“Myths about the Middle Ages” lists are well and good—but they tell you how not to think about the Middle Ages. If you’re writing in a medieval or medieval-ish setting, that’s not going to take you very far. So put down that horned helmet, fill your drinking horn with water, and come learn a little about how to think about the Middle Ages as a writer.
1. Authenticity versus accuracy
When you’re trying to recreate a realistic past on the page or onscreen, there are two angles to consider: accuracy and authenticity. Accuracy reflects the medieval world “as it really was.” (Or at least, the best we can reconstruct it from available evidence.) Authenticity, on the other hand, describes the signals that make the audience feel like we’re in the medieval world. We’ve learned that dirt and armor signal medieval, so unless there’s dirt and armor, a book or game is going to seem unrealistic.
This doesn’t mean that authenticity is bad! Authenticity is the reason we can talk about medieval fantasy in the first place—it’s why medieval fantasy feels special, why it can evoke the same paradox of comfortable similarity and exciting exoticism that the Middle Ages do.
But examples like the (Grim) Dark Ages illustrate how authenticity creep can obscure accuracy instead of augmenting it. There’s been a background idea all along of the Middle Ages as barbaric and violent, so when something like Game of Thrones comes along and amplifies the violence, it “feels” more realistic. It also shifts our sense of what is authentic, so less violent portrayals of medieval/medievalist worlds feel less realistic.
2. Give people some credit
People in the Middle Ages drank a lot of alcoholic beverages, yes. But it wasn’t because beer, ale, and wine were magically safe to drink while water was not. People understood perfectly well what made unsafe water safe to use and drink on its own:
Remember about the well water of Toulouse. Wherefore boil it, and the same with the water of the Garonne [River], because such waters are bad. (Guide for newcomers to Toulouse, 1315)
And they weren’t drunk all the time, either:
Don’t take wine without water…for it is bad to grow used to strong wine without admixture of water.
And that’s to say nothing of Islamic law forbidding alcohol consumption altogether. It’s a little hard to believe the religion’s founders intended everyone to die of dehydration.
3. …Okay, not that much credit
While Muslim jurists were busy ranting about the prohibition of alcohol, 13th-century Cairo residents were throwing street parties with 150 barrels of wine, and tenth-century cookbook authors were adding entire chapters about what foods to eat so you could consume a maximum amount of wine without getting drunk.
4. Research the things that “everyone knows”
I am madly in love with Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, and as a medieval historian, I can’t get enough of how the actual engine of the plot is the 12th-century monastic reform movement. Who even knows about that?! Follett seems to have developed his plots symbiotically with his research, rather than splatting down a generic plot and trying to twist the Middle Ages to accommodate it.
But even heroes fall short sometimes, and in Pillars, the exemplar is when the masons’ guild goes on strike. “Everyone knows” medieval craft guilds were organized groups of everyone in a city who practiced the same profession, and judging by the popularity of the book, “everyone known” organized groups of similar professionals are trade unions who advocate for their members.
Medieval guilds were many things, including oversight bodies for quality control, mutual-aid societies, and drinking clubs. But they were not unions: their primary economic function was regulation, not advocacy. In 13th-century Munich, for example, this meant that the gingerbread-bakers’ guild prohibited non-members from selling gingerbread in the city. (It also meant that people in 13th-century Munich ate enough gingerbread to justify an entire guild of its bakers, which is some serious dedication.) In the guilds of 14th-century London, it meant regulating the maximum length of apprenticeships to reduce exploitation of apprentices, and limiting the number of masters to increase exploitation of journeymen.
Follett wasn’t wrong to have his guild protest, at least. But when medieval craft guilds protested, they didn’t stop at a measly strike. To protest the mistreatment of a single guild member in 1267, the cobblers’ guild in Bologna burned down the mayor’s house.
5. Don’t put organized religion in a box
In medieval Europe, religion permeated the world like today’s Wi-Fi signals and the information they carry. The Church structured the seasons of the year (according to religious holidays), the days of the week (Sunday rest day), and the hours of the day (based on the hours of monks’ and nuns’ group prayers). Even people who didn’t care about heaven went to weekly church services and eventually sermons, to flirt with potential spouses and exchange all the best gossip. Magical charms might use Hebrew letters or invoke the names of Christianity’s most holy figures, Christ and Mary. Those craft guilds that were not labor unions? Were definitely not labor unions when the host city was requiring them to perform a religious play on a set date every year.
The omnipresence of religion in medieval society is probably one of the hardest things for us to grasp. Authenticity means monks hard at work copying manuscripts, and nuns putting their lives in danger to care for sick people during the Black Death. Accuracy means those monks had a couple hours a day at most to copy, and eight or more hours in a chapel singing praise to God.
6. Late medieval London had public toilets, and those public toilets had nicknames.
This isn’t really a lesson. I just think it’s hilarious that when 14th-century nature called, it could get its answer at the Pixie House.