This is not an academic essay. It’s a series of very shallow cuts that completely fails to delve into the complex histories it touches upon. It bounces around the world, and from the Dark Ages to the Early Modern era, not because those times and places are necessarily covered by the term “Medieval”, but because they can serve as inspiration for what we think of as Medieval fantasy. Any historian with knowledge of any of the times and places discussed could probably rip this article to pieces. That’s okay. This article is about taking inspiration from history for writing fantasy.

red castle door by Kelly Sikkema (detail)

Actually, for all I know, you write excellent Medieval fantasy. But there’s plenty of fantasy media out there that draws on a deeply flawed understanding of what the Medieval world was like. Though I think that narrative is now changing. Regardless, there’s no need for us, as writers and readers, to limit ourselves to just that view of what Medieval settings can or should be.

The classic Medieval fantasy is one of static kingdoms that have existed for hundreds or even thousands of years, ruled over by kings and queens whose lines stretch back to the foundation of those kingdoms. Beneath the royal family are the aristocracy. Noble knights ride out on quests while scheming dukes and wicked barons seek to corrupt the royal court and terrorise the mud-splattered peasantry, who rarely venture out of their home villages for fear of disappearing into the “Scary Forest”.

There may be sacred knights, magic-wielding priests, or ruthless inquisitors. Otherwise, the Church, or its equivalent, wields power through their influence over hearts and minds. There may well be an empire somewhere. It’s not necessarily clear what advantage allowed that empire to flourish.

All this is fine. It’s fun to read when done right. It’s fun to write too. But bear in mind this version of Medieval fantasy is more rooted in fairy tales and Arthurian romance than in history. It’s a simplified, glorified ideal of a past that never quite existed, but was invented by poets and playwrights and politicians for reasons of their own.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with writing fairy tales, or drawing on the fantasy novels of the past. But if you go back and dig into Medieval history you can find a ton of complex, nuanced, fascinating stories that can provide you with more inspiration than you will ever need. Far from the static, unchanging fairylands we might imagine, the true Medieval world was constantly changing. Technology, government, peoples, religions, even the landscape changed. Very few things about the Medieval world were what we might think.

Monarchy Was Not the Same from Century to Century

crown by Markus Spiske

Yes, different houses and families came to power, certainly, this happens a lot in fantasy fiction too. But the idea of what a king or queen was and how they should govern also changed throughout time.

One of the key defining traits of the English kings after the Norman Conquest was they were also incredibly powerful French nobles or “magnates”. This led to many wars between France and England, and France and the rest of France, as the French kings attempted to assert their control over dukes and counts who ruled more or less independently. Very few of these powerful French nobles wanted to give up their authority to the king. The English kings were even less willing to bow to a fellow monarch.

Meanwhile the English barons felt their king should “live of his own,” i.e., get money from his own estates rather than taxing them or seizing territory from them through writs of afforestation. The Magna Carta, held up these days as the start of the long road to freedom, was designed to force King John to sign this belief into law. The Magna Carta was as much about enshrining aristocratic power as it was about placing a check on royal power.

Where does your fantasy monarch get their authority or money from? Do they have personal estates? Does their territory spread beyond the confines of the kingdom they rule?

The supremacy of the crown was a long-fought battle. By the end of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign there had been so many aristocratic rebellions and dynastic wars that England literally ran out of dukes. They had all been killed in civil wars or executed for treason. This was part of the reason why authority and power became based around the English royal court—there was no one amongst the aristocracy left to challenge royal authority. (For a while, anyway.)

Louis XIV “The Sun King” engineered a comparable situation in France. The French aristocracy were (still) independent and powerful. He forced them to travel to his court to dance attendance on him or forfeit their estates. Elaborate rituals, expensive clothing, lavish parties, it was all designed to keep the aristocracy busy, focus their attention on the court, and force them to spend their fortunes until they had to borrow from the crown, ensuring the monarch was the centre of all power, prestige, and glory in France. Manners, lace, fancy shoes, and giant wigs were all weapons in the arsenal of royal control.

