"Mediaeval" Settings

Mediaeval depiction of Fortune's wheel, an important symbol in the Middle Ages
The wheel of Fortune, a prominent
symbol in the mediaeval period
You probably didn't want to hear this, but I am sick to shitting death of your generic high fantasy setting, with its various different races and professions (including professional adventurers a lot of the time), and its quasi-mediaeval setting...

...Yes, I said quasi-mediaeval. It's actually that quasi-mediaeval setting I'm most sick of, and I really wish people would do something different.

But why? A setting based off mediaeval Europe seems to work well for a lot of plots and worlds, after all - it's foreign enough to make people feel like they're transported into another land and you don't have to worry about all those little things like historical accuracy.

Late 13th-century manuscript of Sumer is icumen in, a 13th century English rota and possibly the oldest surviving example of independent melodic counterpoint
Sumer is icumen in, a 13th
century English rota and
possibly the oldest
surviving example of
independent melodic
The trouble is, it's overused - and it's overused in the worst possible way. Honestly, a stupid amount of media is set in this quasi-mediaeval period - and frankly, I'm not sure many of the people who use that setting actually care much about it. It's as if someone had decided "I want to set my story in a world where we don't have any modern technology and where people wear funny costumes, but I also can't be arsed to research a time period...Oh, I know! Let's set it in the Middle Ages!".

Now, I'm not saying that high fantasy stories should never, ever be set in the Middle Ages ever - though it would be nice to see more set in, say, an alternate version of the 21st century. What I am saying is that I'm sick of the generic "Middle Ages" setting.

This isn't because I don't like the mediaeval period, or history in general. Now, I'm not a history student anymore - I dropped it after taking my GCSEs - but I like to learn about the past and how people lived, and I know a little about the mediaeval period through my own research. And knowing the little I know about the mediaeval period is exactly why I'm so tired of the generic high fantasy setting.

Alleluia nativitas of Pérotin
Alleluia nativitas of
The first problem? The mediaeval period spans the fall of the Western Roman Empire to the Renaissance, or roughly the 5th to the 15th century. That is a good thousand years of development to play with there - and that's not even taking into account the fact that different countries each underwent their own developments. Even mediaeval Europe, the base for generic high fantasy, would have varied quite a bit from country to country. So completely blurring out all those temporal and regional details for your "Middle Ages" setting is not only confusing to people who know even a little bit about the mediaeval period, but it's also really insulting too - which leads me onto the second problem.

Because the Middle Ages lasted about a thousand years it's difficult to generalise about society and culture - but they were different back then. It seems obvious to say, but the fact that people would have had different and often slightly alien outlooks on life gets ignored quite a bit in the media; for example, senses of humour would have been different, sometimes much more physical and rude - take the Canterbury Tales, for instance, which veers between erudition and vulgarity. People in 14th-century England gesticulated in different ways and could sometimes be much more physical; they could often be violent and cruel, too, at the same time placing high importance on manners. People weren't necessarily stupid - in the mediaeval period, people did enquire, even if their inquiry did get mixed up a lot with theology (just take Dante's Divine Comedy - parts of the Paradiso are actually huge expositions of what was then cutting-edge science, theology and philosophy) - but at the same time, if three different churches claimed to have John the Baptist's head, they would be perfectly capable of believing that John the Baptist had three heads because theirs was a world of magic and superstition and a world in which fortune could lift you up or cast you down. It is not for nothing that Fortune's wheel was a prominent symbol.

14th-century manuscript of the Divine Comedy (1337)
14th-century (1337)
manuscript of the Divine
Culture, too, was very mixed: in mediaeval Europe, you had the influence of the Church intermingling with the old pagan traditions and what was left of Graeco-Roman culture in all sorts of ways, as well as the creation of new styles such as organum, which arose out of monophonic Gregorian chant. And that's not even getting on to the Italian Renaissance (well, it started at the end of the 14th century, it's fair play), where the humanists found so many new manuscripts, developed textual criticism further and, in applying the techniques of textual criticism to the Bible, showed that the texts themselves, being corrupt and sometimes having omissions or interpolations, were not sacred - an important development. This is without mentioning all the intrigue that went on in papal and noble circles, which is enough material for historical fiction in itself.

This is a very quick whistlestop tour of about a millennium, and it's not a definitive guide, but please...if someone wants to set their film or book or game in the mediaeval period, I just wish they'd do their research. The Middle Ages are fascinatingly alien and it doesn't do them justice to pretend that they're a world of funny costumes and no computers.

I'm not saying that you should never ever take liberty with the Middle Ages in a fantasy setting, because that's no fun. What I am saying is that if you're going to set your fantasy story in the equivalent of mediaeval Europe, it's an absolute waste not to research the society and culture to give the setting a bit more depth and interest. The Middle Ages are a foreign land, almost, full of riches and landscapes to be explored.

It's a shame that we don't explore them nearly enough in fiction.