Shoes were worse, table manners were better, and they had dragons
February 19, 2015 12:04 PM   Subscribe

The 10 worst misconceptions about medieval life that you would get from fantasy books debunks a number of fantasy-novel myths, inspired by this terrific Reddit thread where historians discuss high fantasy novel tropes [prev]. Some of the greatest misconceptions were around combat in the Middle Ages, which apparently included exotic weapons - like the scorpion bombs used in ancient warfare. [pdf] Also see the Medieval People of Color site to see some other dimensions of Middle Ages diversity that are often missing from fantasy novels. And, of course, a tip of the hat to the venerable and hilarious Tough Guide to Fantasyland.
posted by blahblahblah (97 comments total) 80 users marked this as a favorite
 
Terry Jones' Medieval Lives
posted by Sys Rq at 12:12 PM on February 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


Top image from the Dragonlance series, which I love, but is steeped in pseudo-Medievalism.

Whenever I want gritty realism, I go to Joe Abercrombie The Dragonlance Chronicles.
posted by sukeban at 12:14 PM on February 19, 2015 [6 favorites]


Despite large scale experimentation in 15th century England, the hoopak eventually proved an impractical weapon.
posted by Drinky Die at 12:17 PM on February 19, 2015 [8 favorites]


That first link of "10 worst misconceptions" is a weird mix of stuff. Some of it isn't actually in any fantasy I've read in ages and some of it is extremely iffy stuff which even the link admits is sorta true. It's like a list of the 10 worst misconceptions about cooking pasta which spends most of its time talking about how you should salt the water and not cook it until it is rubbery and soft. Really, I ask? Those misconceptions were widespread?

The other links are more reasonable.
posted by Justinian at 12:19 PM on February 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


One of the funny things about high fantasy (or westerns, for that matter, or any number of other things) is that the tropes of the genre have been filtered back and forth between so many different secondary sources that they are deeply arcane and sort of comical. For example, Gary Gygax cited early Jack Vance novels as an inspiration for some of the ideas in the original D&D, which then went on to spawn a million tie in novels (like Dragonlance) which then got read by impressionable kids who then went on to write their own bad fantasy novels. At this point fantasy novels, at least the cheap and cheerful kind, are essentially just based on fantasy novels.

I'm ultimately not convinced that the objections of the article are really germane, in that most fantasy novels aren't really attempting to create a realistic medieval secondary world in any case. And this argument of "it's not realistic!" or whatever is often brought up in pernicious ways... for example, to justify the portrayal or lack of inclusion of non-white characters.

Anyway, you should enjoy reading fun books and not worry about this stuff.
posted by selfnoise at 12:20 PM on February 19, 2015 [8 favorites]


A great book I recently read with an interesting perspective on this is Tamin Ansary's Destiny Disrupted. Its primary aim is to explain to western audiences the islamic view of world history - but the segments on the crusades and pre-crusades era give a vivid exposition of the weaknesses of medieval western europe.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 12:21 PM on February 19, 2015 [9 favorites]


A great book I recently read with an interesting perspective on this is Tamin Ansary's Destiny Disrupted. Its primary aim is to explain to western audiences the islamic view of world history - but the segments on the crusades and pre-crusades era give a vivid exposition of the weaknesses of medieval western europe.

I enjoyed that book, and also enjoyed "The Crusades through Arab Eyes" by Amin Maalouf.

That book would actually be a great sourcebook for someone who wanted to write, say, a revisionist history of Middle Earth and the war of Elvish aggression. :)
posted by selfnoise at 12:24 PM on February 19, 2015 [10 favorites]


Most of this is super awesome -- but the medievalpoc blog is... problematic in it's own right (the blogger has made some alarmingly racist claims of their own, and has some ties to some really questionable people)
posted by FritoKAL at 12:24 PM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


A woman's orgasm was also important; another common belief was that a woman could not conceive without an orgasm. (Unfortunately, this also made rape impossible to prosecute if the victim became pregnant; Medieval English scholars believed women's bodies had a way of, in the modern parlance, shutting things down.)

To explain further, the belief was that, just as male orgasm ejaculated their seed, so a woman's orgasm ejaculated her seed, the egg. Without orgasm pregnancy was impossible, and naturally--or so it was held--orgasm would only be reached by those women who enjoyed the act, which meant it was willed and not rape. This is indeed the very origin of the "no-rape-if-pregnant" myth, as correct knowledge about monthly ovulation was still contested by some doctors as late as the 1820s.
posted by Thing at 12:25 PM on February 19, 2015 [10 favorites]


A great book I recently read with an interesting perspective on this is Tamin Ansary's Destiny Disrupted.

Sounds neat, thanks. Just grabbed it on Amazon.
posted by Drinky Die at 12:25 PM on February 19, 2015


in that most fantasy novels aren't really attempting to create a realistic medieval secondary world in any case

I don't think most people care if their fantasy novels are creating a realistic depiction of medieval society. I sure don't. I do think a lot of readers care that the novel they are reading produces an internally consistent realism, though. You don't have to show an agricultural base which produces food in exactly the same way that England did in 1377, for example, but you do have to show a system which could reasonably feed the population. You don't have to show a society with exactly the same social mores and gender roles as Naples in 1511 but you do have to show a society which has developed in a believable and organic fashion to produce the mores and roles on the page.