Over in what would become Russia, Tsar Ivan the Terrible became so exasperated by what he saw as the plotting of the boyar class (aristocrats) that he threatened to abdicate unless they granted him more power over them. Once the boyars agreed to Ivan’s terms, he created a standing army of Oprichnina and used them to bring the boyars to heel with a wave of ghoulish executions, massacres, and land-confiscations. (He also forced a bishop to marry a horse. Ancient Russian humour, I guess.)

Arguably the earliest members of a standing army in Europe were the janissaries. Successive Turkish rulers took Christian and Jewish children captured in battle and enslaved them, then had them trained as soldiers. It might seem crazy to take subjugated people of a different religion from your own and make them your personal guard, but the janissaries were converted to Islam and paid a substantial salary, cementing their loyalty to the sultan, rather than to tribal leaders who might refuse the call to battle.

Many historical kings and queens, empresses and emperors, claimed to wield absolute power by divine right or the mandate of heaven. Historians continue to debate whether these claims were more than wishful thinking. Certainly, in Europe, a few of these “divine” monarchs wound up being executed by their subjects—Tsar Nicholas, Louis XVI, Charles I. For as long as there have been rulers claiming absolute power there have been people plotting to destroy them.

Is your monarch supported or empowered by a god? Is that enough to save them from an angry mob or their own aristocratic peers? Do they have a standing army, or must they rely on their supporters or hired mercenaries? What keeps that standing army from turning on the crown? What other powers, mortal or immortal, has your empress crushed in her rise to power? What sins has she committed? How does she keep the rest in line?

Has anyone forced the monarchy to account in living memory? Is the monarch at war with the aristocracy and, if so, who is winning?

Even the way kingship was passed down the generations wasn’t always the same. Some Celtic and early Saxon kings passed their crowns down through the female line of their family. This was simply because a king could not conclusively prove the children his wife gave birth to were related to him, but the children his sister bore were clearly of his line.

These days the right of the eldest child to inherit a crown is fairly well established. But across Medieval Europe, there were times when the important question was not “who is the oldest child of the monarch,” but “which child of the monarch has the most supporters?”

Some monarchs were even elected e.g., early Frankish kings, the Holy Roman Emperors, some of the Crusader kings, a few Scandinavian kings, the Doges of Venice, and kings of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. (Though election in this case could mean just a few very powerful nobles choosing one of their own to rule, more of an oligarchy than a democracy.)

The emperors of Byzantium were so concerned about their succession being successful they would often have their heirs crowned as co-emperors so the throne wouldn’t be left vacant when they died.

How is your ruler chosen? Has it always been this way? Is succession usually smooth or does it tend to erupt into infighting and intrigue?

Religious Power Was More Than Words

stained glass by Michel GroletYes, there were abbots and cardinals whispering in royal ears or whipping up armies into a frenzy. There were plenty of stories of miracles and wonders too. But religious leaders could wield a shocking amount of temporal power.

Consider the Papal States in Italy. The Pope ruled these as a feudal lord, extracting taxes, appointing regional overlords, defending them from invasion and even arranging wars of conquest. Priestly vows of celibacy didn’t necessarily prevent these Popes from having children and granting them high office either.

What would a country ruled by a high priest look like in your world? Do religious authorities follow or flout their own rules and does anyone care?

The Knights Templar are one of the inspirations for D&D’s Paladin class and similar sacred knights in fantasy fiction. In the real world they were held up, at least initially, as paragons of virtue. (One monk even praised their refusal to indulge in the vanity of bathing.) But they also gained huge wealth and vast swathes of territory. Indeed, they were consummate bankers with an intricate financial network that stretched from the Middle East to the edges of Europe. Templar houses controlled local businesses and had their own standing armies, forming states within states.

Other monastic orders such as the Cistercians and Benedictines also had networks of influence and wealth that crossed multiple nations.

Who controls the money in your world? Merchants? Nobles? Monks, who have access to international networks of information and the assembled wisdom of the ages? Are there organisations which span national boundaries and can defy the authority of local rulers?

If some world-ending threat arose in your world, would globe-spanning monastic orders be the best equipped to organise a defence? Could your hero’s journey be funded or assisted by them?

