Medieval Musings

At the end of November I’ll be attending a science fiction convention–I’m on a committee that makes an award for the best book by a writer in the region.  I’ll also be serving on panels that deal with portrayal of the Middle Ages in fantasy and science fiction–why it happens so often and whether that’s a good or a bad thing.  So I raise the question here as well.

Fantasy and science fiction writers have a wide-open choice of the kinds of societies they set their stories in.  That being so, why choose feudalism?

One answer may simply be that earlier writers than George R.R. Martin made that choice successfully, so there are bound to be emulators.  True.  Less simply, why feudalism rather than representative democracy or Chinese-style imperialism?  Relatively few American writers know enough of Chinese history to imitate it in the detail a novelist needs, but we wallow (how many Republican candidates?) in U.S. democracy.  I’d be happy to read a good literary experiment with democracy on Venus, or with mandarins on Mars.

Fantasy writers are not limited by the need to create an illusion of mundanity that traps science fiction writers in the laws of physics.  So what’s with the redundant dukes and barons and bubble-gum pink princesses who show up in fantasy, never mind werewolves and wizards and faery folk flittering through the air?  Fantasists could portray the love life of intelligent iguanas.  But no.  They do the European aristocracy circa 1250.

I wouldn’t want to live in medieval Europe myself, but I have to admit there are positive elements in the culture.  It’s a remarkably colorful society.  Even the religion is color-coded.  The liturgical season determines the color of the priest’s outer vestments, Pentecost being emerald green and Easter white.  Coding the powerful cardinals red strikes me as a brilliant piece of ecclesiastical advertising.  The church, in fact, is a patron of the arts in a way that makes modern supporters of the arts look like pikers.  I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest that the Protestant reformation was a reaction against ecclesiastical art and architecture.

Medieval law was almost as ornate as ecclesiastical art, paradise for lawyers.  When I first read the Paston Letters I was shocked at how litigious the family was.  The letters are admittedly late medieval, but there’s every reason to believe the Pastons’ enthusiastic pursuit of lawsuits was a long-established obsession.  And how much fun to figure out which laws to suit.  Canon law reigned throughout western Europe, and dealt with marriage and the transmission of property, sacred matters as we all know.  Civil law differed from kingdom to kingdom and was both a matter of decree and a matter of custom.  In Ireland, only half-conquered in the Middle Ages, Irish law had an elaborate and interesting system of fining culprits for felonies, whereas English law used imprisonment and/or torture as punishment.  You would want to be careful in which county you committed a crime.

I see I’ve allowed myself to be sucked into the subject.  It might be possible to conclude that feudalism draws writers in by providing built-in plot lines, no matter what events and personalities the writer creates for the story.


5 Responses

  1. I think there’s a strong element of the pre-feudal in Martin’s work as well, no? He seems to go back to the Anglo-Saxon era and the wars with the Vikings, the horrible cycles of revenge…. That’s on my mind having just read a book about Alfred the Great. But in answer to your rhetorical question, I think we’re attracted to period where there are clear demarcations, and certainly mystery writers love the feudal/medieval era, too.

    • You’re probably right about Martin, though the boundary between the so-called Dark Ages and the Middle Ages is fluid–earlier in some areas than others. Mystery writers, including some on the list, do very well indeed by the medieval period, but I would also mention Ellis Peters, Margaret Frazer, Sharan Newman, and Ariana Franklin.

      • I was very impressed by Sharan Newman when I heard her on a panel at Bouchercon 2014. She is a history professor. Another mystery writer who deserves mention is Priscilla Royal who uses the last years of Henry III and the early years of Edward I, his son who had to return from the Middle East to England.

    • I read historical fiction set in Plantagenet and Tudor England and their Kings’ adventures in France as a pre-teen and as a teenager. My choice of history concentrating on the Medieval and Renaissance periods as an undergrad was based on the fiction I consumed.

  2. The historical fiction I read affected my historical studies too. I think that’s often the case. Professional historians tend to turn away from narrative in their studies. Pity. Narrative is an important mode of explanation.

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