Join 3,423 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Dragons are totally real tho
May 8, 2014 8:44 AM   Subscribe

The uncommonly well-moderated and researched Ask Historians subreddit answers the question: What common medieval fantasy tropes have little-to-no basis in real medieval European history?
posted by The Whelk (54 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite

 
My favorite: "Few commanders wanted to risk everything on something as fickle as a field battle."
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 9:05 AM on May 8


Fantasy and romanticist medieval ideas tend to overestimate the urbanisation of medieval Europe...Most people lived in small, rural villages or on manors.

As a corrective, here's a worldbuilder's guide to medieval demographics based on 13th century French tax rolls.
posted by Iridic at 9:06 AM on May 8 [9 favorites]


I don't know. I pretty much side with Tolkien that historical fantasy isn't historical fiction and shouldn't be read as historical fiction. It's fiction that takes inspiration from oral folklore and recorded literature about heroes, villains, and monsters. If an author wants for the hero to die after having been nicked with a poisoned blade, they're in great company.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:10 AM on May 8 [4 favorites]


I pretty much side with Tolkien that historical fantasy isn't historical fiction and shouldn't be read as historical fiction.

The problem comes when people absorb all these fantasy tropes and THINK they are writing historical fiction when they really aren't.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:17 AM on May 8 [7 favorites]


Fantasy and romanticist medieval ideas tend to overestimate the urbanisation of medieval Europe...Most people lived in small, rural villages or on manors.

This really depends on time and place though. Certainly the plagues would not have been so devastating had it not for the "urbanization" (urban in the sense of a town rather than a remote farm) of the population between the 10th and 14th centuries.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:22 AM on May 8


Not in the link, but my favourite: primer noctis, aka "yeah let's ignore the whole concept of dynastic marriages and alliance."
posted by Lemurrhea at 9:22 AM on May 8


The problem comes when people absorb all these fantasy tropes and THINK they are writing historical fiction when they really aren't.

Agreed. Game of Thrones discussions seem to be prone to playing hokey pokey between "fiction" and "historical realism" these days. And a fair number of writers and fans in the genre treat both narrative and history in ways that are superficial and antiquated.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:28 AM on May 8 [1 favorite]


"Did public inns or taverns exist in 11th-14th-century Western Europe?
Yes, but not as depicted in romanticist medieval texts or fantasy, with a boar over the fire, a bard and the local population meeting to drink, tell tales, eat, dance and be merry. Most inns were a simple farmhouse where the farmer offered you a place and fodder for your horse (should you have one) a place in his bed (most shared beds during this era)"


Haha, this is always bothering me in fantasy novels, where the hero's party is traveling through a depressed rural backwater but some dude operates an inn full-time with tons of empty rooms JUST IN CASE someone comes through. I don't really mind my fantasy unrealistic, but when the economy makes no sense it has a tendency to throw me out of the novel (see also: "WHY ARE THE WEASLEYS POOR THIS ECONOMY MAKES NO SENSE").
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:37 AM on May 8 [28 favorites]


Whyis there poverty in the wizardingly world anyway it's like at most a few thousand people and lots of empty, ready to be filled manors /derail
posted by The Whelk at 9:42 AM on May 8 [4 favorites]


Haha, this is always bothering me in fantasy novels, where the hero's party is traveling through a depressed rural backwater but some dude operates an inn full-time with tons of empty rooms JUST IN CASE someone comes through.

Besides that, where are the serfs getting currency to use at the pub? The trope is totally an anachronistic mash-up of the inn and publik house of later years.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:50 AM on May 8


Not at all to suggest that this isn't a laudable and pleasing outpouring of nerdery, but I sometimes still marvel at how much of the Reddit "Ask" world is effectively Ask People Who Once Read a Book So You Don't Have to Bother. I mean, pretty much any introduction to medieval history would cover most or all of these topics, but this person somehow had enough interest to come up with that detailed list of questions without having enough interest ever to go to a library?
posted by RogerB at 9:50 AM on May 8 [9 favorites]


Most torture devices from the era are inventions of Victorian era freakshows (that were very popular at the time).

Man, an obsession with torture (and, somewhat related, with the obscure minutia of troop movements in battle) is one of the things I will never understand in my fellow history buffs. It's like, no matter the setting, there's always at least one dude who wants to know if there was any really cool torture going on. I just do not GET this, at all. What is the appeal? Why is there SO MUCH INTEREST to the point of making up fake ways to torture people, and having those torture museums at, like, Medieval Times and wax museums, and in every discussion of medieval history there's always a thread that's all, "We got some really wild torture over here!" What IS this, I don't GET it.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 9:53 AM on May 8 [8 favorites]


But Joseph and Frances Gies "Life in a Medieval ______" books are so hard to find!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:54 AM on May 8


but this person somehow had enough interest to come up with that detailed list of questions without having enough interest ever to go to a library?