The Templars sometimes feuded with other holy orders—the Hospitallers and Teutonics. Weakened by internecine conflict they were driven out of the Holy Land by Islamic armies. Losing influence and purpose but still rich, they became a ripe target for royal disfavour—Phillip IV of France, who happened to be considerably in debt to the Templars, had their leaders arrested and eventually executed for heresy—claiming they worshipped a goat-horned devil called Baphomet. The surviving Templars retired or joined other military orders. The Knights Hospitaller survived as a military force long enough to be defeated by Napoleon himself, and successor organisations exist to this day.

Christianity is hardly alone in having holy warriors. Over in Japan, Oda Nobunaga—the first of the great warlords whose exploits ultimately led to the creation of the Tokugawa Shogunate, brutally wiped out the s?hei. These were an order of Buddhist monks with enough force of arms to defy the samurai armies who otherwise dominated Japan.

The term “assassin” is said to have its origin in a small Islamic sect based in what is now Iran, who controlled their own small state and sent trained and indoctrinated killers to stab their political opponents to death (ranging from Seljuk Turks to a king of Jerusalem). I’ve not found any evidence these killers were ordained as clerics of any kind, but religious teachings were apparently part of their training and ethos.

How much power do the holy orders in your world wield, beyond the ability to fling angelic lightning or heal with a touch? Do they fight each other over territory? If they fail to defeat a particular foe, who is lying in wait to attack them in their moment of weakness? How do they change and move over the centuries? Do they follow the teachings of their parent religion or are they a potential challenge to its authority?

Christians were equally likely to kill each other over political or religious differences. The so called Cathars were a sect that thrived in Southern France and Northern Italy in the 12th to the 14th Century. They believed the material world had been created by an evil god, represented by a false Messiah, and the true spiritual world awaited them beyond this one. (This led them to believe that having children was a sin because it trapped more souls in the hellish material world.) After a Cistercian monk was allegedly murdered on the orders of Duke Raymond, a powerful Cathar leader, the Pope preached a crusade against the Cathars, leading to a bloody and total suppression of their “heresy”. (The Cistercian order of monks were themselves originally formed as a rebuke to the main Church, particularly to the monastic orders of old, whom they considered to have drifted away from the true nature of Christianity. The Cistercians were accepted as a part of the Catholic Church, but they might also have been violently suppressed if history had gone the other way.)

What do people in your world believe? Will they go to war for those beliefs? What cults, heresies and factions have been destroyed in the past and what legacy did they leave behind? What strange real-world beliefs might be true in your fantasy world?

“Common Folk” Weren’t Necessarily Ignorant, Powerless, Mud-splattered Farmers

artisan by Jacques GAIMARD

Thomas Becket, the famous English Archbishop who was killed in Canterbury Cathedral by knights in service to Henry II, was a common-born merchant’s son from London. Through a mixture of education, raw talent, patronage, and luck he was able to gain a position as one of the king’s most trusted advisors and administrators. Thomas wasn’t even a priest before Henry had him appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury, which made his switch to supporting the power of the Church all the more shocking. (Incidentally, bottles of holy water containing drops of Becket’s blood were believed to have miraculous healing properties during the Middle Ages.)

Law was a tool used by “commoners” as often as the elites of society. People sued each other over criminal damage, debated rights and property, had marriages annulled, even extracted money from people who had murdered their relatives.

What paths are there to power and influence in your setting? Can education trump noble birth? How much influence does law have?

Medieval guilds could wield tremendous influence as well. A lot of fantasy novels focus on the “sexy” guilds—thieves, warriors, mages, and assassins. Real historical guilds were formed around trades such as medicine, law, fur-trading, or shipbuilding. These guilds had their own schools, commissioned municipal buildings, funded trade missions, fought street-battles with rival guilds, and ruthlessly guarded the secrets of their own trade. Anyone practicing a trade outside of its assigned guild could be fined at best and outright murdered at worst.

(Admittedly, in the 15th and 16th Century there was a society of German swordsman called the Brotherhood of Saint Mark who had, for a time, a monopoly on teaching fencing with rapiers, two-handed swords, and various other weapons.)