That's how I look at it anyway.
posted by Justinian at 12:28 PM on February 19, 2015 [9 favorites]



Most of this is super awesome -- but the medievalpoc blog is... problematic in it's own right (the blogger has made some alarmingly racist claims of their own, and has some ties to some really questionable people)


While I would really, really not want to get into the usual set of arguments around medievalpoc (ie, I don't especially want to discuss folks' opinions of her scholarship unless we can bring special expertise of our own to bear, because god knows that's a dead horse), what would you be referring to?
posted by Frowner at 12:28 PM on February 19, 2015


After posting, I remembered that I actually posted a similar "debunking" thread about science fiction a few years back and it made our own cstross (one of my favorite SF authors) hate me.

So I would like to officially point out that I love all fantasy authors and I am not trying to ruin anyone's love of fun or fantasy, in case there are any people with usernames like gwolfe or p.rothfuss or ghost_of_tolkien out there...
posted by blahblahblah at 12:29 PM on February 19, 2015 [5 favorites]


people were spending too much time playing football and not enough time practicing their archery

You can practically hear the words "oooh, kids these days" and "in my day" drifting across the centuries.
posted by Wolfdog at 12:29 PM on February 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


(Unfortunately, this also made rape impossible to prosecute if the victim became pregnant; Medieval English scholars believed women's bodies had a way of, in the modern parlance, shutting things down.)

Didn't we just recently have a political scandal centering on Republican lawmakers who believed and publicly championed exactly this viewpoint?
posted by saulgoodman at 12:30 PM on February 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


Um, that's the "shutting things down" reference in the part you quoted. That's what the guy said.
posted by Justinian at 12:31 PM on February 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


(Oops--misunderstood the context for the quote. Sorry.)
posted by saulgoodman at 12:41 PM on February 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


FritoKAL and Frowner - I don't want to drag this derail further off the really great overall post, but the POCtumblr person has addressed at least some of the "problematic" stuff people have been critical of, and does post corrections. See here and here.

This actually connects to something that drives me crazy about tumblr and in my opinion makes it a failure as a prose blogging platform (despite being great as an artblogging/mediablogging platform). Because of the twitter-esque "feed" style that Tumblr uses it's very hard to highlight or "sticky" past announcements like this, or to have coherent threaded reply/response threads and because of how reblogging works posts that were found to be problematic and deleted or found to be inaccurate and corrected can remain bouncing around tumblr for years. Gaaah, makes me crazy. damnkids, static HTML, uphill both ways, etc.
posted by Wretch729 at 12:44 PM on February 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


I will never badmouth Dragonlance novels.

The first dirty thoughts and erotic dreams I ever had were about Kitiara.
posted by DigDoug at 12:44 PM on February 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


Not Goldmoon? Weirdo.
posted by Justinian at 12:47 PM on February 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


That first link of "10 worst misconceptions" is a weird mix of stuff.

I was also somewhat peeved that basically the only reference it made to any particular time or place was to 14th century England, when "Medieval Europe" could conceivably encompass anything from Visigothic Iberia to the Golden Horde in Russia, Swedish Jarls, or the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. There's a natural bias in the Anglophone world to assume that what happened in England is typical of the whole continent and that whatever we imagined went on in the Hundred Years War (or maybe the Wars of the Roses) covers the whole period, but it's just not the case.
posted by Copronymus at 12:49 PM on February 19, 2015 [11 favorites]


I don't think most people care if their fantasy novels are creating a realistic depiction of medieval society. I sure don't. I do think a lot of readers care that the novel they are reading produces an internally consistent realism, though. You don't have to show an agricultural base which produces food in exactly the same way that England did in 1377, for example, but you do have to show a system which could reasonably feed the population. You don't have to show a society with exactly the same social mores and gender roles as Naples in 1511 but you do have to show a society which has developed in a believable and organic fashion to produce the mores and roles on the page.

I guess if that's what you're in to? I mean, Guy Gavriel Kay seems to be on a lifetime mission to write a slightly-fantasied version of every historical culture, and I'm sure a lot of people like his books, but MAN, I just can't get behind that. Fantasy with an emphasis on secondary world always seemed like "hard" SF to me: impressive, but also frequently dull and lifeless.

My favorite historically-tinged author is Avram Davidson, because he always had a sort of weird obsession with writing fantasy based on the crazy ideas people used to have about the world, rather than what we think it was like now. People used to think the roman poet Vergil was an immortal sorceror for some weird reason? Great, let's write a novel about Vergil as a sorceror in a crazy magic Renaissance Italy!
posted by selfnoise at 1:00 PM on February 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


I was also somewhat peeved that basically the only reference it made to any particular time or place was to 14th century England, when "Medieval Europe" could conceivably encompass anything from Visigothic Iberia to the Golden Horde in Russia, Swedish Jarls, or the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. There's a natural bias in the Anglophone world to assume that what happened in England is typical of the whole continent and that whatever we imagined went on in the Hundred Years War (or maybe the Wars of the Roses) covers the whole period, but it's just not the case.

From the Great Famine, through the Black Death, to the Peasant's Revolt, even England in the 1300s wasn't quite England in the 1300s. I'm not quite sure of the point I'm making, except that I both agree and disagree with you, though more the former than the latter.
posted by Thing at 1:06 PM on February 19, 2015


I was also somewhat peeved that basically the only reference it made to any particular time or place was to 14th century England, when "Medieval Europe" could conceivably encompass anything from Visigothic Iberia to the Golden Horde in Russia, Swedish Jarls, or the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. There's a natural bias in the Anglophone world to assume that what happened in England is typical of the whole continent and that whatever we imagined went on in the Hundred Years War (or maybe the Wars of the Roses) covers the whole period, but it's just not the case.

