Although I am not a suburban man, I am a rural man, I like this site:
Common misconceptions, and their associated tropes, but if you ask me the way the Real World existed was much more interesting. The fantasy is rarely as complex, fascinating, or interesting as the Reality.
And you have to keep in mind both the differences in the eras (time periods – 5th century life was very different from late Medieval period life), and, of course, the differences in locale.
The Medieval Byzantine Empire was a wholly different place, for the most part, from the Medieval Holy Roman Empire, or from Medieval Scotland, or Medieval Scandinavia, or Medieval Syria or Egypt.
Differences in time and place always matter.
Some tropes are so ingrained in Medieval-inspired fantasy stories that it’s tempting to think that they represent real aspects of Medieval life. But often these stories are just reinforcing myths and misconceptions about life in the Middle Ages.
Top image from the Dragonlance series, which I love, but is steeped in pseudo-Medievalism.
One thing that it’s important to remember when talking about the Medieval period is that it spans a long time — from the 5th century CE to the 15th century CE — and involves a great number of European countries. You’ll notice that a great deal of the debunkery here involves 14th century England, thanks to works like The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer and the works of Joseph Gies and Frances Gies (although another source, Misconceptions About the Middle Ages, covers a bit more ground). But the point here is that the Middle Ages were, in fact, far richer than the Medieval-like settings of many swords and sorcery stories would lead you to believe.
Do fantasy novels need to be historically accurate? Certainly not. Part of the fun of worldbuilding is inventing new ideas, or combining elements of different cultures and time periods, and even integrating historical myths and misconceptions. But If you read a lot of books or watch a lot of movies with pseudo-Medieval settings, you may come away with a mistaken impression that you know what life in the Middle Ages was like. Plus, real history offers new ideas that you might want to incorporate into your own stories in the future.
And this is not to say that all Medieval-esque settings slip into these myths; only that many, many do.
This post was inspired by this fascinating thread on reddit’s r/AskHistorians, which we highlighted a while back. Here are the misconceptions, with debunkery below:
1. Peasants were a single class of people who were more or less equal to one another.
It’s easy to think that people in the Middle Ages were easily divided into very broad classes: royals, nobles, knights, clergy, and toiling peasants at the very bottom. But just because you didn’t have “king,” “lord,” “sir,” “father,” or “brother” (or their female analogs) in front of your name doesn’t mean you weren’t concerned with your own social standing. There are vast classes of people whom, today, we might generally refer to as “peasants,” but there were actually various classes of people within that broad category.
Mortimer points out that, in 14th-century England, for example, you have your villeins, people bonded to a particular lord’s land. Villeins were not considered free folk, and they could be sold with the lord’s land. And free folk were of a variety of social and economic classes. A freeholder, for example, might become successful enough to rent a lord’s manor, essentially acting as a lord himself. And, in a village, a few families might hold the majority of the political power, supplying most of the local officers. We may tend to think of these people as “peasants,” but they had much more complicated ways of thinking of themselves, with all the class anxiety that goes with that.
2. Inns were public houses with big common halls below and rooms above.
There are few images as firmly rooted in pseudo-Medieval fantasy as the tavern inn. You and your party enjoy a few flagons of ale in the main room, hear all the local gossip, then go up to your private rented chamber where you’d sleep (alone or with a lover) on a lumpy mattress.
That image isn’t wholly fiction, but the truth is a bit more complicated — not to mention interesting. In Medieval England, if you combined a city inn with an alehouse, you’d probably get something resembling that fantasy inn. There were inns where you could rent a bed (or, more likely, a space in a bed), and these inns did have halls for eating and drinking. But these were not public houses; innkeepers were generally permitted to serve food and drink only to their guests. And, Mortimer points out, you would likely find a single room with several beds, beds that could fit up to three people. It was only in the most upscale inns that you’d find chambers with just one or two beds.
There were establishments for drinking in these cities as well: taverns for wine and alehouses for ale. Of the two, alehouses were the rowdier establishments, more likely to function as your Medieval Mos Eisley. But ale and cider were often made at home as well; a husband might expect his wife to be skilled in brewing. The Gieses note in Life in a Medieval Village that a tavern in an English village was often someone’s home. Once your neighbor opened up a fresh batch of ale, you might go to their house, pay a few pennies, and sit and drink with your fellow villagers.