These guilds and societies wielded political and military power too. The Arsenalotti (workers dedicated to the mass production of ships and firearms) of Venice formed armed mobs that were critical to the city’s defence but could also present a grave danger to the authority of the Doge. Across Italy and Germany in the 14th Century guilds rose up against municipal authorities and took bloody control of entire towns.

Was your hero raised by a guild? Did they join a guild-funded regiment? What is a guild-run town like? Perhaps your protagonist created some innovative technique that could revolutionise an entire trade and now the guild of glassblowers or farriers is employing assassins to kill them?

Even in villages, there was plenty of social difference. The local miller would probably not have been a noble but would have had a stranglehold over the ability of other locals to make bread, breeding considerable resentment. Servants and clerks working for nobles also wielded considerable influence. Merchants and wealthy farmers might well have lorded it over other “peasants”.

After the Black Death ravaged Europe, workers were in short supply. Tenant farmers and other “common” labourers could potentially charge the landed elite more for their labour. Attempts by aristocrats and monarchs to return to the pre-plague status-quo triggered violent conflicts and peasant uprisings.

What opportunities for advancement are there in your world? What tensions are there between the haves and have-nots?

Travel Was Relatively Common

wine stall by Birgit Keil

It’s quite possible that many Medieval people spent most of their lives in or near the place where they were born. But travel was far from unknown. Going back at least as far as the Celts, Europe was part of a vast trading network which could bring people from Africa to Asia to the British Isles and back.

Some countries specialised in particular kinds of warfare such as artillery or the use of crossbows. Regiments of mercenaries from these lands could see service all over the continent. Then there were the pilgrimages. Medieval Europeans of all social classes travelled hundreds or thousands of miles to the supposed resting places of saints all over the continent, and beyond, to Jerusalem, for example. They shared stories, made business deals, and brought back souvenirs. Some stuck to the Church-approved pilgrim badges, others stole stones, bits of fabric and entire bones from the shrines of saints.

(The alleged skeleton of one saint, Alban, was supposedly taken from its original resting place in England and placed in a monastery in Denmark. Years later, the story goes, a Saxon monk infiltrated the Danish order, gained enough trust to be given custody of its relics, secretly cut a hole in Alban’s coffin, stole his bones, hid them in a chest, and gave the chest to a merchant who was headed to England, ultimately sending them back home.)

So, your protagonist grew up in an isolated village. But an elder of the village could have travelled across the continent and beyond on a religious pilgrimage or to fight in a war, bringing back stories of wonders and monsters, and even artefacts that could help your hero in their own journeys. (Or perhaps the skeleton of a saint, which now longs to go home and may even return of its own accord.)

Medieval monarchs often didn’t have settled courts. Instead, they travelled from castle to castle, visiting their own estates and the lands of their aristocratic subjects. This way a monarch could avoid using up too many resources in one area and could keep track of all of their territory. In a less grand manner, peasant labourers would sometimes travel around as well. These were groups or gangs of young men who went from village to village in search of seasonal work. They could be a source of trouble if there was no work to be had, or if they managed to get hold of too much alcohol.

Who travels around your fantasy world? It doesn’t have to be a merchant, bard, or mysterious wizard—all sorts of political or economic structures could drive travel. What happens when the Queen is passing by your protagonist’s home or staying at their castle? Would a gang of young labourers be the first to notice invaders or roaming monsters?

(Admittedly, Medieval Europeans were known to have strange beliefs about the peoples of other lands, including tales of a race of dog-headed cannibals living “somewhere in the East” and a superhuman, immortal, African, priest-king called Prester John who would soon move to assist his fellow Christians in the Crusades.)

Weapons and Warfare Constantly Changed and Evolved

knight armor by nik shuliahin

During the European Dark Ages, the most common battle tactic was to form a shield-wall—line upon line of warriors with locked shields, using spears, swords, or axes to attack their foes. Even nobles might well have ridden to the battle, then dismounted to fight.

The discovery of the stirrup led to the rise of the armoured cavalryman, or knight, creating an emphasis on rich, elite warriors who could afford the armour and horses this battlefield role required. The Franks were the first to use large numbers of mounted knights, allowing them to conquer great swathes of territory.