I don't understand how asking historians your specific history questions is somehow worse than going to a library (and likely asking a Reference Librarian.)
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 10:04 AM on May 8 [5 favorites]


Before reading this, I read unfamiliar with the concept of "the blood eagle." Now, I am sorry I Googled it. Thank you, history!
posted by Joey Michaels at 10:10 AM on May 8 [1 favorite]


Before reading this, I read unfamiliar with the concept of "the blood eagle."

This is now another Hannibal thread.
posted by zombieflanders at 10:15 AM on May 8 [1 favorite]


I mean, pretty much any introduction to medieval history would cover most or all of these topics, but this person somehow had enough interest to come up with that detailed list of questions without having enough interest ever to go to a library?

You might be delighted to learn that the denizens of AskHistorians have often read many more than one book apiece!

Besides, not everybody is going to know which book(s) to read or will have the time to read those book(s). Many authoritative-looking books contain serious inaccuracies, or contain lots of material which would not interest the person who only has a few relatively fine-pointed questions to ask.

For example, a single introductory book on the Middle Ages would not contain the information behind this succinct, specific answer from this question (which is very similar to the FPP).
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:18 AM on May 8 [11 favorites]


This is now another Hannibal thread.

More like a Vikings thread.
posted by dnash at 10:19 AM on May 8 [2 favorites]


Man, I wonder if there isn't a fantasy novel to be written about a proper medieval university.
Initially medieval universities did not have physical facilities such as the campus of a modern university. Classes were taught wherever space was available, such as churches and homes. A university was not a physical space but a collection of individuals banded together as a universitas.
So much cooler than magic boarding school.
posted by graymouser at 10:22 AM on May 8 [12 favorites]


> Before reading this, I read unfamiliar with the concept of "the blood eagle."

If it's any consolation, one of the replies in the thread states that no skeletons have ever been found disfigured in the manner described.

> I sometimes still marvel at how much of the Reddit "Ask" world is effectively Ask People Who Once Read a Book So You Don't Have to Bother

/r/AskHistorians is neat because it's a decently-moderated environment where you can have "this is totally fun to talk about from a layman's perspective" conversations in the company of folks who've got a little vouchsafed expertise and can cite sources. Different experience from reading a book (and most importantly, it's browsable with half an eye during work).

If you want a corrective to those posts on reddit at large which amount to "my received wisdom just feels right / I just discovered a contrarian pov," /r/BadHistory is there for you.
posted by postcommunism at 10:45 AM on May 8 [5 favorites]


enough interest to come up with that detailed list of questions without having enough interest ever to go to a library?

There's also plenty of questions that would need a great deal more in-depth study to get a hang on, or broader knowledge on the topic, or be on a relatively obscure topic, or prompt an answer bringing together a lot of disparate information in a clear and accessible way, or ask for an educated and informed discussion of less concrete topic.

I'm biased because I've been part of AH for a while now (and its basically the only reason I go to reddit), but the general rule is that there are no dumb questions. Everyone is comes to particular topics in their own way, and if querying a hive mind is what makes them feel comfortable, then that's great! Their question may be particularly insightful, or it may be cringingly ignorant of the subject being asked about, but the important part is that person wants to learn more about that topic and we should respect that. The former is a chance to do some academic showboating; the latter is a chance to educate.

I will say that while it is not surprising when questions like this -- about broad, popular topics -- blow up in popularity, they also act as rather strange ambassadors for the community. AskHistorians has a weekly internal "reflection" on great responses in the subreddit, and they don't always match up with the comments that get linked to Reddit's BestOf sub or garner a lot of attention.

One of the most upvoted questions in AH is a good example of this, "How did pre-colonization, Midwest, Native Americans deal with tornados? Did they write any records of these types of storms?" One of the top comments points out that Native Americans are not a singular group, giving a couple examples with links to books on specific groups. A reply that consisted basically of "I saw this documentary once, and I don't know the name of it or what group it was talking about, or how to verify any of the information, but look at this cool picture" got 10X the amount of upvotes after being linked to r/BestOf.

The Medieval Misconceptions thread clearly has better answers than that tornado picture comment, but it's still a little weird to see what would otherwise be a perfectly ordinary good comment in AH suddenly get this wave of attention.
posted by Panjandrum at 10:48 AM on May 8 [7 favorites]


Oh, and on the topic of the Blood Eagle:

- Did the Scandinavians actually use the 'Blood Eagle' method of execution/torture during the so-called 'Viking era'?