There are other options for accommodations as well. Travelers could expect the hospitality of people of equal or lesser social class, enjoying their food and beds in exchange for tales from the road and a tip. (Mortimer says that, if you were lucky enough to stay with a 14-century merchant, the digs were much nicer than any inn.) Or you might go to a hospital, which was not just for healing, but also for hospitality.
3. You would never see a woman engaged in a trade such as armorer or merchant.
Certainly, some fantasy stories will cast women in equal (or relatively equal) positions to men, carrying out the same sorts of trades that men might carry out. But in many fictional stories, a woman who makes armor or sells good would seem out of place — although this does not universally reflect Medieval reality. In England, a widow could take up the trade of her dead husband — and Mortimer specifically cites tailor, armorer, and merchant as trades open to widows. Some female merchants were actually quite successful, managing international trading ventures with impressive capital.
Women engaged in criminal activity as well, including banditry. Many criminal gangs in Medieval England consisted of families, including wives with their husbands and sisters with their brothers.
Image from the Holkham Bible Picture Book, via the British Library Board.
4. People had horrible table manners, throwing bones and scraps on the floor.
Sorry, even in the Middle Ages, members of polite society, from kings to villeins, followed certain etiquette, and that etiquette involved good table manners. In fact, depending on when and where and with whom you were eating, you might have to follow very strict procedures for eating and drinking. Here’s a tip: If a lord passes you his cup at the dinner table, it’s a sign of his favor. Accept it, backwash and all, and pass it back to him after you’ve had a sip.
5. People distrusted all forms of magic and witches were frequently burned.
In some fantasy stories, magic is readily accepted by everyone as a fact of life. In others, magic is treated with suspicion at best or as blasphemy at worst. You might even hear the Biblical edict, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”
But not all claims of magic in the Middle Ages were treated as heresy. In her essay “Witches and the Myth of the Medieval ‘Burning Time,'” from Misconceptions About the Middle Ages, Anita Obermeier tells us that during the 10th century, the Catholic Church wasn’t interested in trying witches for heresy; it was more interested in eradicating heretical superstitions about “night-flying creatures.”
And in 14th-century England, you might consult a magician or a witch for some minor “magical” task, such as finding a lost object. In Medieval England, at least, magic without any heretical components was tolerated. Eventually, the late 15th century would give rise to the Spanish Inquisition, and we do see witches hunted down.
Witch burnings weren’t unheard of in the Middle Ages, but they weren’t common, either. Obermeier explains that, in the 11th century, sorcery was treated as a secular crime, but the church would issue several reprimands before it would resort to burning. She puts the first burning for heresy at 1022 in Orleans and the second at 1028 in Monforte. It’s rare in the 11th and 12th centuries, but becomes a more common punishment in the 13th century for relapsed heretics. However, it depends where you are. In the 14th century, you probably won’t be burned as a witch in England, but you may very well get the stake in Ireland.
6. Men’s clothing was always practical and functional.
Yes, Medieval people of various classes were interested in fashion, and sometimes fashion — particularly men’s fashion — got pretty absurd. Early clothing is more functional, but during the 14th century, men’s fashions in England were both body-bearing and rather experimental. Corsets and garters were common for men, and increasingly, popular fashions encouraged men to show off the shape of their hips and legs. Some aristocratic men wore gowns with sleeves so long they were in danger of tripping on the cuffs. It became fashionable to wear shoes with extraordinarily long toes — one such shoe, imported from Bohemia, had twenty-inch toes that needed to be tied to a man’s garters. There was even a fad of wearing one’s mantle so that the head went through the arm hole rather than the head hole, with the sleeves functioning as a voluminous collar.
Image: Selection of Medieval leather shoes from the Museum of London.
It’s also important to note that fashions would trickle down from royalty, through the aristocracy, and down to the common folk. In the seasons after a fashion appeared among the nobility, a less expensive version would appear among those of lesser stations. In fact, sumptuary laws were passed in London to prevent people from dressing above their stations. For example, a common woman in 1330s London was not permitted to line her hood with anything but lambskin or rabbit fur, or risk losing her hood.
7. Servants were all low-class people.
Actually, if you were a high-ranking individual, chances are that you had high-ranking servants. A lord might send his son to serve in another lord’s manor — perhaps that of his wife’s brother. The son would receive no income, but would still be treated as the son of a lord. A lord’s steward might actually be a lord himself. Your status in society isn’t just based on whether or not you were a servant, but also your familial status, whom you served, and what your particular job was.
