Monday, June 2, 2014

Are You a Writer of Fiction? Need To Know How To Write Tales Set In Medieval Times and Make Them Realistic, Not Make Mistakes? Then You Better Check Out This Article:

Pitfalls Of Writing About The Medieval Ages

(Or, How Not To End Up As The Village Idiot!)

Astride his steed, the Black Knight thundered down the road. He raced passed the old abbey. Its crenelated walls thrust defiantly upward, a holy challenge to the forces of darkness. However, the knight knew that his best hope lay in the hamlet ahead of him. It was there he was to meet the White Wizard.
On he gal­loped. He passed wa­ttle huts of the outlying and poor­­est inhab­i­tants. He rode by the quaint stone church with its so surprised priest. At last, the knight turned into the main street. The inhabitants scattered like startled pigeons before him. Some ducked inside the bakery. Others fled, some ran into the chandler’s shop. One panicked citizen, a very wealthy mer­chant, sought shelter with the smithy. The Black Knight reach­ed the Hound and Hunter. It was the hamlet’s only inn.
Right, so that isn’t the greatest piece of writing you’ve ever read. I didn’t intend it to be. Rather, it is a bad example, an illustration of things that can go wrong with a story. This happens when writers assume they know more about a given subject than they actually do. Most of us have read enough medieval fantasies to think it is no big deal in using them as settings for our own stories, right? Wrong!
Let’s start with my bad example. I have my good knight (pun intended) riding past an abbey situated just outside of the hamlet. In all probability that abbey wasn’t there. Moreover, although walled, those walls weren’t likely to be crenelated.
In addition, I have our friend passing huts, a church with its priest, then down the main street past the usual shops and smithy until he reaches the local inn. Wrong, wrong, and wrong again. A village, by historical definition, had at least six houses. A hamlet had less. Therefore, there wouldn’t be any outlying wattle hovels. There would barely be any houses at all. In addition, there was no main street.
If anything, it was a wide spot in the road and that was about it. Four or five homes clustered near each other and nothing else, not even a church. You see, another historical definition of a hamlet was that it didn’t have a church. Maybe it was lucky enough to have a small chapel, but that chapel would not have had a resident priest, surprised or otherwise.
We also have to dispense with my bakery and blacksmith. Oh, and forget the wealthy merchant. He wouldn’t have lived in such a hole-in-the-wall place. Lose the inn as well. Unless it’s on a well-traveled highway, there wouldn’t have been enough customers to keep it going. Finally, the chandler has to go, too.
You see, usually there were no businesses at all in a hamlet. One other thing; watch out for young thieves running over rooftops and hiding behind chimney pots, as in Raymond E. Feist’s, Riftwar Saga novels. That’s right -- no chimneys! They didn’t appear until the late Thirteenth Century and then only for the very rich to enjoy. Earlier, even castles suffered along without them.
A hamlet was tiny. Usually, people situated them where several farmers’ adjacent properties met or came together. That was it; not much of anything else, except perhaps a lot of inbreeding and relations that were far too close for comfort, but I digress.
Now let’s be fair here; nobody is going to raise a hue and cry (I’ve always wanted to use that phrase) or kick you out of the fantasy genre as being a bad author just because you happen to call a small village a hamlet, or vice versa. For an otherwise well-written and accurate novel, the occasional slip-up will usually go unnoticed by the reader.
However, tossing all sorts of anachronisms into a story is a much bigger issue. It causes major problems with the realism of your tale. You’ve just read the hash I made of that hamlet in my example. Get the point? Describing a true medieval hamlet, village, town, or city isn’t nearly as easy as one would imagine, but it is important to do it right.
Just how imperative is it? Well, that depends on whether you are writing a fantasy that is meant more as a work of historical fiction (that feeling of gritty reality we all love), or whether you are creating your own personal universe as a setting for your work.
If it’s a fantasy or alternate history set in our world, it’s an absolute must to get it as historically correct as possible, because readers know their stuff. Many of them often read stories about the Middle Ages because they like and want to learn more about that period. It’s why I read Michael Crighton’s, Timeline, for instance. (However, the less said about that particular novel, the better.)
With a fantasy uni­verse, anachronisms are not such a looming issue. In any author’s personal creation, houses for in­stance, could have chim­neys. After all, it’s their universe. They can do what they want with it. Hard to argue with that logic, isn’t it? Besides which, it just isn’t a terrible offense to make the occasional anachron­istic mistake.