For around five hundred years medieval knights wore coats of mail for the most part. It was only in the 14th Century that plate armour really started to take off Europe, perhaps in response to the use of crossbows in Medieval warfare. Horse armour developed over this time as well.

In fact, by the time the classic plate-armoured knight was roaming the European battlefield, gunpowder was already in use, both for cannons and for handguns. Even then, plate armour was adjusted and improved, with new pieces being added, to deal with new threats on the battlefield. Threats like massed units of pikemen whose weapons stood a chance of punching through the weak points of armour or impaling a charging horse. Or warriors with maces that could be used to knock a knight silly even if they couldn’t pierce his armour.

Other weapons and tactics were developed to deal with infantry too. One theory about the zweihänder (a sword so big it was effectively a polearm), so beloved in tabletop RPGs, is its wielders would be sent in to break up blocks of pikemen.

In turn, a lot of infantrymen began to be equipped with increasing amounts of plate armour. A 17th Century footman might have laughed the armour worn by an 11th Century knight to scorn.

Are there knights in your setting? How many centuries have they been around? How have other types of soldiers developed their tactics to deal with cavalry? Do you think your world isn’t advanced enough to have gunpowder? Then it’s either developed differently to the real world or it’s not “advanced” enough to have plate armour either, at least, if your setting is inspired by Europe.

Gunpowder was tremendously important in Europe in the later Middle Ages. There is a historical theory that European monarchs only began to have real success in becoming absolute rulers once they had access to gunpowder and could use cannons to break down the castles where rebellious aristocrats had taken shelter. (I wonder if printing, which allowed information to be spread far more quickly, had something to do with the rise of absolutism as well.)

Gunpowder weapons were also constantly tinkered with. New blends of gunpowder were created for different sorts of guns. Gun carriages were developed so cannons could be moved about more quickly. Guns were stuck in or on just about anything—swords, axes, maces, shields, keys, and even prayerbooks!

Have the Dark Lord and their Grim Legion slept beneath a great hill for a thousand years? When they wake up, their weapons and tactics will be completely unsuited for the current age, how do they deal with that? Do they think these “knights” are centaurs or magical constructs? Do they take crossbows or cannons apart to see what makes them work?

Is your character a “warrior”? That doesn’t mean they have to be a roving sword-wielder or mounted knight. They might have all sorts of other roles on the battlefield. Artillerist. Pole-arm wielder. Horse-archer. Crossbowman. Heavy infantry. Is their way of fighting an ancient tradition or a new-fangled technique?

The Medieval World Was Very Diverse

Genghis Khan army by Kin-bi

Iberia—the peninsula which would become Spain and Portugal, was conquered by the Umayyad Caliphate (an Islamic state that controlled much of North Africa) in the 8th Century. (England wasn’t even a single kingdom, at this point.) Arab and Berber (a North African ethnicity) rulers dominated much of the Iberian Peninsula for centuries afterwards, leaving an indelible mark on Spanish culture and architecture.

Genghis Khan conquered much of the lands that would become Russia and other Eastern European countries. Mongol horse archers thrashed European knights in pitched battles and Mongol armies raided as far as central Europe. Mongol rulers remained a significant power in global politics for many years afterwards.

For much of the Medieval period, Constantinople, capital of the Empire of Byzantium, was the largest and wealthiest city in Europe. In many ways it was the centre of the Medieval world, perhaps matched only by Rome and the Papacy. Its empire stretched from Eastern Europe to Anatolia and, at its height, to large chunks of Africa.

Constantinople had connections to Western Europe as well, besides trade. For example, after the Norman Conquest of England, many Saxons fled their homeland and took up positions in the Byzantine Emperor’s Varangian Guard. Both Arab conquerors and invading European crusaders contributed to the eventual fall of the Byzantine Empire.

Venice (a popular inspiration for fantasy settings) also ruled a vast empire, with coastal colonies all over the Mediterranean. Much of its power was built on trade, particularly trade within the Byzantine Empire. But the Republic also forged a treaty with the great Mongol emperor Kublai Khan.