Something you might not expect about servants in English households in the late Middle Ages: they were overwhelmingly male. Mortimer points to the earl of Devon’s household, which had 135 members, but only three women. With the exception of a washerwoman (who didn’t live in the household), the staffers were all men, even in households headed by women.
8. Medicine was based on pure superstition.
Admittedly, if you’re looking outside of Game of Thrones, a lot of healing in fantasy novels is just plain magical. You’ve got your cleric class who gets their healing from the gods, and otherwise you might have someone on hand who can dress a wound or make a poultice.
And yes, a lot of Medieval medicine was based on what we would consider today mystical bunk. A great deal of diagnosis involved astrology and humoral theory. Blood letting was a respected method of treatment, and many of the curatives were not only useless — they were downright dangerous. And while there were medical colleges, extraordinarily few physicians were able to attend.
Still, some aspects of Medieval medicine were logical even by modern standards. Wrapping smallpox in scarlet cloth, treating gout with colchicum, using camomile oil for an earache — these were all effective treatments. And while the notion of a barber-surgeon is a horrifying one to many of us, some of those surgeons were actually quite talented. John of Arderne employed anesthetics in his practice, and many surgeons were skilled in couching cataracts, sewing abscesses, and setting bones.
From John Arderne’s De arte phisicali et de cirurgia, via Wikimedia Commons.
9. The most powerful military force consisted of armored knights riding into battle.
James G. Patterson, in his essay “The Myth of the Mounted Knight” from Misconceptions About the Middle Ages, explains that while the image of the mounted knight might have been a popular one during Medieval times, it didn’t match the reality of warfare. Armored cavalry, he explains, can be incredibly useful — even devastating — against untrained revolutionaries, but they were far less useful against a trained foreign infantry. Rather, ground forces, including knights on foot who frequently served as officers, were invaluable in battle. Even during the Crusades, when the image of the mounted knight seemed synonymous with glory in battle, most the actual battles involved sieges.
In the 14th century, English warfare focused increasingly on archery. In fact, Edward III prohibited football in 1331 and then again in 1363 in part because people were spending too much time playing football and not enough time practicing their archery. The English archers were able to repel many a French cavalry force.
10. Only men’s sexual pleasure was important.
A common belief during the Middle Ages was that women were more lustful than men. A lot more lustful, in fact. Rape was a crime in 14th century Medieval England, but not between spouses. A wife could not legally refuse her husband’s advances, but a husband could not refuse his wife’s advances either. The popular belief was that women were always longing for sex, and that it was bad for their health not to have intercourse regularly. A woman’s orgasm was also important; another common belief was that a woman could not conceive without an orgasm. (Unfortunately, this also made rape impossible to prosecute if the victim became pregnant; Medieval English scholars believed women’s bodies had a way of, in the modern parlance, shutting things down.)
So what was an unmarried woman to do? Well, if she couldn’t find a husband, the English physician John of Gaddesden recommended that she find a midwife who could get the job done manually.
IV. The Main Parties: (Player and NPC Groups)
Being a brief description of the various parties that adventure in the setting of my world
The Basilegate – Legate of the Emperor: Imperial and Orthodox Special Legate Team of the Eastern Roman Empire.
The Caerkara – The Expeditionary Force: An Expeditionary Team of mainly Eldeven peoples sent to Terra to study humans and human religion.
Hoshi – The Footbridge: A group of Orientals formed by a Shugenja Monk and sent into the West along the Silk Road to discover why the Korreupt have invaded the world.
The Oro – Moonshadow: A group of former African Sharpers who have formed a team to go into the Byzantine Empire, Europe and Asia Minor to explore and investigate
Consociatio – The Society: An association of Dragoons and their allies who seek the return of their Antipope to the Papal Chair/NPC
The Korreupt – The Twisted, The Terrible: Those Caleedam (monsters) who have escaped Ghanae and made their way into our world/NPC
Khomainahas – The Serpent‘s Teeth: An international syndicate of arms and contraband smugglers, slave and human traffickers, and individual criminals/NPC. Operating primarily in Southern Eastern Europe and Asia Minor.