Yeah, I think unpacking that is worthwhile - especially because while there are a ton of great fantasy novels set in medieval-inflected Places In Europe And North Africa That Are Not England, our mental image of fantasy is basically "merrie" England (although there was a lot of debate about Merrie England and it always seems to have been fading into the past anyway). It's like that category post from the weekend - the one where in our heads some birds are "better birds" than others and a robin is a "better bird" than a penguin and occupies the place of "classic/real bird" in our heads. "Merrie England" is a "better medieval fantasy" setting than "Al-Andalus" for no actually defensible reason.
posted by Frowner at 1:06 PM on February 19, 2015


People used to think the roman poet Vergil was an immortal sorceror for some weird reason? Great, let's write a novel about Vergil as a sorceror in a crazy magic Renaissance Italy

I don't see that as in opposition to what I said, though. You could certainly create an internally consistent but magical Renaissance Italy. Mary Gentle's Ash is that sort of thing and is excellent.
posted by Justinian at 1:08 PM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Merrie England" is a "better medieval fantasy" setting than "Al-Andalus" for no actually defensible reason.

Defensible reason from whose point of view, though? From a publisher's point of view I can give you the best reason of all: the former setting sells better.
posted by Justinian at 1:10 PM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Guy Gavriel Kay seems to be on a lifetime mission to write a slightly-fantasied version of every historical culture, and I'm sure a lot of people like his books, but MAN, I just can't get behind that. Fantasy with an emphasis on secondary world always seemed like "hard" SF to me: impressive, but also frequently dull and lifeless.

It's not 'seems to be,' that is what he's doing--has said so in his own words, more or less.

I'm kind of flabbergasted that someone could come away from virtually anything Kay has written (especially Arbonne or Lions) with 'frequently dull and lifeless' as a descriptor.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 1:10 PM on February 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


"Merrie England" is a "better medieval fantasy" setting than "Al-Andalus" for no actually defensible reason.

Let me say that, being Spanish, reading Lois McMaster Bujold's The Curse of Chalion is, eh, interesting.

Why is Valencia not on the shore, Lois
posted by sukeban at 1:12 PM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


For an example of someone who goes way overboard in presenting their internally-consistent fantasy worlds we have Brandon Sanderson. Every book I've read of his (apart from the WoT ones which I have not read since they are WoT books and ain't nobody got time for that) seems like he designed a really cool RPG magic system and then decided to write novels around it. I can see the character sheets in my head.
posted by Justinian at 1:14 PM on February 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


One thing that sends me spinning out of suspension of disbelief is the problem Asimov identified with a lot of bad SF: don't say that Greeblor walked seventy furdles to the Blooplegarp to pick up a tippery-doo of glarnge. WENT TO THE DAMN STORE FOR MILK. Make up words for things only if those words are actually necessary, as in for concepts that don't exist in reality. /rant
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 1:19 PM on February 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


sukeban, yes! I knew it was vaguely Iberian-flavored but the first time someone told me to flip the map of Chalion upsidedown I was like... ohhhh duuuuhhhh.
posted by Wretch729 at 1:21 PM on February 19, 2015


The 10 worst misconceptions about medieval life that you would get from fantasy books

Presuming, of course, that you thought fantasy novels were a reliable guide to medieval life in the first place.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:23 PM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


I don't think most people care if their fantasy novels are creating a realistic depiction of medieval society.

I mostly agree with you, but then there's the fact that many of the same people who otherwise say they feel that way then turn around and use "realistic depiction of medieval society" as a reason why there aren't -- and shouldn't be -- people of color in fantasy stories. Which is why MPOC was such a wonderful thing to me when first I came across it.

I recently got around to reading the comic book Rat Queens which has been recommended here on MeFi quite a bit recently, and the first thought that went through my head was "Whaa? There are people who look like me, my son, and my daughter in this fantasy world. Running around with swords and magic and trolls and dwarves and hob -- err, that is, smidgens -- and what not! Sonuva!" (And although it's very much not for everyone's tastes, I found Rat Queens thoroughly entertaining and am thankful to MeFi for the recommendations.)

Thing is, until fairly far into adulthood, I was actually on board with Merrie England being the basis of Fantasy Worlds because I grew up on King Arthur, Robin Hood, CS Lewis, Tolkien, Lloyd Alexander and the like. It wasn't until I started learning more about the real medieval world -- all of it -- that I started wanting more from my fantasy worlds.

Thanks for the post, blahblahblah!
posted by lord_wolf at 1:23 PM on February 19, 2015 [6 favorites]


One thing that sends me spinning out of suspension of disbelief is the problem Asimov identified with a lot of bad SF: don't say that Greeblor walked seventy furdles to the Blooplegarp to pick up a tippery-doo of glarnge. WENT TO THE DAMN STORE FOR MILK.

Vernor Vinge's handling of this in A Deepness in the Sky is one of the reasons it is so wonderful.
posted by Justinian at 1:24 PM on February 19, 2015 [5 favorites]


Oh, except which city do you think is supposed to be Valencia? I always thought the castle in Cardegoss is supposed to be modeled on the Alhambra in Granada (though yes it's not in the right place on the map)?
posted by Wretch729 at 1:26 PM on February 19, 2015


There was even a fad of wearing one's mantle so that the head went through the arm hole rather than the head hole, with the sleeves functioning as a voluminous collar.