- Did the Vikings practice human sacrifice?
posted by Panjandrum at 10:56 AM on May 8


Not in the link, but my favourite: primer noctis
Whoa - from that Wikipedia article, in a section on similarly rumored rights of the lord:
the droit de prélassement (right of lounging; it was said that a lord had the right to disembowel his serfs to warm his feet in).
posted by Flunkie at 10:57 AM on May 8 [2 favorites]


That DOES sound pretty warm
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:01 AM on May 8 [9 favorites]


the droit de prélassement (right of lounging; it was said that a lord had the right to disembowel his serfs to warm his feet in).

"And I thought they smelled bad on the outside!"


"Sire, the peasants are revolting!" "You're not kidding!"
posted by Celsius1414 at 11:05 AM on May 8 [10 favorites]


Haha, this is always bothering me in fantasy novels, where the hero's party is traveling through a depressed rural backwater but some dude operates an inn full-time with tons of empty rooms JUST IN CASE someone comes through.
There's a great video game from maybe ten, fifteen years ago called King of Dragon Pass, set in the fantasy world of Glorantha (which is more famous for being the world of several pen-and-paper role playing games, the most notable of which is probably RuneQuest). In the game, you're the chief of a tribe (or clan or something), dealing with day-to-day things. Every so often, something of note will happen, and you're asked to make a decision. You've got various councillors whose opinions you can ask. Councillors each have different personalities and main areas of expertise and responsibility, and as such will typically recommend different courses of action.

I haven't played the game in years, so I don't remember very many specifics, but one of the events that I distinctly remember was that one day a group showed up in the village, all dressed in various outlandish ways, carrying weapons and dripping with signs of noveau riche wealth, speaking with several different strange accents. They were (something like) a shaman from the east, a barbarian from the north, someone calling himself a "wizard", a guy who must be one of those people you've heard of who live in the far, far southern continent, and an anthropomorphic duck. In short, they were a typical group of RPG player characters. Upon entering the town, they brusquely demanded to know where they could find something called an "inn".

I think this was the one and only case I had ever seen where all of my councillors recommended the same course of action: Kill them.
posted by Flunkie at 11:14 AM on May 8 [42 favorites]


Coincidentally, my wife started playing King of Dragon Pass a couple of weeks ago.

The ducks freak me out.
posted by Foosnark at 11:24 AM on May 8


My kingdom for an Android port of Dragon Pass!
posted by Iridic at 11:26 AM on May 8 [1 favorite]


the droit de prélassement (right of lounging; it was said that a lord had the right to disembowel his serfs to warm his feet in).

If you think this is horrible, you should hear about the origins of bunny slippers!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 11:30 AM on May 8 [4 favorites]


I mean, pretty much any introduction to medieval history would cover most or all of these topics,

Actually, I disagree with this, as someone who has read a book on medieval history or three, and who is a hobbyist writer of fantasy fiction. I know a fair amount about medieval Russia for someone who's not a historian specializing in a relevant area, but I would still have difficulty writing in that setting. I wouldn't know, for example, how aware the average peasant would be of the individual members of the ruling classes - that's something that's not addressed in the books I've read as far as I recall. That's one of the questions there.

I don't know the answers to a lot of these questions despite having read several books, because it's just not the same information that the books are concerned with. A lot of myths about medieval life have to do with minutiae. Some of them (like demographics) would be pretty handily answered but I don't know where I would go, for example, to find if there were medieval Russian spymasters, or to figure out the minutiae of court structure and protocol, such that it was in medieval Russia.

(I do know a book about a medieval Russian spymaster is now a thing I want.)
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:35 AM on May 8 [4 favorites]


(If you're just skimming this thread and intrigued by King Of Dragon Pass, it's available for iOS.)
posted by Ian A.T. at 11:36 AM on May 8 [3 favorites]


I know a fair amount about medieval Russia for someone who's not a historian specializing in a relevant area, but I would still have difficulty writing in that setting.

Its also because the answers to questions like that are spitballing. Peons didn't journal on their feelings about the monarch, there are NO primary sources on something like that. The answer is a guess based on things other people wrote about at best so anyone would have difficulty writing about it in any setting.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 11:42 AM on May 8 [1 favorite]


If you think this is horrible, you should hear about the origins of bunny slippers!

Not to mention hand puppets! /shudder
posted by Celsius1414 at 11:52 AM on May 8 [3 favorites]


Its also because the answers to questions like that are spitballing.