Heires – Glyphers: A secretive organization of individuals whose purpose is unknown but who use a strange hieroglyphic language with unknown properties/NPC
Continuing with the description of The Other World…
II. Briefing on the General Setting of Terra Ghanae (Earth/ Iÿarlðma) – Terra Ghanae is actually two worlds. The first is our world (Terra), where most of the gaming activity takes place. The game and campaigns themselves are set primarily in Terra (the Latin term for Earth), the time frame being around 800 AD and the geographical and national setting is the Byzantine Empire. The common base of operations is Constantinople.
Our world, Terra, is as it was in the era of 800 AD, historically, socially, militarily, and so forth. However recently several strange things have occurred which have severely concerned the Emperor and the leadership of the Eastern Orthodox Church. These strange events have prompted the Emperor and the Orthodox Church to band together to form a secret team that is charged with discovering the cause(s) of these weird and uncanny events, and to put a stop to these strange events, if possible. Most of the players play characters in this team, or in one of the related teams. This main team is called the Basilegate, or translated, the Emperor’s Legate.
At about the same time a group of Buddhist Monks (and others) in the Orient has been having visions about these same disturbances and has formed a team of their own to travel to the West and investigate the same phenomenon. That team is called the Hoshi, or The Footbridge.
What is actually occurring on our world at this moment is that our world is being invaded by beings and creatures from the other world, that world being named Ghanae (though various languages render the term differently), and the people who inhabit it. No one in our world knows how these creatures are coming here or exactly from where they originate, and this information is also hidden from the players, who must discover these events for themselves. At about the same time (slightly later in time frame actually) another group of beings from this other world are also trying to find a way into our world and eventually succeed at their efforts, and are then able to come to earth. These beings are what would normally be referred to in the game as elves, dwarves, giants and others of their kind. None of these people or creatures is indigenous to our world and no humans are indigenous to their world.
These peoples are collectively called the Eldeven peoples and consist of the Jukarn (Dwarves), Sidelh, also called the Caer (Elves), Lorahn (Eladarin), Gheriks (Halflings), Avafal (the “New Ones” or “Fallen Ones,” literally the offspring between Men and Eldevens), and so forth. These creatures are more akin to various human races in that they can all intermarry and interbreed (though the rate of intermarriage is no higher than on our world at that time period), than they are to separate species. There are also other beings who are allied with the Eldeven, such as the Adharma, who are a race of Demi-giants, and their half-brothers, the Gabar (Renown Ones, offspring of the Sidelh and the Nephili). Though the Adharma and the Gabar are not considered Eldevens.
There are two reasons that the Eldeven peoples desire to come to our world, the first is that they are seeking to hunt down and recapture or destroy most of the monsters that have escaped to our world from their world. The second I will explain later.
The Eldevens come to our world in disguise hoping to accomplish their various missions without being discovered. They encounter humans (us) however, as they must in our world, and eventually some men begin to understand that the Eldeven party is not human. There are various reactions to this discovery, some believe the Eldevens to be demons or devils come to invade our world and that they are somehow allied with the monsters who are also invading our world. Some believe them to be angelic messengers sent from God to assist mankind against the invasions of monsters, and to help stop the plagues and the disasters wracking the world at that time. Some believe them harbingers of the Apocalypse. There is a schism between both those who are in government (the Court of the Emperor), and those in the Church, with either group being divided into two camps, those who oppose the Eldevens and consider them enemies, perhaps even demons, and those who want closer relations with the Eldevens and consider them helpful, perhaps even Agents of God.
The Eldevens themselves send a scouting, expeditionary, research, and monster hunting party called the Caerkara, or the Expeditionary Force into our world. Once it is discovered that this party is composed of non-human creatures the decision is made in Constantinople to send out the Basilegate to hunt for and try to make contact with the Caerkara, and to discover the true nature and motives of this Eldeven party.
While these monster invasions are in the process of occurring and shortly before the arrival of the Eldeven team, various plagues, earthquakes, famines and other natural disasters begin to afflict our world. Some people connect these calamities directly to the monster invasions, and some directly to the arrival of the Eldeven party. Still others see the Eldeven group as possible allies with whom they can work to help combat both the monster invasions and the various natural disasters. Eventually the Court at Constantinople comes to believe that the Eldevens may be the people of the legendary Prester John. The Patriarch of Constantinople and the Church remain more skeptical.