Later, both Venice and Constantinople were eclipsed by the mighty Ottoman Empire, which conquered much of Eastern Europe, Western Asia, and North Africa. At one time it was thought that the Ottomans might conquer all of Europe.

Does your story take place in an empire? There’s a good chance it spans several continents, even if it hasn’t conquered all or even half of any single continent. What made this empire so successful? What do they do better than anyone else? Who do they trade with?

Yes, there were countries, such as France and England, that neither conquered nor were conquered by peoples we would consider “Non-European” during the Medieval period. (Even saying that requires us to ignore the Crusader States.) But they still had a shifting mix of ethnicities and cultures—Celtic, Nordic, Gallic, Roman, Saxon. And there is archaeological, written, and artistic evidence of people from Asia and Africa living in these countries throughout the Medieval era.

Africa itself was home to many rich, thriving, and powerful states throughout the Medieval era—in Senegal, Chad, Mali, and Ethiopia, to name but a few. Islamic traders connected much of Africa to the rest of the world.

Jewish people played a vital and influential role in Medieval Europe. Often persecuted, forced into jobs Christians felt they could not do, such as moneylending, blamed for all kinds of misfortunes, massacred, or driven out. They nonetheless survived, contributing significantly to European philosophy, theology, medicine, science, economics, and even what we would call magical beliefs such as alchemy, divination, and angelology.

(Nor should we underestimate the influence of Arabic philosophers and other Islamic thinkers on the development of European thought, science, and culture. Or the effects of trade with various Asian empires and kingdoms.)

The course of European history would have been unrecognisable to us without the influence of Islamic and Jewish peoples, and connections to the Middle East, Africa, and East Asia. And I haven’t even touched on South Asia.

What mix of peoples dominates the area where your story is set? Where did their ancestors come from? Where does knowledge and technological advancement come from?

I’ve focused on ethnicity. But this was a diverse world in all sorts of other ways. Women could wield power and influence—military, economic, spiritual, and more, in Medieval Europe. So could LGBTQ+ people. And people with disabilities. And any other division of humanity you can think of. Empresses and living saints, female soldiers, crafters, and healers. Mentally ill rulers, leper kings, blind lawyers. Vikings who loved other men, nuns who loved other women, and kings who might love anyone. They all existed in the Medieval world and were vital to the course of history, though their stories are not always fully or faithfully recorded. If these groups are not always represented in our fantasy stories, don’t mistake that writing decision for realism.

Their Ideas Were Much Weirder Than We Think

fighting snails from the Gorleston Psalter, England

Here are just a few of the beliefs espoused by one or more people during the Medieval era.

  • Dragons are the natural enemy of elephants! The dragon hunts and bites the elephant, which, as it dies, falls over and crushes the dragon. Their blood melds together and that’s how we get cinnabar.
  • There is a creature like an ox, but it shoots flaming poo out of its bottom.
  • I have learned Enochian, the language of angels. They will give us their secrets if you and I swap wives.
  • Witches can turn into hares, to better worship the devil.
  • You can stop a vampire from rising again by burning their body, mixing the ashes with water, and forcing the vampire’s living relatives to drink that water.
  • Some people have a magic belt of wolfskin that lets them turn into wolves and attack their neighbours. In Ireland there are kindly wolfmen who creep up and peer into people’s houses, if they think your house looks poor, they will leave you a gift of fish to feed your family.
  • Burying a bottle of urine and hair beneath your house will protect you from witches.
  • We can see Heaven in the night sky, and it is possible to dig down to Hell.
  • There are four humours. These are organic substances that govern human health and temperament. Each humour corresponds to an element, which corresponds to three star-signs. Alchemy, astrology, and medicine are all linked, and we must strive for balance in all things.
  • Unicorns exist and they can kill entire armies.
  • Drinking mercury is good for you.
  • There is a specific demon, called Titivillus, whose sole job is causing scribes to make mistakes.

(We know all this. And yet we still don’t know for sure why medieval monks decorated their manuscripts with pictures of knights fighting giant snails.)

Of course, there are many, many authors who write interesting stories based, in part, on this broader view of the Medieval world. Empires are very popular at the moment. And there are a rising number of novels set in non-European inspired fantasy lands.

