saw the collapse of central authority, of strong government from a distant center. It was a time of dislocation, threats from invasions and migrations, a time when a peaceful countryside was overrun, when for protection locals had to turn to themselves and to the strong-men among them.

Despite the Medieval artist’s tendency to illustrate the past in the mode of their present or the modern anachronisms like the castles and armor of 1981 movie Excalibur, the Early Middle Ages was a time of very local government and simple castles (mostly wooden) and simple armor (chain mail for the rich, a metal cap for a typical foot soldier). This period is not very well-known in many ways, thus earning the epithet of the Dark Ages: not because the lights were dim but because historical sources are hard to come by. It was a time of lower population, high illiteracy, little excess production from the land. But it was also a time of constant warfare from fairly small bands of warriors. It also encompassed the Viking period which saw tiny bands of adventurers give way, even in the Nordic world, to centralized Kings. Overall, a very rich period for the fantasy writer to mine but not a time of large stone fortifications, plate mail or strong kings.

The High Middle Ages encompassed from about 1000 to 1300. For reasons not well understood, population boomed in Europe from about 35 million at the start to about 80 million at the end. It was this period that saw the rise of strong kings but not the extermination of powerful lords: it was the age of the strong regional barons against the central authorities. Similarly, it was an age which Kings battled the central religious authorities for power. At the start of the age, castles began to be commonly built of stone although the great concentric castles were in the second half of the period and wood never completely went out of fashion: castles were very expensive and a lord would only construct what was necessary to the circumstances.

The Late Middle Ages (1300-1450) saw the end of the Medieval mindset, swept away by the Renaissance which shucked the shackles of a rigid view of man’s role in the cosmos with respect to the earthly hierarchy as well as a pervasive God. It also saw the rise of nationalism and the end of a time when an English king could hold vast lands in France from the French King: no more was a person a vassal of a powerful lord, whatever language he happened to speak or wherever he happened to live, he was part of a nation and served lords of that nation.

The Middle Ages for the Fantasy Writer

A period of a thousand years with such change of temperament, population and technology can hardly be summarized in a blog. Tomes have been written on this period, both overviews and on specific items. For the fantasy writer, here are some salient points to keep in mind:

  • If you are hewing closely to a particularly place and period, study it carefully. For example, tournaments, heavy platemail, large stone castles: you would not find these in Arthur’s England or Beowulf’s Denmark.
  • The Middle Ages was a time of great changes, not the same rate as experienced in the 20th century but neither was it static. You have only to study the evolution of stone castles to see how quickly technology evolved from wooden structures to the first stone and thence to the elaborate concentric fortifications of later periods. Lords did not build the same type of stone castle for century after century. What they built changed fairly rapidly, evolving to meet changing offensive threats and evolving right out of existence (if you take a castle to mean a lord’s residence of the style of the 1200s) as effective gunpowder weapons came on the scene and the nature of government changed.
  • Much of what we take to be Medieval was shaped by the society and government of the times. John France in Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades spends his entire first chapter explaining the nature of Proprietorial Warfare: the strife of local lords under weak or non-existent central authority. Absent a strong king, lords could build armies, castles and fight each other for power. Add strong central control, as you saw for most of the Roman era, and you don’t get local lords, local castles, local armies.
  • As I touched on before, the Middle Ages came from something and in a fairly short period of time evolved into something else. It was not a static arrangement. Nor did it arise of itself with no antecedents: lords and castles did not spring from a hazy time of hunter-gathers. Historical forces caused it to arise (collapse of central authority under outside pressures) and to go away (a change in how people saw nations and their place in the world).
  • Homogeneity: much of what we take for the Middle Ages “feel” arose from Europeans interacting only with others who thought and fought exactly like they did. Throw in effective outside forces like the Mongols and the whole thing can come crashing down. Throw in surrounding kingdoms of elves, dwarves and orcs and you probably would not have a very Medieval looking little human kingdom in the middle.

For the writer, this can be bewildering and there is no right and wrong. Fantasy readers are a fairly forgiving bunch and things like big stone castles are well accepted. But it doesn’t hurt to try to get the details right, either the actual historical details if you are copying closely from a historical period, or the internal ‘consistency’ items if you are departing more heavily from historical precedent.

Take the issue of central authority. In general, communication lends itself to central authority and the lack of it gives you the fragmentation that gives rise to local lords with their own powerful castles. But it isn’t just communication of information (although that helps), it is the ability to project force. If all your lords can communicate instantaneously through Palantir but live on separate islands separated by sea-monster infested seas that prevent any ship travel you would not expect a central king: he would have no way of enforcing his authority. But if a king could get forces to distant places in a reasonable period of time, you could see central authority even without instantaneous communication as demonstrated for most earth history. Everyone knows about the Romans and their roads or the Mongols and their hordes. Less well-known or remembered are the Native American empires of south and central America or even the federations in the Eastern North America or the far-flung sea empires of Polynesia.

For the fantasy writer, this means caution can be necessary: if you want a very strong central king then it may not be appropriate for the king’s barons to have large armies and their own castles, especially if the king can send a large, professional army at the offending lord when needed. This army might be similar to a Roman legion, or it might be dragon-knights, or a mixed force of trolls and elephants. Whatever it is, if the king can smack down an upstart in his realm, he isn’t going to tolerate them having powerful castles and armies. That isn’t in the nature of kings.

That doesn’t mean you can’t mix Medieval tropes into your fantasy setting. For one thing, many successful writers simply ignore the discordances. Most readers won’t notice them. But addressing them isn’t just to placate a few armchair historians: it can lead to a richer world where much of your plot simply flows from a setting that hangs together: why does the king want to destroy the local spirits in a county? Because those spirits provide the power that the Count uses to defy his king, despite the King’s powerful armies.

That is, recognizing that strong kingly armies tend to squash strong barons doesn’t mean you can’t have the barons. It means you need to give the barons something to offset the king’s powers: local magic (like a protective spirit or local god), local allies (like giants or faeries), something to thwart the king’s forces. Do this and you now have added something colorful to your world around which you can spin whole novels and series. But don’t stop there, take it farther: maybe there are no kings, maybe wizards are so powerful in your setting that they hold all the power. But wizards are only as powerful (in your setting) as the range of their fireballs so rather than wizard-kings, you have a lot of scattered wizards and rather than armies (easily blown up by said wizards in this setting), you have the heroes and monsters that are the staples of so many RPGs and CRPGs. Nothing says you have to go this way of course; these are just examples of how solutions to historical “problems” can lead you to rich, exciting settings.

Lastly, while the Middle Ages can provide much inspiration for the fantasy writer, there are other periods and places that have much, perhaps more to offer. Consider the early Viking Age, a culture of ready violence with little central authority and no religious scruples about taking from your neighbors (or the very similar Greek Bronze Age and its “sackers of cities”). Or try out the Roman World, a very heterogenous time that adapted to different religions and methods of fighting, that spanned tropical deserts and Ultima Thule. These places might be both more exotic to your readers and more appropriate to your concept of a setting if you want heroes and small warbands (see Vikings) or sprawling empire of many peoples and cultures (see Romans). The Middles Ages would not really be a good starting place for either of those settings.

Because I love castles, I plan to spend a lot more time on them in upcoming posts. I’ll leave you with this question: what would castles look like in a world with flying mounts, either rare ones like the odd knight on a dragon, or common ones where a lord might have hundreds of griffin riders?