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August, 2004 : Essay:

Using Medieval Towns as Story Settings

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....

Copyright © 2004, Robert Shelsky. All Rights Reserved.

About Robert Shelsky

Robert R. Shelsky has been a writer for twenty years. Prior to that, he lived in Texas, Massachusetts, New York, Australia, and California. He attended Southwestern College, University of Victoria at British Columbia, and San Diego State. He has written technical works and manuals for major corporations, such as Xscribe, Courseware, IVAC, and many others, as well as writing articles for in-house corporate magazines in the San Diego area. One year ago, he moved to North Carolina and started writing fulltime. His greatest loves are science fiction and fantasy, as well as doing research for freelance articles. His stories and articles have appeared in various magazines. Soap Bubbles was his first published science fiction story. Implosion came out last year at Alien Skin Magazine. Gateway SF Magazine has recently published Let it be Forever. His time travel romance story, A Confederate Yankee in Annabelle's Court, is coming out early in 2005 with Arabella Romance Magazine. He has just completed and sent to an agent, Simon Simple and the Spirit of the Wendigo, his first fantasy novel. In addition, Robert is currently a resident monthly columnist for Alien Skin Magazine, where his articles deal with how to write science fiction. His byline there is Rob Shelly. Also, he has placed three consecutive times in the L. Ron Hubbard's Writers of the Future Contest. His favorite pastimes are writing, reading, hiking, and traveling. Occasionally (with a glass of wine), he likes to watch the sunset over the North Carolina Sand Hills.


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
u r gay

Feb 6, 04:57 by Carey McGee
Anonymous, it's spelled "Uruguay."
Apr 26, 15:05 by ertet
Apr 26, 15:06 by Anonymous
you are gay
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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