Context from traveler's papers might be just the thing for a lot of this if they were recording Court activities and things, but then one might need to be able to read x language to get into the quotidian details that don't pertain to much in particular.
posted by mr. digits at 11:54 AM on May 8


Peons didn't journal on their feelings about the monarch, there are NO primary sources on something like that.

Define peons.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 12:13 PM on May 8 [2 favorites]


Define peons.

Priests are not serfs and are separated by their education. One picked to do clerical work in the court of a Count would certainly even be a level way above a simple village priest.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:31 PM on May 8


We understand that third parties may record pertinent details about others, yes?
posted by mr. digits at 12:31 PM on May 8


Sure, but a clerk in the count's court is not likely to be a primary source on the views and feelings of the serfs regarding their monarch. He might write about what he has heard were the reasons for a peasant revolt directly from what he overheard at the court ("more bread, less taxes"), but he's not a serf and probably wouldn't have had direct contact with them to ask them directly why they were so pissed or what their thoughts were.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:41 PM on May 8


I'll agree the "may" is a big "may".
posted by mr. digits at 12:42 PM on May 8


The biggest misconception is that The Lord of the Rings, which kicked off 20th century (high) fantasy as we know it, was medieval. Gondor wasn't.
posted by Apocryphon at 12:57 PM on May 8 [2 favorites]


Man, I wonder if there isn't a fantasy novel to be written about a proper medieval university.

Hey, Terry Pratchett is over there.

IIRC the titular character in Baudolino used to be a goliard, but I checked out of the book very early on, so I can't comment on how much fantasy is there in the book.
posted by sukeban at 1:03 PM on May 8


It's fantasy but a very peroid vision of fantasy, like all the stuff on the edge of maps and Werid theories on how the world worked where real.
posted by The Whelk at 1:10 PM on May 8


I don't know where Randy Kidd is teaching these days, but I took a course from him concerning the history of the medieval university and he's the sort of fellow who'd likely be happy to respond to e-mailed questions.

I'd look him up, but Randy Kidd? If there's more than one proffing in the US I'll do the looking.
posted by mr. digits at 1:11 PM on May 8


Randy Kidd?
posted by dis_integration at 1:12 PM on May 8


That's the one.
posted by mr. digits at 1:13 PM on May 8


Before reading this, I read unfamiliar with the concept of "the blood eagle."

This is now another Hannibal thread.


Or Guy Gavriel Kay's novel The Last Light of the Sun, in which people actually do this, and it is a point of boasting and pride that one character can blood-eagle someone before their heart stops beating.

/derail
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 2:44 PM on May 8


" and I walked in and saw them doing seventeen, the blood eagle. "
posted by The Whelk at 3:17 PM on May 8 [3 favorites]


Open the door, get on the floor, everybody walk the dinosaur
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:20 PM on May 8


+1 for Chicago reference, Whelk.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 3:21 PM on May 8


I found a picture of the people who are looking for something called an "inn" in King of Dragon Pass.

To be clear, the seven portraits at the bottom are your councillors, not part of this group of people.
posted by Flunkie at 3:33 PM on May 8


(If you're just skimming this thread and intrigued by King Of Dragon Pass, it's available for iOS.)

And the port is incredible - it's a poster child for a game re-issue (though you give up the neat dynamic village view for technical reasons). The dev, David Dunham, has even been adding new scenes since the re-release.
posted by Sebmojo at 3:48 PM on May 8 [1 favorite]


Peons didn't journal on their feelings about the monarch, there are NO primary sources on something like that.

Sure, there are some questions that will be unanswerable, but not because there are no wrong answers. I think you're underestimating the resourcefulness of historians who can piece together a fuller picture of past life out of disparate scraps. Instead of a peasant's diary, we might have demographic data, diaries of people who interacted with peasants, court records, letters - even archeological remains of settlements can be informative. These things could inform our knowledge of how much peasants and the ruling classes interacted, when, and how.

When you have in depth knowledge of the resources available for a particular time period, you still might not know the right answer, but you will have a much better idea of what the range of plausible answers looks like.

The lack of a "right" answer is probably one of the reasons it's not discussed in textbooks or books for a lay audience, but that doesn't mean it's off-topic for investigation by historians and that there's no use asking the question at all.

This is one of the reasons I love AskHistorians by the way. The best answers (for me) are the ones that describe the process of arriving at the answer in the comment.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 6:27 PM on May 8


It is known.
posted by Catch at 8:15 PM on May 8


King of Dragon Pass

9.99 for i0S?!?!??!!! Dang.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:43 AM on May 9


« Older JapaneseEmoticons.net solves all of your Japanese ...  |  Can Atlanta Go All In on the B... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments