The Black Knight thundered down the road. He raced past the old abbey. Its crenellated walls thrust defiantly upward, as if daring the forces of darkness to attack it. However, the knight knew that his best hope lay in the hamlet ahead of him. It was there that he was to meet with the White Wizard. So on he galloped, passing the wattle huts of the outlying and poorest inhabitants, and then past the quaint stone church with its surprised priest. At last, he entered the main street. The inhabitants scattered before him. Some ducked inside the bakery, while others fled into the chandler's shop. One panicked citizen, a wealthy merchant, sought shelter with the smithy. The Black Knight reached the Hound and Hunter, the hamlet's only inn.
Okay, so that isn't the greatest piece of writing you've ever read. I didn't intend for it to be. Rather, it is an illustration of things that can go wrong with a story. This happens when a writer assumes he knows more about a given subject than he actually does. Most of us have read enough medieval fantasies to think it's no big deal 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 the hamlet. In all probability that abbey wasn't there. And those walls weren't likely to be crenellated. In addition, I have our guy 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 fewer. So, there wouldn't be any outlying wattle hovels. Also, there was no main street. 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 eighty-six my bakery and blacksmith. And forget the wealthy merchant. He wouldn't have lived in such a hole-in-the-wall place. Lose the inn: 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. Usually, there were no businesses at all in a hamlet. Oh, and watch out for young thieves running over rooftops and hiding behind chimney pots, as in Raymond E. Feist's Riftwar Saga series of novels. That's right—no chimneys! They didn't appear until the late 13th century and then only for the very rich to enjoy. Earlier, even castles suffered along without them.
Hamlets were tiny. Usually, they were situated where several farmers' adjacent properties met or came together. That was it; not much of anything else, except perhaps a lot of inbreeding and close relations, but I digress.
Let's be fair here; nobody is going to raise a hue and cry or kick you out of the fantasy genre 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 is no big deal. It will usually go unnoticed by the reader. But tossing all sorts of anachronisms into a hamlet or village is a much bigger issue. It causes major problems with your story's realism. You read the hash I made of that hamlet in my example. So 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.
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.
With a fantasy universe, however, anachronisms are not such a looming problem. 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. Besides which, it isn't a terrible offense to make the occasional anachronistic mistake. Shakespeare even did it. 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 as well.
Still, there is one important caveat that you, as an author, should always remember. Your readers will forgive you the odd little goof-up (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 of accuracy and your readers 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 Eddings' historical fantasy, Domes of Fire, referred to it as having "teeth grinding anachronisms," such as "...cookie and mom...." He felt that the author had been "lazy." That's not a good review when you're trying to sell books, is it? Of course, Eddings has written many excellent stories and the rare clinker will not destroy him. And his descriptions of castles and fortresses were highly accurate with their outer and inner wards, keeps, and crenellated walls. Still, for new authors, such reviews may have more dire consequences. (Remember those budding careers?)
With real-world historical fantasies or science fiction, it is essential to be accurate. Alex Ford, another reviewer, had this to say about Patrick Tilley's book Fade-Out:
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 1940s not completing his necessary flight training until the mid-1970s, over 30 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" that reader. (Major rule: Never annoy your readers!) Yet, despite this gaffe, 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.
Another example was the "glaring anachronisms," as one critic put it, in the film Pirates of the Caribbean. The writers set major portions of the story in Port Royal, Jamaica. Unfortunately, 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 a successful movie and not a book, but it was a piece of historical fantasy set in the real world; it was wrong, and somebody wrote it that way. I noticed. People watching the movie noticed (e.g. "glaring anachronisms"). Books, unlike movies, rely solely upon their own merit. Johnny Depp won't magically appear to save a poorly researched novel.
So 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 to some degree. And as a side note to this, even Shakespeare's anachronisms are sometimes discussed in a negative light.
Anachronistic problems aside, now we know the differences between a village and a hamlet, right? But what about 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?
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 13th century clothing but sporting 9th century shoes. How déclassé; people would talk! 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 5th 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, contrary to most authors' descriptions of him, neither he nor his knights were dressed in shining armor, and they probably wore their hair quite short.
During the medieval period, the vast majority of people lived the manor lifestyle. There would be the local lord with his castle, a church, farmland, and a village or hamlet. Towns were rare and cities even 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.
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 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. The difference between a town and a large village is of necessity a little vague. 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 marketplace. 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 mud bogging? 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, Eddings was very realistic at describing 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. And the word town was a description only used in England. Nobody on the European Continent made such a distinction. If your setting is 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 setting 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 or adventurer.
Merchants may get wealthy, but they answered to their betters just as surely as their servants had to answer to them. Nobility, displeased 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, merchants couldn't 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.)
Not only are there physical anachronisms, there are social and philosophical ones as well. Writers often erroneously ascribe 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.
Guilds, as in villages and towns, also existed in cities. They were often powerful and 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. One loophole created restaurants. The different guilds controlled all types of food production, from bakeries to butchers. Later, an enterprising merchant in France, one A. Boulanger, opened a place in Paris that sold soup. Guilds considered soup a health restorative rather than a food, or "a restaurant" in French, so they didn't bother to control them. Thus, restaurants came into being. 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 required. 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 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 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 just plain wrong. 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 had cathedrals in his Riftwar Saga, 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 and creating such vast expensive edifices would have been problematical. Oh, and he had chimney tops, too!
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, nave, 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 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 or 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: it's the 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 crap! Worse, so may 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. If you put a cathedral into a hamlet, that, by very definition, makes it a city, and so just plain wrong.
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 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. But there were no local coffee houses—no coffee, so, along with the inn, the local church was the local gossip center.
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'm betting 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. That they don't even know the basics says something in itself about their true knowledge of the Middle Ages.
Whether set in our own past or that of some other fantasy universe, the best stories are those in which life seems real, convincing, and internally consistent. Try to avoid too many anachronisms, physical or philosophical. They add up. They can weigh down a story. They can ruin an otherwise good piece of writing.
Only in a well-thought-out world can characters flourish and be three-dimensional; only here can a good plot 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, then you may end up as the village idiot. Luckily, I think hamlets were too small even to have those....