The Medieval period is awesome! But there’s a lot to learn. This is a time period that’s misrepresented a lot in the media. Get ready to do some heavy research. You’d better like to learn if you want to write Medieval Historical Fiction!
1) There are no corsets.
This is perhaps the biggest costume mistake I see in medieval fiction, mostly in the indie writer sphere. At no time during the Middle Ages did women wear corsets. These were not invented until the 16th century. You’ll also want to scrap petticoats and bustles, those come much later.
In fact, the hourglass figure wasn’t the beauty ideal for women. The medieval era covers a thousand years. Style of dress does change from one century to another, but overall, women’s clothing was high-waisted with straight lines, not form-fitting; it’s the absolute opposite of fashion that would require a corset.
2) Pick a specific year
There are some HUGE differences between centuries in the Middle ages. You can’t just research “medieval.” You’ve got to narrow it down, at least to the century.
The year 800 can NOT be compared the year 1400. In the former, England was not a unified country, Christianity was brand new (and most people were still Pagan-at least culturally), the Norman conquest hadn’t happened. In the latter, the country was unified and England held several pieces of land in other countries, Christianity dominated the social and cultural landscape, and the Normans had fully-integrated into English society via marriage.
3) Medieval People did not speak a language we would recognize
The later you get in the Middle Ages, the closer the language gets to modern English, but it’s still not quite the language that we speak. If you choose the early Middle Ages, say the year 600, then your characters will be speaking Old English. Old English is much closer to German than English.
Language becomes even more complicated in the mid-late Middle Ages, because England was a multi-lingual country. Peasants and serfs spoke the language that eventually became English, while the clergy and upper classes often spoke Latin or French.
I write time travel fiction, so language barriers are sometimes an issue.
4) Their values were different
Their world was so different than ours. For one, they didn’t have the sense that all people are born with certain rights. Human rights was a totally alien concept to them.
Ever wonder why serfs were content to live and die tied to the same plot of land?
Because it never would have entered their heads that this wasn’t “fair” or “just.”
The schools of philosophy that birthed Naturalism and all of these ideas of human rights were far, FAR in the future.
Medieval people didn’t think in abstract terms like this. At least, it wouldn’t have been the norm.
5) Women weren’t all that oppressed
Feudalism isn’t really a patriarchy. (Okay, so technically it is, but bare with me..) Everybody had their place in feudalism. Class was FAR more important than gender.
Human rights in general were pretty lacking, and my point is, they weren’t especially lacking for women. Life for women sucked about the same as it sucked for men. Men could hold positions of power and women couldn’t. But that was SUCH a small minority of men. Most men were not nobles. They lived and died breaking their backs for 12 hours a day, six days a week.
Most people were property.
A serf could try to run away, but life for a freeman was often much more difficult than life as a serf. As a serf, if the crops didn’t do well, the lord of the fiefdom would feed you and your family. If enemies attacked, the lord and his men would protect you. Outside the safety of a fiefdom, life was hard and unforgiving. It was so hard that many freeman sold themselves into serfdom. If a person opted to become a serf, then all of their children (and all of their children and so on, forever) were destined to be serfs. But men did it all the time.
Women were also serfs. And rape by lords and hired men was likely common. It was a hard life and I’m not discounting that. It just wasn’t really oppression based on gender. Men were brutally killed and tortured all the time. It sucked for everybody.
There were some circumstances that would allow a woman to step outside of her designated social role. You’ve probably heard of Joan of Arc. She got away with wearing pants and leading armies, because she said God told her to do it. Religious visions were taken quite seriously back then. Rarely was the person who had the vision not believed. If you said, “Hey guys, God said I should X” then usually people would be like, “What the hell are you waiting for? Go do X!”
Women could also hold some roles within the clergy, although it’s true they could never gain the same kinds of power that male clergy could. And you had to be very wealthy to join the clergy to begin with, so it really all goes back to class.
6) There are no cannons
Unless you’re writing the VERY late middle ages.
This is another very common mistake.
What you mean to write is a Trebuchet, and I highly encourage you to check out r/trebuchetmemes
7) Yes, there were some people of color around
Well, if your Medieval story takes place in Africa, then yeah, duh. (Did you know there were actually castles in Medieval Africa? I’m not the right writer to explore that, but if someone else writes some Medieval African stories, I’ll read the fuck out of it).
But I mean in Europe too. There wasn’t a complete absence of people of color.