Shakespeare even did it (often). Coincidentally, one involved chimney tops. In his play, Julius Caesar, he spoke of them as being in ancient Rome. Wrong! He also had clocks, church bells, and other things there as well. Wrong again!
Still, there is one important caveat that you as an author should always remember. Your readers, as I’ve said, will forgive you the odd little mistake (oh, those chimneys), and overlook slightly misused words (village-versus-hamlet), but they aren’t stupid.
Too glaring a mistake or just too many mistakes in accuracy and people (editors?) will notice. Trust me; that will be to the detriment of your story and possibly your budding career as well.
Don’t just take my word for it. Your readers are the final and most powerful judges. As an example, an independent reader and reviewer of David Edding’s historical fantasy, Domes of Fire, referred to it as having “teeth grinding anachronisms,” specifically such as “…cookie and mom….” He felt that the author had been just plain “lazy.” Now that’s not a good review when you’re trying to sell books, is it? Of course, David has written many excellent stories and the rare clinker will not destroy him. Besides, his descriptions of castles and fortresses were highly accurate with their outer and inner wards, keeps, and crenellated walls. Still, for new authors such types of reviews may have more dire consequences. (Try to remember those budding careers!)
With real-world historical fantasies or science fiction, it is essential to be accurate. Another reviewer, Alex Ford, of Patrick Tilley’s book, Fade Out, had this to say about it:
“I've only read one third so far but am already annoyed by the anachronisms thrown up…. For example, when written the book obviously dealt with a President who fought in the Pacific theatre during WWII.” [But] “…the introduction to the President's military background states that he finished his aviation training just as the Vietnam War ended.”
That would make an ace World War II pilot of the early Nineteen-Forties not completing his necessary flight training for it until the mid-Nineteen-Seventies, some thirty odd years after World War II ended. That’s not a minor mistake, but rather one that interfered with the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief, and even worse, it “annoyed” the reader. (Major rule: Never annoy your readers!) Yet, despite this gaffe, Mr. Tilley did give concise and detailed descriptions of the various types of fighter planes used, their maneuverability, and how battles actually occurred. Therefore, on many subjects, his research was top-notch, but apparently not all.
  Another example, one that per­sonally bothered me a lot, was the “glar­ing anachronisms” as one critic put it, in the film, Pirates of the Caribbean. The writers for that film set major portions of the story in Port Royal, Jamaica. Unfortunately, the town of Port Royal had dis­ap­peared under the sea in a disastrous quake long before the events of this story ever took place. Yes, I know it was successful and a movie, but it was also a piece of historical fantasy set in the real world; it was wrong and somebody wrote it that way. I noticed.
People watching the film noticed (e.g., “glaring anachronisms”). Moreover, books and unlike cinema, rely solely upon their individual merit. Johnny Depp won’t magically appear to save a badly researched novel.
Therefore, I repeat, this much remains true regardless of whether it’s a factually based fantasy done in our own Middle Ages, or one created in another universe -– getting it right is always important.
And just as a side note to this, even with regard to the mighty Shakespeare and his anachronisms, I’d like to point out that essays often discuss them and sometimes not in a good way. Get it? Nobody’s immune to destructive criticism, although some can weather it better than others can. 
Anachronistic problems aside, now we know the differences between a village and a hamlet. Right? (You do, don’t you?) However, do you know the differences between a village and a town, a town and a borough, or a borough and a city? Which ones had marketplaces? What were they really like and what are authors’ usual mistakes in portraying them?
Well first, let’s remember the period we’re talking about and what it was like. Medium Aevum (Latin), or the Middle Ages, refers to a period that loosely covers the time from the fall of the Roman Empire (476 C.E.) to the rise of the Renaissance. That’s a long time and authors forget that many changes occurred during it.
So costuming, shoes, etc., are important to research. You don’t want your hero-prince dressed in Thirteenth Century clothing, but sporting Ninth Century shoes. How déclassé; people would talk and not in a good way!
Many famous authors, such as Mary Stewart of the Crystal Cave, make these kinds of mistakes, including most who write about King Arthur. You see, in the late Fifth Century, warriors rarely wore metal armor in England or Europe, but rather specially toughened leather.
British male royalty and nobility still wore their hair in the Roman fashion – short – not the long streaming warrior locks we now visualize them having. In all likelihood, if King Arthur existed then, and contrary to most authors’ descriptions of him, he was probably not and neither were his knights, dressed in shining armor. Moreover, they probably wore their hair quite short. (Sort of ruins the image, doesn’t it?)
