Capturing the Medieval in Fiction

(N.B.: In this post, I’m using the terms “medieval,” “Renaissance” and “Early Modern” more or less interchangeably for stylistic purposes and ease of writing. Scholars do not agree on the applicability of these terms, with some scholars favoring a “long Middle Ages” lasting into the 18th century, others starting to use the term “Early Modern” with the Italian Quattrocento, and others having more discrete epochs to which they ascribe the terms. I’m not messing with any of that, and I don’t think it will prevent you from getting my point.)

On the heels of my series about “What Writers (and Roleplayers) Should Know About Swordplay,” I thought I might write a little bit more generally about verisimilitude in fiction and RPGs set in a pseudo-medieval or -Renaissance milieu.

When it comes down to it, there are two ways you can write and run games in this sort of a setting, and I think we’ll see that, in gaming at least, the two camps are relatively simple to parse.

The first is the Renaissance Faire approach. It’s not how things were; it’s how we wish they were. This is a fantastic pastiche of history, a facade of the early modern propped up by set pieces that, if we look behind them, we realize are two-dimensional suggestions and not faithful recreations.

Don’t get me wrong, Renaissance Faires are fun. I try to go to the Texas Renaissance Festival every year; when I was in grad school, I’d skip out on a Friday to set up camp for the weekend and play board games with friends until the park opened Saturday morning.

But there’s also something deeply unsatisfying about the Renaissance Festival to me in a way I try to push down deep every time I go. It’s very much pretend-time, and while it has its own charms, it completely lacks the nuance and depth that fascinates me about the time period, that caused me, for a time, to study it professionally.

I’ll defer to Neil Gaiman for a quip that has always made me laugh, from The Sandman #73, when Hob Gadling (who was alive to see the Renaissance) says while visiting a Renaissance Festival: “Well, the first thing that’s wrong is there’s no shit. I mean, that’s the thing about the past that people forget. All the shit. Animal shit. People shit. Cow shit. Horse shit. You waded through the stuff…you should spray them all with shit when they come through the gates. No lice. No nits. No rotting face cancers. When was the last time you saw someone with a bloody great tumor hanging off their face?”

Why do I find the lack of those things so disappointing? It’s not that I’m a masochist (I don’t think). It’s that we’ve sanitized the human experience out of this period so that it seems patently false and superficial. No, I do not want to be sprayed with feces, I don’t want to pick up a colony of lice just for authenticity’s sake when I next attend the Faire (which starts in just over a week, I believe).

But when I want to imagine a world with close ties to the historical period, I want some authenticity to inform the setting, to play a part in the conflicts that develop, the small trials and tribulations. I want a setting that feels immersively real.

In the Renaissance, it was rude to show the underside of your hat to someone while you bowed; typically you would hold it close to your body to prevent anyone from seeing such a private place. Because the underside of your hat was probably nasty. Even if you didn’t have lice, sweat, body oils, and accumulated detritus made the interior of your headpiece rather unpleasant to consider.

These details remind us how different the human experience was for people back then. When air conditioning was no thing, long-term food storage precarious, famine only a bad harvest or a weather disaster away, people had different concerns than we might now. Human nature was the same, of course, and the same motivations (greed, fear, desire for comfort and safety, identity, conscience, piety, to name a few) drove people to behave as they did. But the world in which those motivations acted, and the results they produced under the circumstances, were often different in ways difficult for the modern mind to recapture.

Think about the offense you might take if someone living five-hundred years from now looked back on us and thought about the way we live as “quaint” or as some pastoral fantasy of a “less complicated” life.

Clearly D&D fits into this first camp. The narrative focuses on the fantastic over the mundane, which it is happy to gloss over. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that–I can imagine that most players would much rather focus on that aspect of their game than mundane minutiae.

The second camp hits closer to the feel I’d expect, but not through verisimilitude, necessarily. Games like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, its modern cohort Zweihander, and those games that tend to fit into the position of “weird” fantasy; in the fiction world, think China Mieville’s New Crobuzon.

These settings are grittier, and WFRP in particular makes a greater point about the weirdness of the common folk of the Empire, the constant threat of disease, the unavoidable presence of untreated mental illness, superstition mixed with genuine piety, and a fear of the occult that a medieval or Renaissance person might well relate to. But these are generally treated as originating, at least to a great degree, from the fantastic elements of the setting–the actual existence of magic, the prevalence of monsters, the actions of very real beings whose provenance is disease and madness. In some sense, this is just putting flesh on the bones of beliefs and superstitions underlying medieval culture (to the extent that it is monolithic, which is to say not at all).

If the end “feel” of the setting is all that you’re after, then WFRP and its brethren and sistren come “close enough,” to capturing the early-modern vibe, I suppose.

For me, personally, though, the interaction between the mundane and the fantastic is a fertile ground for narrative and worldbuilding depth, one that most fantasy fiction and roleplaying games gloss over or make generic.

Let’s take the Thieves’ Guild for instance, a classic in fantasy settings and D&D in particular. The idea came about, in part at least, because of the historical existence of the “thieves’ cant” and “canting crews” (see 1698’s “New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew”). The cant was not a language, really, but a large body of slang used by those involved in illicit occupations to code their discussions from the body public and to identify who was “in” and who “out.” But this was not indicative of any large, institutionalized criminal enterprise; it was a grassroots and organically-developed aspect of criminal life by loose affiliation. This allows for a lot more nuance (although perhaps a lot more work for a GM as well) than a single or a few competing “Thieves’ Guilds.” Sure there were organized criminal operations as well, but none of these seem to have exercised exclusive dominion on the criminal underworld of a place.