Samarkand (The City of Samarl): The city of Samarkand sits in exactly the same geographic point as the city of Samarkand on our world, but resides in Ghanae (properly called Iÿarlðma by the Eldevens). Both cities also share the same name. However all similarities end there. Samarkand was designed by the Sidelh but was built by the Adharma. Both races share a similar view of architecture in that they encapsulate information in material objects. Books or written materials are rare among the Sidelh and completely absent among the Adharma. The giants instead are excellent masters of mnemonics, and therefore pass history thousands of years old down orally with very little variation or embellishment between transmissions. They also weave information into every building, statue, column, piece of furniture and art, and physical device they create. The entire city then is one huge library of historical, arcane, and mythological information if one knows how to read the text.
Samarkand is the capital city of Kitharia, the most populous and powerful nation known among the Eldeven peoples. Since the Sidelh are slow to reproduce they have invited many other races of Eldevens to dwell in their city and the Sidelh are actually often outnumbered by the non-Sidelh living there. Nevertheless the non-Sidelh are often granted citizenship after a time, as are their families, and so often easily integrate into Kitharian society, to become stout defenders and loyal citizens of their adopted homeland.
The ruler of the Samarkand, and by extension Kitharia, is the individual known as the Samareül. He is elected by a secret group of individuals and once elected he takes no public name other than his title of Samareül, which means Priest-King. The Samareül is elected for life, and is rarely deposed. The Samareül is the supreme judge, most influential political leader and chief priest of Kitharia, being considered the living representative of Samarl, or God. Strangely enough however the Kitharians and most Eldevens for that matter have no formal religion or religious beliefs, and most seek no relationship with God at all. Instead the relationship between Samarl and the Eldevens is considered the de-facto representative relationship and chief obligation of the Samareül. (The current Samareül is looking to change this state of affairs wishing to make a religious and spiritual relationship among the Kitharians and eventually all Eldevens to be a matter of personal relation between the individual and Samarl. This has led to strained cultural, societal, political, and in some cases racial [such as between the Sidelh and the Lorahn] relationships among some parties, and to the establishment of a strange interlinked alliance between the courts of Samarkand and Constantinople on religious and spiritual matters. I’ll discuss this in more detail in a later posting.)
The city is dominated by an acropolis into which is carved (in the fashion of the Adharma who carve their homes into mountainsides) the Palace and administrative houses of the Samareül. The acropolis is also said to contain numerous secret passages into which the Samareül and his officials keep stored many ancient and secret artifacts and devices, including weird machines which are said to be able to peer into other worlds and through time. This acropolis is called the Jlæthÿlîrel. There is also a rumor that the passages themselves have created a sort of scrying channel and that the channels may be decorated with glyphs of unknown design. This acropolis is sometimes called the onŵl-Samarkando, or, Helm of Samarkand
The city also has numerous districts in which various Eldeven races mix rather freely, but it also has segregated districts. These are most evident between the Sidelh (the elves) and the small enclave of Adharma (who rarely take citizenship) who prefer to live there for periods of time as trusted resident aliens. Politically the situation is stable at most times, except during periods of war. There is a large public gathering area called the Msýthariørl where public elections, entertainments, athletic events, public rites, demonstrations of arcane force and skill, and debated counsels are held. It can hold nearly one-half of the entire population of the city at any given time.
There are also a number of industrial and manufacturing districts to produce and market goods, the Eldarik Houses, the Armories and Internal Towers, the Plarshoel (or, Walking Houses – the giants built the city so that certain buildings can move around the city on tracks, allowing the city to be reconfigured for both ease of trade and transport, and for periods of war and self-defense – unknown to most the city walls can likewise move allowing them to be “interlocked” in various defensive configurations as needed), the sa-Elturaere (the Temple for the study and practice of Elturgy and Elturael – Arcane magic), various markets and domestic areas, the Jmyatŗ Skella (the Crafting District), the Tĕna (Quarters of the Peace Officers), the Nhil (the Warband Quarterings), and the newly created Praşklyřt (the Hall of Investigation – to study and counteract the creation of monsters, discussed later).
As mentioned above the entire city is also a sort of architectural library. However many believe that actual Elturgy was used by the Sidelh to recast the work of the giants so that a secret code now also lies hidden within the structure of the city foundations. To what purpose no-one is really sure.
The River Qira runs through the city (including partially underground) and the river Qala now runs completely around the city in a near perfect circular moat, and then runs away through artificial channels so that the river approaches the city from the East and leaves by routes facing due West, South, and North.
The city is composed of seven plateaus, or levels, the highest being the Jlæthÿlîrel, and the lowest section being an underground area of hot springs and baths called the Myņil.