They had hipsters in the Middle Ages?
posted by acb at 1:26 PM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


sukeban, yes! I knew it was vaguely Iberian-flavored

Save the magic bits, it's mostly a biography of Queen Isabella of Castile (and it's as trite as Castilla y León -> Chalion)... as soon as you twig to it, if you know some history, it's not terribly hard to guess that Iselle is a) going to be queen, b) going to marry that guy, c) going to be co-regents of their kingdoms.
posted by sukeban at 1:27 PM on February 19, 2015


Oh, except which city do you think is supposed to be Valencia?

I have no idea, but since in our world Valencia is one of the busiest ports in Europe, a landlocked Valencia in Chalion grated the hell out of me.
posted by sukeban at 1:30 PM on February 19, 2015


Ok, to put on the broken record.

"Medieval fantasy" is primarily an intertextual genre that gets its inspirations from a literary canon of stories. These stories were highly embellished if not complete fabrications driven by the economics and culture of the world surrounding the canonized author, who was often creating a derivative work of a derivative work of a derivative work of scribed propaganda based on oral history.

You don't read Shakespeare to understand Scotland, Denmark, Italy, or Egypt. You read him to understand ambition, greed, revenge, tragic or comic love, or a host of other motives. Similarly, you probably shouldn't get your French history from Dumas, pere, a man who never let facts get in the way of a good yarn.

And that's likely a good thing because history and science, properly done, often don't translate into good yarns without embellishment, simplification, or *gasp* outright fabrication. For fantasy to have more in common with Shakespeare and Dumas than the (literally) messy process of building an interpretation from fragmentary documentation and picking through midden-heaps is also a good thing.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:34 PM on February 19, 2015 [11 favorites]


James G. Patterson, in his essay "The Myth of the Mounted Knight" from Misconceptions About the Middle Ages, explains that while the image of the mounted knight might have been a popular one during Medieval times, it didn't match the reality of warfare. Armored cavalry, he explains, can be incredibly useful — even devastating — against untrained revolutionaries, but they were far less useful against a trained foreign infantry. Even during the Crusades, when the image of the mounted knight seemed synonymous with glory in battle, most the actual battles involved sieges.

This seems like an over-correction. Heavy cavalry had no utility beyond busting up peasant revolts? Really?

In the 14th century, English warfare focused increasingly on archery. In fact, Edward III prohibited football in 1331 and then again in 1363 in part because people were spending too much time playing football and not enough time practicing their archery. The English archers were able to repel many a French cavalry force.

That must be why the English won the Hundred Years' War.
posted by Iridic at 1:37 PM on February 19, 2015


"Merrie England" is a "better medieval fantasy" setting than "Al-Andalus" for no actually defensible reason.

One of the things I dig about Locomalito's Ghouls 'n' Ghosts tribute Maldita Castilla is the Spanish setting when I'm used to medieval England being the default for fantasy stuff.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:41 PM on February 19, 2015


"Medieval fantasy" is primarily an intertextual genre that gets its inspirations from a literary canon of stories.

Seems like having "medieval" right there in the name is an indication that it also gets some of its inspirations from actual medievalness -- or at least that its readers are somewhat likely to draw the connection and make unfounded assumptions based on the genre's tropes.

That said, I think using a Dragonlance image at the top of the article was somewhat unfair to both the genre and that particular universe. It's a much less "medieval Europe but with magic and dragons" than Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms or the "base" D&D worlds.
posted by Etrigan at 1:43 PM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


a landlocked Valencia in Chalion grated the hell out of me.

That's why I was confused though, because Chalion not having a port was a plot point in the story, and I assumed that Zagosur in Ibra (=Aragon) was pretty clearly supposed to be a mashup of Saragossa/Valencia and be a port city. One of my favorite lines in the whole book is (spoiler alert) when the slimeball antagonist is trying to maneuver the heroine into marrying him and in the middle of being ambushed with some unwanted bauble of a gift to go along with the proposal she has the presence of mind to snark:
"As a betrothal gift, my dear Royesse, I have guessed what your heart most desired to complete your trousseau," Dondo told her, and motioned his page forward.

Iselle, regarding him with that same frozen stare, said, "You guessed I wanted a coastal city with an excellent harbor?"
How can you not love Iselle?
posted by Wretch729 at 1:46 PM on February 19, 2015 [6 favorites]


There's a line about how D&D doesn't really resemble anything anymore as much as it resemble D&D, and I think that's pretty spot-on.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:46 PM on February 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


Incidentally, three of the best D&D settings of all time were Planescape, Dark Sun, and Al-Qadim, none of which were based on Merrie Olde England.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:48 PM on February 19, 2015 [5 favorites]


feckless fecal fear mongering: "One thing that sends me spinning out of suspension of disbelief is the problem Asimov identified with a lot of bad SF: don't say that Greeblor walked seventy furdles to the Blooplegarp to pick up a tippery-doo of glarnge. WENT TO THE DAMN STORE FOR MILK. Make up words for things only if those words are actually necessary, as in for concepts that don't exist in reality. /rant"

I think this is usually attributed to James Blish, "Don't call a rabbit a smeerp."
posted by Chrysostom at 1:50 PM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


People had different table manners then than we do now. It's almost like it was a different culture or something. Different cultures have different table manners now, too. Medieval people didn't have the germ theory of disease, so of course they wouldn't have had the taboos that we have based on that.