Here is a, wildly incomplete, list of such novels and series, some which I have read.

  • Stephen Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont’s Malazan series focuses on an empire that spreads rapidly across multiple continents and radically changes the many diverse cultures it conquers. It also features an ongoing shadow war between the Empress and the old nobility.
  • Evan Winter’s Burning series is set in an African inspired land whose people are stuck in an unwinnable, genocidal war.
  • Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James tells the harrowing story of a journey across multiple African-inspired kingdoms and nations, complete with shapeshifters, witches, mighty armies, social change, palace plots, and many different types of vampires.
  • Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Empire in Black and Gold begins in a sleepy, democratic city of artisans that becomes the focus of resistance against the rising Wasp Empire. Over the course of the series military technology evolves rapidly, with air-rifles becoming the standard weapon and flying machines battling in the skies.
  • Mark Lawrence’s wickedly funny, super-grimdark series, The Broken Empire, is set in a post-apocalyptic Europe. Magic reigns here and much of mainland Europe was once combined into an empire rather like the Holy Roman Empire. Now it has collapsed back into squabbling princedoms, but perhaps one man will rise to control all of it once again, whether by conquest or election.
  • Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy novels are based in and around an alternate version of France. In this world gods and angels can directly influence the lives of mortals. A god and a religion born of Christianity, but with a far more sex-positive view on life, found their home in the Frankish lands. The people of this land are partly descended from angels.
  • K Arsenault Rivera wrote a trilogy of books, Ascendant, which is inspired by the Mongol Empire.
  • Elizabeth Haydon’s Symphony of the Ages features—a land ruled by a high priest, an empire whose emperor is chosen from applicants who submit themselves to a magical test, a character who turns a tribal people into a united kingdom, and a league of nations bound together by their common descent from an ancient exodus of elementally gifted peoples from the first continent.
  • Due to the enduring influence of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights, Arabian or Middle Eastern fantasy is arguably its own sub-genre and can be as closed up in its own little bubble as Euro-centric fantasy. Nonetheless, Saladin Ahmed’s fun, adventurous novel Throne of the Crescent Moon includes horrific magic, a non-Christian holy warrior, a ghoul-hunter, and a proud were-lion.
  • Finally, Miles Cameron’s Traitor Son Cycle is possibly the most authentic portrayal ever of a fantasy world inspired by Medieval Western Europe. It’s based around a large mercenary company, and is complete with full details of the importance of archers and the nature of knightly warfare, down to the amount of sewing and washing required to maintain a knight’s equipment.

That’s it. Write and read whatever you want, but I hope you won’t let the worlds you wander through become too narrow or repetitive.

Title image by Kelly Sikkema.


By Richard Marpole

Richard was born with his nose in a book and his head in the clouds; which is probably why he keeps getting lost. These days he divides his time between reading fantasy fiction, playing computer games, GMing tabletop RPGS, watching all the superhero and SFF films and TV series, blogging, and haphazardly researching mythology and folklore. He also manages to work on his first book now and then; it’s an urban fantasy novel called A Day in the Lies of Inari Meiwaku and it’s about a kitsune. His body has a day job in a library and lives in a sleepy county on the outskirts of London; his mind can usually be found in one dream world or another. You can follow him on Twitter at @RMarpole or on his personal blog at https://richardmarpole.wordpress.com.

2 thoughts on “You Are Writing Medieval Fantasy Wrong”
  1. All true. And more – the Merovingian and Carolingian kings of the Franks saw the realm as a joint family property – divided on each succession (and then fought over between them and their wives). Landowners as far afield as the Ukraine, Hungary and Ireland sent agents to recruit Flemish peasants, with promises of low rents and freedom from dues – and they went (would how Willem of Grootbeke found himself riding with the Polovtsy make a good story?). Royalty could be very informal – sagas have people coming into the hall and saying ‘Good-day, King’, and English kings were mobbed by redress-seeking peasants. A dna test turned up someone from Siberia who settled down in a Scottish village long enough to leave offspring. What was their story?

    And don’t get me started on how so few fantasies use magic sensibly…

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