During the medieval period, the vast majority of people lived the manor lifestyle. There would be the local lord with his castle, a church or chapel, farmland, and a village or hamlet. Towns were rare and cities much more so. The manor lifestyle had an agrarian-based economy with only the occasional stranger in the form of a peddler, troubadour, or pilgrim intruding into the daily lives of its people.
As a writer, you should remember this. To be realistic, your characters in such a setting should be at least a little xenophobic, that is suspicious of newcomers, although probably still eager for news of the outside world as well. I know, it’s contradictory, but then people often are. However, it does make for creating some fun characters.
Some villages grew to become towns and then cities, while some towns simply grew around a convenient market place where people from different villages met (hence, the English reference to “market towns”). The difference between a town and a large village is then, of necessity, a little vague.
Still, and unlike hamlets, most scholars define them as having switched to a merchant and market-based economy from an agrarian one. Therefore, whether you have a large village or a small town, it should have merchants and marketplaces where people barter, sell, and exchange goods.
Authors often stumble over this fact. I’ve read numerous stories where good-sized villages, even towns and cities, were in the middle of nowhere and with no visible means of support. Of course, this means no trade and so presumably no merchants, and no market place. Whoops!
Another one of David Eddings’ novels of the Belgariad series had a big village located amidst swamps or “fens.” Yet oddly enough, the population lived with many comforts. Just how did they manage to come by these things? Was it by living off frogs’ legs and using dried mud balls to trade for these goods? Was their annual festival fen frolicking? What did they burn for fuel on those damp winter nights -- swamp gas? You see, it’s just not a very believable setting. That village needed a rational source of income. It needed a valid reason for being wherever it was. I’ll tell you what it really needed -- a new location! However, David was very realistic at describing other things, such as the physical discomfort of wearing armor. He was right. It was prone to rusting, rubbing, itching, and smelling.
Towns called boroughs were different from other towns and villages in that they were self-governing; made independent of their lords by paying an annual tax to them. They did this because many villages were actually the property of their local lord and what he said was law. The way to get around that was to become a borough. The word borough derives from the Old English word, burh. It referred originally to simple fortified places, but later came to include larger population centers with defenses, usually consisting of earthworks and/or walls.
So, remember to wall or barricade that borough you create. Oh, and the word town was a description only used in England. Nobody on the European Continent made such a distinction. If your setting is, say, in Germany, Denmark, France, or some other continental place, it might be wiser to avoid calling anything a town.
Cities of the Middle Ages were not like the cities of today. Ours are melting pots with fluid and interchanging classes of society. This wasn’t the case then. We’re talking about a time of rigid class and economic structure -- incredibly so. In those days, people didn’t leave the farms for a better life in the city, because there was virtually no upward mobility in either place -- once a peasant, always a peasant. Authors who have their serf hero trooping off to strike it rich in medieval London are making a cardinal error. It just wouldn’t have happened unless, of course, the serf intended to become a criminal, because just leaving his land was a crime. He belonged to, for all practical purposes, the noble who owned that land.
Merchants may get wealthy, but they answered to their betters just as surely as their servants had to answer to them. Nobility, not pleased with the wealth of merchants and guilds, passed sumptuary laws. These laws forbade non-nobles from wearing certain types of clothing, shoes, and jewelry that were too reminiscent of the nobles own costumes.
In Chaucer’s time, for instance, nobility forbade merchants to wear jewelry made of silver, so they wore silver knives and daggers instead, thus dodging those laws. (Don’t you just hate social climbers? The nobles apparently did.)
The point here is that there are more than just physical anachronisms. There are the social or philosophical ones as well. Writers often erroneously subscribe to their characters modern-day viewpoints and belief systems that didn’t exist during the Middle Ages in villages or cities. Freedom of expression, equal rights, feminism, or freedom of religion just weren’t factors in everyday life then.
Guilds, as in villages and towns, also existed in cities. They were often powerful, wealthy, and exercised considerable political force in later years, but not so much during the early Middle Ages. Their focus was hanging onto their particular piece of a city’s monopolized commercial pie.
Loopholes in these monopolies were few, but some existed. A loophole created restaurants. The different guilds controlled all types of food making from bakeries to butchers. Later, an enterprising merchant in France, one, A. Boulanger, opened a place in Paris that sold soup. Guilds considered soups less as food and more as health restoratives, or “restaurants” in French, so they didn’t bother to control it. Thus, restaurants came into being. (Fascinating stuff, isn’t it? Don’t answer that.) Again, although such loopholes were rare, there were some. This fact may be of use in writing your fantasy. It’s one way your character could get around the strict restrictions of that society.  