Witch trials and burnings were more of a Renaissance and early modern phenomenon than a medieval one. The peak of witch hunting coincided with the European wars of religion in the late 1500s and early 1600s. Witches weren't burned everywhere- the English generally hanged witches rather than burning them.

Some foods associated with medieval settings are anachronistic for medieval Europe, but might be there in Renaissance Europe. Turkey is a prime example. Nobody in pre-1492 Europe waved turkey legs around.
posted by Anne Neville at 1:56 PM on February 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


Part of the obsession of Anglophone authors with 13th and 14th century England and France is probably due to the fact that it was the time when France and England started to define each other by their opposition. So you get people who go on and on about the long bow and Crécy and Agincourt and the Black Prince and so on, but not so much about how the English were thrown out of Normandy in a few weeks in 1450.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 2:05 PM on February 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


The eating utensils were different than our current ones in medieval France or England, too. If the utensils are different, the table manners are going to be different. You can't worry about using the wrong fork if there are no forks. They probably varied from place to place, too, just like European and American fork usage is different today. People probably didn't always follow all the rules of good table manners, just like they don't always do that now.
posted by Anne Neville at 2:12 PM on February 19, 2015


pfft, Monday that was only because the English on the continent were never able to successfully implement the brilliant strategy they used in England itself after 1066 when the Normans actually did manage to conquer England of sneakily convincing them they were English and not French.
posted by Wretch729 at 2:13 PM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Witches weren't burned everywhere- the English generally hanged witches rather than burning them.

So, she's not made of wood then?
posted by 7segment at 2:14 PM on February 19, 2015


Seems like having "medieval" right there in the name is an indication that it also gets some of its inspirations from actual medievalness -- or at least that its readers are somewhat likely to draw the connection and make unfounded assumptions based on the genre's tropes.

On the issue of "actual medievalness" most fantasy is derivative of secondary and tertiary sources that were involved in rewriting history around contemporary politics and concerns. The importance of primogeniture and knighthood in Le Morte d'Arthur is a 15th century addition to the bare bones of a 12th century tract about a 6th century person of questionable authenticity. That's not a new development, the same can be said about the Iliad, Exodus, and the Mahabharata. Our views of the Medieval world are strongly shaped by Renaissance and Romantic literature. So are our views of the Bible and the Hellenic world.

On the second part, yes, it's often the case that truthy fiction trumps fact in dealing with history. How many people believe Salieri really was insanely jealous of Mozart? I don't see an easy solution there other than to just not write fiction.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 2:24 PM on February 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


pfft, Monday that was only because the English on the continent were never able to successfully implement the brilliant strategy they used in England itself after 1066 when the Normans actually did manage to conquer England of sneakily convincing them they were English and not French.

Other way round! The Normans convinced themselves that they were English, then also convinced the English that they were English, which worked out well after Bouvines. The problem was that by the mid-1300s nobody in France believed that the English (or at least those English who were French but had convinced themselves they were English) weren't English but French, least of all those English who were French but had convinced themselves they were English. Of course, super-secretly, the French who had convinced themselves that they were English and could no longer convince the French or themselves that they were French, were only Norsemen speaking with a funny accent in the first place.

Got it?
posted by Thing at 2:41 PM on February 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


I have to say, I always in my head set most of the fantasy I read in more of a continental Europe than an England. There just seemed to me to be a lot more diversity than you get in England once the characters start traveling around the continent.

Even then, I never had a hard time finding fantasy that broke the mold even back when I was being introduced to the genre by Dragonlance. Contemporary with that from the same authors were books like the Rose of the Prophet series mainly set in a fantasy Arabia type land and the Death Gate Cycle that was set on multiple different worlds that always had a sci-fi type feel to me. Lately I've read stuff like Codex Alera which was a Roman legion transported to a foreign world type weird setting and The Inheritance Trilogy which was set in...hell if I can even describe it but I loved it.

Is it just that a lot of readers started with Tolkein? I know his influence is everywhere in fantasy but having not read anything from him until much later in my life I don't think I ever got my imagination so firmly grounded in Middle Earth as a starting point like other fans did.
posted by Drinky Die at 2:48 PM on February 19, 2015


For an example of someone who goes way overboard in presenting their internally-consistent fantasy worlds we have Brandon Sanderson. Every book I've read of his (apart from the WoT ones which I have not read since they are WoT books and ain't nobody got time for that) seems like he designed a really cool RPG magic system and then decided to write novels around it. I can see the character sheets in my head.

This is a valid criticism of a lot of his work. I still enjoy his books sometimes but there is just so much jumping off the walls and stuff that would be really neat...if it was a movie.

That said, The Stormlight Archive is worth checking out if you haven't given it a shot yet. It does have some of that, but it has a lot more time spent with the characters and I ended up really liking them. Though, if you aren't on board with Wheel of Time it might be worst of both worlds for you, heh.
posted by Drinky Die at 2:53 PM on February 19, 2015


the Rose of the Prophet series

I still cringe with embarrassment that I read those books. They were awful.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 2:58 PM on February 19, 2015


Still, some aspects of Medieval medicine were logical even by modern standards. Wrapping smallpox in scarlet cloth, treating gout with colchicum, using camomile oil for an earache — these were all effective treatments.

What?
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:00 PM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


That book would actually be a great sourcebook for someone who wanted to write, say, a revisionist history of Middle Earth and the war of Elvish aggression.

Now I want to see a Ken Burns-style documentary about the events of the LOTR trilogy.

