History for Fantasy Writers: Proprietorial Warfare in the Middle Ages

Mantova's high Middle Ages
Mantova’s high Middle Ages (Photo credit: Ostrosky Photos)

For my history & fantasy posts, my thoughts are to mix postings focused on a particular historical area (for instance, castles) with ones that are more collections of historical tidbits with some thoughts on  how to use them in fantasy novels. This post is a brief survey of the nature of rulership, culled from Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades, by John France. This is a smallish book with full references, scholarly but quite readable and well-organized. The book covers military technology, tactics and leadership in Europe in the High Middle Ages (1000 to 1300 CE).

The High Middle Ages is, of course, Euro-centric and moreover, a fairly narrow slice of time. But it is commonly used as a starting point for fantasy novels, D&D games and computer role-playing games. It is even used as a stand in for other historical periods such as the 1981 movie, Excalibur whose castles and armor have much more in common with the 1200s than with sixth century Britain. Of course, your fantasy novel may hearken only a little or not at all to this place and time but having some ideas of what transpired in this period might help you craft much more exotic settings.

John France begins his book with a chapter on Proprietorial Warfare and this is a great place for the fantasy author to start as well because much of what we understand about the nature of rulership and warfare in this period is defined by, as France puts it on page 1:

  1. The dominance of land as a form of wealth;
  2. The limited competence of government;
  3. The state of technology, which, broadly, favored defense over attack;
  4. The geography and climate of the West.
Notre-Dame Cathedral – designed in the Gothic ...
Notre-Dame Cathedral – designed in the Gothic architectural style. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

John France has a rather readable 30 pages on this topic for those interested in the details but to summarize, it was ownership of land that distinguished the ruling elites of this time and place. Moreover, with limited means of communications, authority was regional. Throughout this period, but certainly at the beginning, Kings did not have absolute authority in their realm; they were one of the pre-eminent lords in their realm, not always the most powerful. Government was also not very sophisticated with no regular means for raising cash throughout this period and poorly codified laws. Any person with a strong point, and for much of this period, this was not a stone castle but a wooden fort or fortified house, was difficult to dislodge and consequently held authority over his immediate environs. It was not uncommon for a warrior to seize a strong point and become the ruler of an area simply by virtue of the troops he could base from that castle.

For the fantasy author, the thing to remember is that the nature of feudal obligations (military service for land) and the stature of nobles of all levels is very much determined by these factors. In the absence of a money economy and with land the main source of wealth, the gift of land is the most valuable wealth to an underling and the return of military service the main thing that underling can provide in return. It didn’t do much good to provide tons of grain; there wasn’t much of a way to move it. Nor was there a way to turn the grain into something more portable like silver, there wasn’t much silver to be had. The wealth of the land, limited as it was, was turned into armed men used to maintain and extend a lord’s power: the feudal system.

You don’t see this sort of arrangement in places with better communication and stronger governmental systems, such as the Roman Republic or Empire. If your fantasy world has rapid communications via portals, palantiri, regular flying ship service, or the like, a feudal system of distributed power may not be appropriate to your setting. Or, if you really want the feudal system and the fast communication, you may need to add additional reasons for its existence: perhaps there are nearly impregnable defenses in your world that can be fairly rapidly constructed.

One other thing to remember about this time period, though we speak of England, France, Germany, etc., the very concept of states and nations was alien in the early period: recall those Norman, French speaking lords ruling England with their vast French holdings. It was only in the later High Middle Ages, and really during the late middle ages that the concept of nationhood took root. Specifically, in 1000 CE, townsfolk might find nothing unusual in being part of the holdings of a lord speaking a different language based far away. By the end of this period, there was loose loyalty to the concept of a nation but it wasn’t until the Hundred Years War that you might really find objection to a French town being held by an English King.

Finally, in this day and age where we can see images from around the world, drive on highways with overpasses that might span miles, see skyscrapers a significant fraction of a mile tall, it is hard to appreciate just how over-awing something as simple as a wooden fort might be, let alone, a stone castle or a cathedral. But for the medieval peasant raised in a village of huts and 1 or 2 story houses, a soaring castle or cathedral was as awe-inspiring as, well, it’s hard to say for modern sensibilities but it would have to be more awesome than anything we commonly see, so perhaps as awesome as a spaceship 10 miles long. In your writing, you can make use of this since, as a writer, you are free to convey your characters reactions: don’t be afraid to have the peasant wow’d by a castle, even if, to your readers sensibilities, that castle might not be that strange. It is to the character and your reader will get that through your character’s reactions.

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2 thoughts on “History for Fantasy Writers: Proprietorial Warfare in the Middle Ages

  1. Very good point about the scale of things and what one would find awe-inspiring. That put in mind how superstitious we are in general and how that may play into a character’s decision-making process. Another great post!

  2. Pingback: The Medieval Fortress: Castle Encyclopedia for Writers « M. Q. Allen

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