Sometimes you get a snot writing historical fiction who is all, “Medieval Europe didn’t HAVE any black people!I’m not going to pander! Historical accuracy!”
Well….no…they did. And calm down.
People did still travel back then. In fact, there was a good deal of travel between England and the Middle East. I don’t just mean the Crusades. People traveled for less terrible reasons too. Check out The Book of Marjery Kempe.
Middle Eastern people would have been the most common minority in medieval England. They were referred to as “Moors.” Medieval people were aware of Islam. Not that they were super woke or anything. They turned Muhammed into a Christian demon. There was a common expression in the mid-Middle ages, “By the blood of Mahound!” Mahound is Muhammed….not sure how that happened. It’s like a swear. Basically “By the devil!”
There was definitely racism. That doesn’t mean Middle Eastern people and European people never cooperated and got along.
The very worst racism of the Middle Ages was not directed at people with dark skin. Sometimes I’ll stumble across a time travel story where medieval people are confused and terrified by a time traveler’s dark skin and I have to roll my eyes. That would not have happened.
The worst racism was directed at Jewish people. Jewish people were forced to wear yellow hats to identify themselves, and at several points in time, they were heavily taxed to the point of being forced out of the cities they lived in. In the 13th century, the king forcefully expelled them from England. While they were in medieval England, the jobs they could work were heavily regulated. They were allowed to work in banking (You guys just figured out a stereotype, huh?-yeah, I felt gross too when that clicked). They tended to stick to cities, and often large churches would protect their communities. Weird, right?
The anti-semitism was pretty out of control. Read any medieval story with a Jewish character. It’s not pretty.
So, if you write a Medieval time travel story, don’t have the characters try to burn people at the stake for being black (burning at the stake also wasn’t a thing until the VERY late Middle Ages, almost the Renaissance). They wouldn’t think people with dark skin were wizards (yes, I have really found this in indie books). Medieval people were far more likely to be anti-semitic than have a problem with dark skin. We have to remember, this society had its problems, but those problems just weren’t the same as the ones we have.
8) They were aware of gay people….but their views on the matter were problematic
Homosexuality is referenced in several medieval manuscripts. Lanval by Marie de France is the first one that comes to mind for me.
Gay people were even tacitly accepted when it was a person with power. There’s a certain Prince Edward who had a boyfriend exiled by Parliament (numerous times btw) because he kept trying to lock people in the Tower of London and having beefs with other nobles.
Mostly though, they thought of it very differently than we do today. They viewed it as a sexual perversion. Think….somebody famous with a weird sex fetish. Everybody knows and thinks it’s weird, but they’re so rich and famous that nobody says much about it. That’s what gay nobles were kind of like. Usually they’d still get married. Nobody married for love back then anyway, so there wasn’t anything to get fussed over.
I haven’t read any accounts of lesbians in the Middle Ages, but this could be simply because most of the manuscripts were written by men. Or maybe women simply didn’t wield enough power for anybody to notice what was happening behind closed doors.
9) There were some paved roads
Roman roads. They’re really cool
10) You can’t do this with google
You can’t. I promise. You need to take your ass down to the library.
The best academic database to use for medieval research is JSTOR. Most libraries have access to this database.
Pick the year you want to set your story in (for the love of God don’t pick the 1300s-EVERYBODY does the 1300s-we are black-deathed the hell out over here), and then start reading as much as you can about that century. Take lots of notes.
There are some really great channels on youtube that you can use to get started. You just have to go further and read some actual books too. Shadiversity is my favorite Medieval youtube channel.
R/Askhistorians is another great resource. They have SUCH strict comment criteria. Like, go and look at their rules. I think it’s easier to get a dissertation peer-reviewed than have a comment approved on that sub-reddit. but this is good news for us non-historians. The responses that make the cut are very informative
It might sound like a lot. It is! There’s still so much I need to learn about the Middle Ages. I set all my books in the 1100s or 1200s, so I’ve become quite the expert in those two centuries. And listen, no matter how much research, you’ll still mess up. You picked a really exciting period of human history! But the reason it’s so exciting is because it is so totally divorced from the modern world.
Small details will end up wrong. I stuck a harpsichord in Time Storms, just to find out two drafts later harpsichords weren’t invented yet.
It’s okay. Do you best, have fun, take the research seriously, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t super fun!
And when you need a beta reader, please hit me up. I can read Medieval fiction all day ❤