"The War of the Ring was fought in a thousand places—from the verdant and peaceful Shire, to the dark mines of Moria, to the ragged peaks of Mordor. Millions of inhabitants of Middle Earth would find their lives swept up in the whirlwind, and the course of history would hinge on a battle ten thousand years in the making. It was to be, as one wizard put it, 'the great battle of our time'."
posted by dephlogisticated at 3:01 PM on February 19, 2015 [7 favorites]


That book would actually be a great sourcebook for someone who wanted to write, say, a revisionist history of Middle Earth and the war of Elvish aggression.

It's called The Last Ringbearer.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 3:04 PM on February 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


I still cringe with embarrassment that I read those books. They were awful.

I found some of it amusing as a kid, and the weird gender bending plot was an interesting eye opener.
posted by Drinky Die at 3:08 PM on February 19, 2015


I think the first linked article went heavy on the 14th Century because that's the period covered by Ian Mortimer's The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England, which I'm popping in here to recommend (ignoring whatever it might have to do with fantasy novels).

It's (loosely) structured as if you're going to visit 14th Century England, just like you'd visit a foreign country. So he covers transportation, lodging, food, local customs, etc. My favorite section was on prices and currency, where he points out that you can't just give a conversion rate, because what's cheap and what's expensive is very different. Comparatively, human labor is dirt cheap and material goods are expensive, even more so if they're not locally sourced, where "locally" is like 20-30 miles.
posted by benito.strauss at 3:10 PM on February 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


This seems like an over-correction. Heavy cavalry had no utility beyond busting up peasant revolts? Really?

"Infantry" back in that period often meant a lot of folks with little more armor or sophisticated weaponry than you would see in a decent peasant revolt, so yeah. On the other hand, against professional infantry, or even well-equipped and well-trained militia, where it appeared, armored cavalry did significantly less well.
posted by AdamCSnider at 4:11 PM on February 19, 2015


I think the first linked article went heavy on the 14th Century because that's the period covered by Ian Mortimer's The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England, which I'm popping in here to recommend (ignoring whatever it might have to do with fantasy novels).

And as suggested at the beginning of the article.

Something I have noticed is that any one fantasy author tends to have odd little unrealistic tropes that keep popping back up. I've been listening to the Game of Thrones books on long drives recently, and he is always having knights in full armor and helmets when they are standing around or on a long walk, for example.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:39 PM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


What?

It was called the "red treatment". Victims of smallpox were dressed in red clothing. I have no idea what Lauren Davis was thinking there and it does sorta make one question all the other statements. Maybe she meant that wound care... ah heck, I got nothing.
posted by Justinian at 5:56 PM on February 19, 2015


The top ten misconceptions you might get about modern life from reading urban fantasy.

1. Werewolves don't exist.
2. Vampires don't exist.
3. Magic doesn't exist.
4. It is not socially acceptable to kill a bunch of people in a crowded area.
5. If you get stabbed and shot a bunch of times you will die.
6. You are not going to meet a mysterious stranger who wants to sleep with you.
7. There are no murderous conspiracies that are ruining your life.
8. Being a private detective, even a magic one is a terrible career choice.
9...

Sorry, I never managed to get more than 2 paragraphs into a Jim Butcher novel, so I only have experience with 8.
posted by Literaryhero at 6:00 PM on February 19, 2015 [7 favorites]


The smallpox thing has to refer to the bandaging, not the color red. (Unless she means as a way to signal quarantine?) Smallppx pustules/sores spread the virus more easily. Even getting the smallpox vaccine involves bandaging the site of the vaccination to prevent exposing others.
posted by Wretch729 at 6:07 PM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Infantry" back in that period often meant a lot of folks with little more armor or sophisticated weaponry than you would see in a decent peasant revolt, so yeah. On the other hand, against professional infantry, or even well-equipped and well-trained militia, where it appeared, armored cavalry did significantly less well.

Armored cavalry was a shock troop, pure and simple. Awfully nice against rabble. Not so nice against trained men that know how to keep their heads and/or set up pike walls.
posted by Samizdata at 6:24 PM on February 19, 2015


Wretch729: I guess. The rationale behind the red treatment had nothing to do with preventing transmission, though, it was because the color red scared away demons or some shit.
posted by Justinian at 6:33 PM on February 19, 2015


Red flannel was commonly believed to have medicinal value well within living memory. I wonder if it's part of the same belief system.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:39 PM on February 19, 2015


The Dwarf dilated.
posted by comealongpole at 7:04 PM on February 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


The prime material plane is just for business.
posted by clavdivs at 7:31 PM on February 19, 2015


On the other hand, against professional infantry, or even well-equipped and well-trained militia, where it appeared, armored cavalry did significantly less well.

That's an understatement. Cavalry (as opposed to mounted archers) never succeeded against infantry that held a line. The idea of armored cavalry charging over infantry is a fiction. A horse is not a tank, and we have good accounts of military commanders suffering catastrophic losses by attempting to use cavalry to break infantry lines.
posted by jedicus at 8:16 PM on February 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


You can read medieval literature from the time and come away with somewhat distorted notions of what life was like. Chretien de Troyes's Arthurian romances are amazing and you should read them but not exactly a good source for learning what life was actually like.
posted by BungaDunga at 9:02 PM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Control-F "potato" finds nothing and that really is the greatest misconception about medieval lives found in fantasy. More likely to find the hero snacking down on meat, potatoes and two vegs than somebody of colour...
posted by MartinWisse at 12:00 AM on February 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


Not before 1492 at the earliest.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:48 AM on February 20, 2015


What was that popular show in the 90's that had people dressed up in medieval garb and saying stuff like "wow dude, all gnarly 'n' shit"? Hilarious.
posted by telstar at 1:00 AM on February 20, 2015


One of my favorite Reddit comments of all time:
One aspect of medieval Europe that almost all "medieval fantasy" series gets wrong is cuisine. When we think of medieval feasting, images of huge lamb/pork chops and mountains of bread come to mind--- in other words, unsophisticated fare, cooked blandly. Nothing could be further from the truth. The food that would be served to kings and lords in medieval Europe was extremely complex. Most modern kitchens don't have the competence or equipment necessary to recreate what little of medieval cuisine we actually know about--- there's not a single restaurant in the world (to my knowledge) that serves dishes derived from 14th-century European cuisine.

