Using Medieval Towns as Story Settings

Aug 21, 19:55 by John Frost
Comments on Robert Shelsky's take on historical accuracy...
Aug 22, 08:52 by Janine Stinson
Too true, too true, what Robert Shelsky writes in this article. I stopped reading fantasy altogether for over a decade because of all the lousy, dull, cookie-cutter novels that were churned out in the 1980s and early 1990s. Yech. Thanks to RS for the discussion about the differences between hamlets, villages, towns and cities; many of the details were unknown to me until I read this article. I will have to write this stuff down for future reference. <g>

Aug 23, 07:59 by glenda larke
Agree whole-heartedly. Nothing bugs me more than a setting/economy/political set-up that just wouldn't work...

Even if a writer doesn't set their books in a mediaeval world, nor in a real historical place/time (as I don't), nonetheless, the society has to work. Cities live off something. People need to believe in something. Not even the most autocratic of kings could govern without some kind of power structure and tacit support behind him... and so on. It can't be said too often. And if these things are believable, then your story becomes that much more believable...

Thanks, Robert, for saying it so well.

Glenda Larke
Aug 26, 07:33 by Brent Kellmer
I would definitely agree that having a more medievally accurate setting can greatly enhance a story -- if you're going to set something in a real medieval setting (in our Europe), this is important. However, with the obvious exception of gaffs like Eddings putting a village in a place where one couldn't survive, many of the technical issues such as the existence/non-existence of chimneys don't go over so well with me. If the story is a medieval setting in another world, the exact nature of when this technology or that came into use in our world doesn't really apply, unless it's a serious anachronism. Now I was disillusioned as much as the first commentor above with the cookie-cutter fantasy of the '80s -- but that was less because of anachronism (which certainly did exist) than because of a dirth of decent storytelling. There is no question that a realistic infrastructure must exist to make a story more believable, but it doesn't have to be identical to the technical infrastructure that existed in our world.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that the more the background is believable, the more believable the story is. But that background doesn't have to be the same as our medieval period.

And as an aside, I have to say that, having spent all this time working on an article that points out the technical issues and problems in some stories, the author here makes some rather broad generalities himself. The idea of little metal armor being used in the fifth century is incorrect -- certainly plate armor wasn't around, but mail was relatively widely used. Some roman units used it. Some areas used boiled leather armor, but it wasn't as widely used as the article implies -- it doesn't hold up well in moist climates, for instance. And the idea that "British nobles" followed Roman hair cutting styles is also a vague generality -- starting off with the idea that there were any such thing as a "british noble" -- romano-britons very likely did. Native britons probably didn't. Imports from Europe probably didn't, either, as they tended towards the germanic traditions of the "long-haired kings" that you find in Gregory of Tours's History of the Franks. BTW, I'm not trying to say that I know it all -- I certainly learned a good bit in this article as well, and I've got a master's in early medieval history. However, if you're going to criticize something, you should make sure you're not making the same sort of mistake yourself.

Brent Kellmer
Sep 8, 19:25 by Holly Ingraham
Yes, please, in any fantasy, medieval or not, make it a culture that looks like it could last more than a week. The very reason an author chooses fantasy over a straight historical setting may be to explore variations (what would the Middle Ages Thing be like without a theocratic state? what if they had been more egalitarian?), but it has to be a working economy. People have to get food and the rest somewhere.

Also, I am way weary of characters being 21st century suburbanites in funny clothes. Can we have some non-modern cultural attitudes besides samurai warriorhood and bigotry against magicians/non-magicians/barbarians/etc.?

BTW, it might surprise some how relatively egalitarian the Middle Ages were. We often only see it through the lens of Victorian phallicism, the worst since Classical Greece. They greatly remolded history in the image they wanted it to have, forcing it to reflect their prejudices and preferences to justify themselves. For example, many family names come from female versions of professional surnames: Baxter, Webster, and Brewster, for a few, as opposing the male surnames Baker, Webber, and Brewer. This says there were women doing professional baking, weaving and brewing. A surprising number have carried down matronyms, like "Beaton" means "Beatrice's son," or "Helmansdotter" is "Helman's daughter," and it wasn't just for bastards if you crawl through baptismal records. You got known by your more notable parent, not necessarily the male one.

For a good background on life in the Middle Ages, look for Frances Gies and her husband. They have written books specifically on village, castle, and city life, the organization of the family, women's lives, and the lively inventiveness of a period often viewed as stagnant.
Sep 9, 04:47 by Jeff Spock

Ditto northwoods48 on his increasingly limited tolerance for sloppily-written fantasy.

The greatest reference on these topics that I have run across is a series of three books by Fernand Braudel; the one I turn to most often is The Structures of Everyday Life.

The period is later than what the article deals with, from 13th to 15th centuries, but there is a wealth of detail on daily life in all of the developed civilizations of the world. Braudel covers the development of inns, of roads, of currencies, of markets... and he does it in Europe, Japan, China, and the Middle East.

After all, who wouldn't want to own a book that includes a map showing how long it took news to spread across Europe from Venice?

Highly recommended.
Sep 10, 02:10 by Simon McLeish
It's easy to point the finger at bad examples, but what would readers suggest as good ones?

Sometimes impressive parts of the setting occur in what may seem unlikely places: I felt that the way Gordon R Dickson handled medieval attitudes to strangers and to rank in the Dragon Knight books to be quite convincing, and Christopher Stasheff's take on how a literal use of the medieval theology of prayer might affect warfare was interesting in another light fantasy series.
Sep 10, 07:27 by Bluejack
Mary Stewart's evocation of England after the collapse of the Roman Empire in her Merlin books was particularly vivid to me. I don't know for sure how accurate it was, but even creating the illusion of well-researched stuff is a good start.
Sep 26, 18:19 by Dan Goodman
Emma Bull's War For the Oaks has a mention of the disease which killed so many Dutch elms in Minneapolis. Actually, "Dutch Elm Disease" is [Dutch disease of elms] rather than [disease of Dutch elms]. That didn't bother me -- but if the protagonist had been a professional forester, it would have.

In Connie Willis's "Just Like the Ones We Used to Know," I was very much bothered by a character saying it never snows in Hawaii. The character was an expert on climate/weather -- I would expect such a person to know that it snows regularly in Hawaii, sometimes as early as August. (Only at rather high altitudes, of course.)
Feb 6, 02:40 by Anonymous
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Feb 6, 04:57 by Carey McGee
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Apr 26, 15:05 by ertet
Apr 26, 15:06 by Anonymous
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Apr 26, 16:33 by Bluejack
What is it about this thread that attracts the mentally impaired?
Dec 7, 10:23 by karishma patel

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