Medieval Europe

So you really want to write a medieval European fantasy. You have everything wonderfully planned out: the characters, their clothes and facial expressions, even the drunken antics they got up to at a bar 15 years ago which, unbeknownst to them, started them off on their mysterious quest to get the MacGuffin and save the world as we know it.

And then it hits you: you don't actually know anything about medieval Europe! What do you do? Never fear: just make it up as you go along. I mean, as long as you don't throw in references to computers or phones, you'll be OK. And it's not like they didn't play basketball back then, right?

Thing is, I'm quite sick of seeing "medieval" settings which are either LOTR ripoffs, have had no research done on them, or both at the same time. It shows lazy thinking on the part of the author and disrespect for history and logic.

"But it's in a fantasy world! I don't have to be completely accurate!"
First of all, the people saying this are right - well, to a certain extent anyway. As a writer, one can pick and choose what one puts into one's setting, and one doesn't have to try and write an exact counterpart to, say, France in the middle of the 12th century. The key word here is "exact": you still need to do research on what actual medieval society was like.

Because it's not an exact counterpart, and because information is not always available for every little bit of a specific period or year, you do have some freedom to pick and choose what you want: for example, 15th-century manners in an otherwise 14th-century world is OK. Because it's a fantasy world, it's also OK, I think, to play around with some of the more superficial things. For example, instead of using inches and feet, one could use the made-up measurement of a gahlier, as long as one clearly explained what a gahlier actually was and the length it described.

Other things are more problematic to change: for example, fashion and jobs. Such things are changeable, but quite limited. Take fashion, which is dependent not only on the imagination but also on social mores and the techniques and fabrics available. So while it would theoretically be OK to have breeches and shirts instead of wearing hose, it might not necessarily be OK to have a girl walking around in a T-shirt and jeans (for a start, bare arms were frowned upon on a girl - what social mores and bits of society would you need to change to make it OK? Jeans actually started out during the Renaissance as durable wear for sailors, so assuming you actually put those into your story, what kind of people would wear them and why?). If "adventurer" is a legal job occupation in your story, what kind and class of people take that job and how does that affect the economy? You can change these things, but you have to be careful about doing so and you have to think about how that affects the society.

Some things you're just better off not changing drastically, because doing so will take you right out of the medieval period. A good example is medieval economics: by their very nature, in medieval European economies things that cost £20 were expensive because people did not use fiat money and coinage was scarce due to limited chemical knowledge (people did not know how to purify precious metals, so only the richest bullion mines could be operated), and villeins and people in rural areas might still have bartered. Thus banknotes are right out, and you have to account for things like debasement of currency, relative value of silver to gold, etc. I know a lot of media just says "screw this" and fixes the ratio at, say, 10 coppers = 1 silver and 10 silvers = 1 gold, but that's an example of lazy world-building. It's forgivable (just) to hand-wave currency if your story takes place over a few weeks, but if your epic medieval saga takes place over months, years, even decades or centuries, you need to account for inflation, deflation and everything in between.

How much research?
As much and as often as possible. Don't stray too many centuries away from your time period; equally, if you find something neat in a nearby era and it fits, you can try shoehorning it in. Romantic-era music might not fit in the 14th century, but the basse danse (from 15th and 16th century Burgundy) might work.

The key to creating a good medieval world is that it shouldn't feel like a LOTR ripoff, or 21st-century people in funny costumes. If you go and read social history books, you will be shocked at just how differently people act. It feels like you're going to a different country, and not just because the people there wear weird clothes and eat different food. It's because their whole attitudes to life are different, and that is what needs to be captured in a medieval fantasy. That is what separates good fiction from lazy thought: the whole setting will feel different. If you can get enough research in to make the world feel that way, you've done the minimum to make your setting work - but don't stop there. More is always good, but you don't need to push yourself as much. Of course, it goes without saying that your people still need to act like people.

I've done my research, but most of it doesn't show up. Help!
Sadly, that's the way of the world. I have the same problem; lots of others do.

Just because it hasn't been written in doesn't mean that it won't establish a presence. The way you can tell if someone hasn't fleshed out their story is if references to backstory leave you scratching your head and are never properly explained - it's confusing, it's irritating, and thankfully it doesn't happen too much in published literature. By contrast, if even a tiny bit of your story so much as references something you've researched, people will see it's there and they will take notice that you have bothered to develop your work beyond the surface. Sometimes it's irritating that you do so much work and so little goes in, but at least it's better than doing very little work and getting very little out of it.