What can we expect from a medieval feast?

• Highly ornate and elaborate presentation of dishes. We have primary source reports of such fanciful dishes as ducks re-dressed in their own feathers, meatballs with a green sauce disguised to look like apples, "eggs" made from almonds, and a whole sturgeon cooked three ways--- the head, boiled; the body, baked; the tail, fried. The medieval cuisine of royalty and nobility was very much about presentation and showmanship.

• Spices, spices, spices. Cooks were pretty intense about using spices in their dishes during the medieval period. In a late-14th century cookbook from France, the Menagier de Paris, more than 75% of dishes called for the use of spices such as pepper and grains of paradise. The later "blandness" of French haute-cuisine, in which the flavor of underlying ingredients is emphasized over that of spices, is a direct reaction against the spice-heavy cuisine of the Middle Ages.

• Courses. In England, there were generally three courses during a meal, whereas in France, noblemen and royalty would frequently eat four or more courses during a meal--- a far cry from modern depictions which show fruits, meats and soups occupying the same table.

In short, medieval cuisine, at the highest levels, was highly ornate, incredibly complex and far more colorful than the food that you and I eat. Blues, greens and reds frequently appeared on the tables of the wealthy. Dishes were appreciated not only for their taste, but also for their aesthetic quality--- one might even argue that aesthetics trumped taste in the high cuisine of the late-14th century. Very different indeed from the mounds of mutton and beef we generally associate with food and dining in the Middle Ages.

Sources: Primary: Le Menagerie de Paris, Le Viandier de Taillevent. Secondary: Paul Freedman, ed., Food: A History of Taste.
[source]
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:22 AM on February 20, 2015 [13 favorites]


"To you, it's a potato. To me, it's a potato. But to Sir Walter bloody Raleigh, it's fine carriages, luxury estates and as many girls as his tongue can cope with! He's making a fortune out of the things: people are smoking them, building houses out of them... they'll be eating them next!", Blackadder, II iii.
posted by gimonca at 6:37 AM on February 20, 2015 [3 favorites]


That's awesome, Sticherbeast. This is actually one detail that Jack Vance got right, most notally in the Lyonesse series; there are elaborate feasts with amazing preperation.
posted by selfnoise at 7:55 AM on February 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


Heston Blumenthal's medieval and Tudor feasts.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:11 AM on February 20, 2015


There was even a fad of wearing one's mantle so that the head went through the arm hole rather than the head hole, with the sleeves functioning as a voluminous collar.
File this under "so badly misquoted it's not even wrong". There was a historical "fad" for wearing one's hood so that the head went through the face hole (first) rather than the neck hole, with the mantling that would have been about their shoulders functioning as a voluminous ruffle draping off the "hat".

In very short order this style became affixed so that the facehole worked better as a permanent headband, and the ruffles became stylized. Thus, the hood with liripipe evolved into a Western "turban", which doesn't appear to have been styled after Middle Eastern turbans at all.
posted by IAmBroom at 2:44 PM on February 20, 2015 [6 favorites]


My biggest (specific) peeve in fantasy that draws upon the medieval period is the total omission of fibre working of various kinds. Admittedly I have an enormous bias here as I can crochet, knit, spin, weave and sew and I know exactly the kind of effort that goes into producing the amount of cloth that your average person needs.

Spoiler alert - it's a lot! So much, in fact, that spinning was basically the default activity for women up and down the social scale for centuries. In many cases, the offering of clothes to one's servants and fighting men was an integral part of the social contract. Even your fancy, fancy noble ladies would spend a lot of their time spinning away, distaff tucked in belt or leaning against their seat. When you add flax production for linen, knitting, weaving and dyeing, you have vast swathes of the population engaged in basically non-stop fibre working.

Okay, that's not a fascinating activity to describe in your average sword-swinging, spell-slinging, princess-saving fantasy novel but really, write in the odd spindle if you're going to pretend any kind of accuracy. We're very used to long descriptions of food, fighting, courting and killing but whenever I read long passages about women sitting around talking I can't help but laugh. What, is everyone naked? Because nobody's doing anything but a touch of genteel embroidery in this castle.

Much of the lack of fibre working in fiction can probably be attributed to male authors enacting their extremely dude-specific fantasies. Katharine Kerr certainly brings it up a lot, and Nicole Griffiths uses weaving as a clever way to show intimate female friendship in Hild. Still, it's a whopper of a thing to leave out.
posted by averysmallcat at 4:20 PM on February 20, 2015 [12 favorites]


Discussions of food, yeah. Discussions of cooking...less so. I guess it's the same thing with the fibre working. You will get an elaborate discussion of the clothes and tapestries and all that but not so much on the creation process. What a character can create can reveal a lot more about a them than the products they enjoy.