I am fascinated by the minor but constant pains of the adventuring life. Having been a somewhat avid camper and backpacker, I have experience in the frustrations that can accompany short-term wilderness treks made more comfortable by modern materials and technology. Remove those pleasantries and extend the voyage and things become more difficult. Adventuring quickly seems to be much more like military life in war (or at least what I understand it to be like with no personal experience): boredom, drudgery and myriad minor obstacles to frustrate punctuated by bouts of extreme excitement, danger and fear. Have you ever considered that the days- weeks-long hike to that dungeon might be just as dissuasive (or deadly) to would-be adventurers than the monsters that live within it? How about the possibility that a noble desperate to find some relief from the gout might be just as likely to hire adventurers to search for a miracle cure as some old wizard seeking ancient artifacts?

That’s where the beauty of it comes together–when we get characters and situations that combine and blend mundane human concerns with the fantastic, we get settings and narratives that are far more complex, far more interesting, and far more believable than those that neglect such details.

And think about how much such concerns add to your worldbuilding? Where is the average wizard going to find the most lucrative (and consistent) employment–in throwing fireballs around and calling down comets or in helping to make sure the crop yield is good, healing common disease, and dispelling some of the more vexing aspects of daily life? Is a “remove lice” spell or a “bathe” spell more valuable than a magic missile in an economic sense? How about that “unseen servant” when it’s time to make camp after ten hours of walking or riding?

On a related note, how would disparate access to magical services reinforce class distinctions and divisions?

Don’t be fooled by the fact that games tending towards “80’s realism” more often incorporate these considerations (or at least facsimiles of them)–mechanics are not necessary to bring this depth to your game. It comes out in the descriptions of places and things, the motivations and behaviors of characters, and the narrative details. You can incorporate these ideas into mechanics if you’re so inclined–Torchbearer at least incorporates fatigue and hunger (among other items) into constant and legitimate concerns for adventurers (in a relatively simple way as well), and even judicious application of fatigue levels in D&D can do the trick without further rules changes.

There are plenty of books on societal structures and the operations of certain medieval institutions (especially the manor house in feudalism) written especially for roleplayers (but equally helpful to writers of fiction if you ignore the offered mechanics and focus on the information provided). Expeditious Retreat Press’s Magical Medieval Europe has long been a staple on this front, as are Lisa Steele’s Fief and Town and, more recently Philip McGregor’s Orbis Mundi 2 (probably my favorite of these).

But there aren’t as many (any?) books I’ve found specifically for roleplaying gamers and writers about medieval/Renaissance culture and habit. Yes, you can read Machiavelli’s The Prince for one (embittered) man’s political theory, Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier for idealized elite behavior, and mine Shakespeare’s (and Marlowe and Jonson, etc.) works for glimpses of behavior–though you’ll likely need to read a bunch of scholarly resources to decode these as well! These are all worthwhile things to do.

I’ve found a couple of books and resources that I believe are excellent primers on aspects of early-modern culture that can be very advantageous to the writer or GM. Note that they range from the scholarly to the popular (and perhaps over simplified). They are:

  • Ruth Goodman’s How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England
  • Most Great Courses on the Medieval and Renaissance periods
  • Edward Muir’s Mad Blood Stirring: Violence and Vendetta in Friuli During the Renaissance
  • Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveler’s Guides
  • The London Medieval Murder Map
  • Frances and Joseph Gies’s Life in a Medieval… Series
  • Gamini Salgado’s Elizabethan Underworld

And for the truly weird:

  • Darren Oldridge’s Strange Histories
  • Carlo Ginzberg’s The Cheese and the Worms
  • John Waller’s The Dancing Plague
  • Norman Cohn’s Europe’s Inner Demons
  • Brian Levack’s The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe
  • Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic (one of my very favorites)

Bonus Round – Quick Facts

Sugar
Despite the Greco-Romans being aware of sugar, it wasn’t much of a thing in the early middle ages in Europe. The Crusades and contact with the near east reintroduced sugar in small quantities to the continent, but its use was long limited to medicinal purposes over gustatory ones (see sugar packing of wounds, known to the ancients, for an example, but also usage for stomachache, etc.). It wasn’t until the 15th Century “settlement” (read: colonization) of the Madeira and Canary islands that sugar began to enter European culture in a big way–and this was further accelerated by the “discovery” of the “New World.”

Cotton
Linen and wool were the dominant textiles for universal use, with rarer things (velvet, ermine, silk, etc.) available to the nobility. Some cotton was occasionally used in medieval Europe, but it was rare enough that John Mandeville describes it as deriving from a “wool-growing tree” and some artwork depicts vegetative lamb-plant hybrids (something Hob Gadling also refers to in Sandman #73).

Cotton is native to Egypt and Africa, but like sugar, it didn’t enter broad circulation in European culture until the cultivation of cotton in the “New World.”

Fruits and Vegetables
Depending on how historical(ly based) your setting is, you might want to check on what kinds of fruits and vegetables (or animals, for that matter) were unknown before the “discovery” of the “New World”–tomatoes, blueberries, strawberries, avocadoes, maize and a good deal more.

Conclusion
As I’ve said before, all of this information is a guide–not a set of constraints (unless you’re writing historical fiction).

Think of all of these details as a complex web of joined points; if you pull one point, it’s going to have ripple effects on other points in the web. That doesn’t mean don’t do it, but it does mean you should exercise some caution and forethought in how you pull, lest you pull so hard that the lines between snap. That’s your verisimilitude you just destroyed.

At the same time, though, these sorts of details are opportunities, opportunities to efficiently convey ideas about the nature and feel of the world in which you’re writing or gaming. Don’t lose out on those opportunities!

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