Cities of the Middle Ages often had universities and definitely cathedrals, along with all the support staff, servants, and materials such institutions entailed. In fact, that was one of the main definitions of a city; it had a cathedral versus a church for a town or village, and a chapel or nothing for a hamlet.
Many authors forget or downplay the power the Church wielded in cities of the Middle Ages. David Eddings, luckily, did not fall into this trap. In his Domes of Fire, he had his heroes coming from a rigidly religious, medieval, and theocratic state. He was very detailed about its character, nature, and iron-gripping power. It did not tolerate heresy. This is an excellent real-life portrayal.
However, I’ve read other stories where various authors never mention any church at all, let alone a cathedral, as being in their metropolis. Furthermore, they often have their bigwigs deciding important matters without any clergymen involved.
This is a glaring error. No major decisions about a city, including its defenses, economics, or anything else, ever happened without the presence or potent influence of a priest, bishop, archbishop, or cardinal. Even much later, the enormous power of Cardinal Richelieu under King Louis of France is legendary.
Stories that ignore the potent role of the Church then do not seem very realistic. Raymond E. Feist, in his Riftwar Saga had cathedrals, but he really didn’t dwell enough on the power and influence of the church in my opinion. His religions came across more as cult followings of various gods, rather than powerful state monotheisms.
That creates a conundrum, because small cults worshipping obscure gods, but creating such vast expensive edifices as cathedrals would have been highly problematical. Oh, and he had chimney tops, too! (Can’t seem to get away from those, can we?)
Mr. Feist was excellent, however, at portraying most other aspects of medieval city life. His cities had richness to them when it came to detailing the architecture of such cathedrals (flying buttresses, naves, stone columns, etc.), the everyday life of the inhabitants, dress, and economics.
Just remember though, that authors miss a real opportunity to add depth and dimension to their work when they fail to portray powerful churches as a big part of that life. After all, there’s nothing like an evil prelate to give a story a lively interest.
Cities often had ports, were major hubs of trade and commerce, and unlike villages, they often constituted the political centers of power. Cities could result from the growing together of towns or boroughs that were located near, and traded with each other. The ancients founded some cities deliberately. The Romans built Londinium, now modern London, in just this way. Constantinople, now modern-day Istanbul, is another example. So again, location is important, as any real estate agent will tell you. Site your towns and cities where there is a reason for them to be, such as at the crossroads of major trade routes, along a navigable river, or near a deepwater harbor.
Why worry about these distinctions between hamlets, vil­lages, towns, and cities? Why be so thorough and careful about what’s in them and where they’re lo­cated? The answer is simple; again, it’s willing suspen­sion of disbe­lief. If your readers aren’t buying your setting, they cannot and will not suspend their dis­belief in your story. To put it an­other way, they’ll think your work is garbage! Worse, so will those infamously fussy editors to whom you submit your fantasy. Again, this is not to say that some fudging isn’t okay. Small village or big hamlet; who cares? Just don’t go too far with it.
Less important, but still a factor, is trying to avoid the more common writers’ pitfalls. For example, don’t have the innkeeper serving his customers their food at a table and the characters then using forks to eat it. In reality, people brought their own boards upon which the innkeeper placed their food (hence the term “bread and board”). They used only a knife and/or a spoon. Forks were an invention of the Italians during the later Renaissance Period. (“Sporks” came much later and only after the invention of plastic.) Oh, and villagers and townsfolk really did love to gossip. However, there were no local coffee houses -- no coffee, or tea for that matter, so the local church was also the local gossip centre along with inns.
To have a good fantasy set in our medieval period, or the author’s own universe, is to have one that seems realistic. Therefore, you as the author should know your subject. Research it. I’d wager that most fantasy authors aren’t even aware that there are technical differences between hamlets or villages, or that the classification of communities such as villages or cities involved the type of church they had.
Know your subject, because only in a well thought-out world can characters truly flourish, be three-dimensional people to the reader, and be a place where a good plot about them can unfold. Whether you use a city, town, borough, village, or hamlet, try to portray it as a place where real people lived, worked, and sometimes played.
Beware! If you don’t take care in your writing to do this, to strive for accuracy and realism, then you may end up not as a successful writer, but rather as the village idiot. Luckily, I think hamlets were too small even to have those…

The End

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