"That stuff is boring," is definitely not a good enough excuse though, because blacksmithing is just as tedious in reality and you end up with all kinds of smithing scenes. Hell, fantasy books make being a shepherd sound like the most exciting job in the world sometimes.
posted by Drinky Die at 4:33 PM on February 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


...blacksmithing is just as tedious in reality and you end up with all kinds of smithing scenes.
YOU TAKE THAT BACK.
posted by IAmBroom at 5:19 PM on February 20, 2015


There was a historical "fad" ....
Oops, meant to finish this. The fad for "miswearing" the hood lasted a few years. The resulting hat lasted about a century.
posted by IAmBroom at 5:25 PM on February 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


YOU TAKE THAT BACK.

*YAWWN* ok whatever
posted by Drinky Die at 5:31 PM on February 20, 2015


Oh, and the farmers! So much adventure to the life of the boy farmer compared to the girl learning to weave. If I ever write a fantasy series (an ambition of mine) I'm going to ask to consult with you on this stuff averysmallcat and try and work it in.
posted by Drinky Die at 5:51 PM on February 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


Much of the lack of fibre working in fiction can probably be attributed to male authors enacting their extremely dude-specific fantasies.

That was one of the more amusing things about the Wheel of Time books -- there were pages and pages devoted to loving description of all the characters' clothes, classified by region, social class, and activity. And the whole magic system that most of those characters used was based around weaving and fiber-work, and weaving was the big metaphor for everything. And yet I don't remember much discussion of characters actually producing any of it (though they did talk a lot about the inherent goodness of Two Rivers wool.)
posted by asperity at 10:52 PM on February 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


In many cases, the offering of clothes to one's servants and fighting men was an integral part of the social contract.

You can get a sense of this from the Bible and other ancient documents. For instance, in 2 Kings 5:5 you have the king of Syria sending a message to the king of Israel, with presents:
5 And the king of Syria said, Go to, go, and I will send a letter unto the king of Israel. And he departed, and took with him ten talents of silver, and six thousand pieces of gold, and ten changes of raiment.
It's hard to convert ancient units of measurement, but I think a rough estimate of the amount of the present is: 360 kilograms of silver; three kilograms of gold; and TEN SUITS.

I presume that these suits were implicitly super-duper royal clothing, but still: clothing was really, really prestigious. The same sort of emphasis appears in other places; this isn't an outlier. You find clothing (or cloth or even just dyed wool) as a standard item in tribute lists from all over the ancient world.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:36 AM on February 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


I don't remember much discussion of characters actually producing any of it (though they did talk a lot about the inherent goodness of Two Rivers wool.

Ah, yes, stout old Two Rivers wool, which magically got produced despite no woman in the Wheel of Time ever doing anything but stalk around braid-tugging, nagging and making the occasional ominous prediction!* By the end of the series someone was merrily inventing the steam engine, but I'm blowed if I ever read mention of a spinning wheel.

* (I suppose I should be grateful for all those queens, tough female sailors and mercenaries, Aes Sedai and merchants, but old Jordan didn't half have a heavy hand when writing female characters and dialogue.)
posted by averysmallcat at 11:43 AM on February 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


The thing with Jordan is a lot of the times he would write strong willed female characters just so he could eventually write a scene where they are spanked or switched.


I have no idea why people seem to think GRRM is a pervert but don't notice Jordan's obvious spanking fetish.
posted by Drinky Die at 4:16 AM on February 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


Joe in Australia: You find clothing (or cloth or even just dyed wool) as a standard item in tribute lists from all over the ancient world.
Exactly true. Clothes were regularly called out in wills: "and my good red robe to my servant Will". A student in Germany wrote home in the 15th-century to his mother, saying (essentially) "Hi mom, school is hard, I tore my tunic, please send money so I can buy a new one, Love your son." Specifically: he tore his only tunic - and yet his family was wealthy enough to send him abroad to university.
posted by IAmBroom at 7:36 AM on February 23, 2015 [3 favorites]


It continued into the Renaissance: Queen Elizabeth I was sent knitted silk stockings as a courting gift from the king of Spain. (Ironically, he fell on hard times, and now works at the Pizza Pizza.)
posted by IAmBroom at 7:39 AM on February 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


Drinky Die: I have no idea why people seem to think GRRM is a pervert but don't notice Jordan's obvious spanking fetish.
It's insulting to imply the problem with the man is that he has a spanking fetish, or is "a pervert". A huge portion of good-hearted, decent Mefites are "perverts" by your estimation.

That he writes shallow female characters opportunistically to support his fantasies is the problem.

And I'll say this in support of Tolkien: he may have created a world where apparently only 1% of the population is female (including giant spider-gods and sentient trees), but the ones he bothered to mention kick total ass, every one. When Lady Galadriel (and whatshisname* her fella) enter the room, worgs and trolls would be wise to go pick on whole castles instead.

[I keed. His name is Teleporno.]
posted by IAmBroom at 7:46 AM on February 23, 2015


Yeah, that was poor phrasing, I was more channeling what I've heard some people say about GRRM...not what I think about recreational spanking.
posted by Drinky Die at 7:48 AM on February 23, 2015


Ah, thanks for the clarification, Drinky Die.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:01 AM on February 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


You want to talk about misconceptions? How about a Medieval People of Color blog that seems to think that the 1500s through the 1800s were part of the Middle Ages?
posted by snottydick at 6:44 AM on February 27, 2015


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