I often wonder if I would have enjoyed living in medieval England as much as I do writing about it.
Obviously the answer to this question depends upon a few considerations. For example, does medieval me look the same as modern me? There’s no reason to expect she wouldn’t, in which case, I’ll defer to comedian and social critic Louis C.K. for a response:
Another question affecting my possible enjoyment of real-life medieval life is that of whether I’m a well-off and well-heeled noblewoman or a worked-to-the-bone villein (i.e. bonded peasant; the term “serf” was only used on the Continent).
If the latter, Chef and Gwynne from the medieval musical comedy series Galavant probably know it best:
(At the same time, though, medieval folk actually had more holidays (i.e. holy days), than we do in present-day North America, so who’s really to say?)
Different than fiction
I’ve come to accept over the years that my love (obsession) with the medieval times is largely predicated on lies.
Long before I ever picked up a reference book or watched any documentaries on the History Channel or A&E, I was enchanted (duped) by Hollywood portrayals of ladies in flowing dresses with long-hanging sleeves and headdresses of architectural proportions – garb that was almost always attributed to the wrong century.
I was taken in by dashing sword fights (even though only a relatively small class of people could afford the great expense of a sword and armour); heroic and righteous knights (actually, most of them were horrible people and oppressed the very citizens they were supposed to defend); chivalry (a literary convention more than anything else); majestic castles (so incredibly drafty and dirty, and whose interior layouts are portrayed all wrong).
Also, the women were so blatantly anachronistic when, in truth, they managed to do lots of interesting and important things within the confines of their male domination during that era.
When I first started researching 13th century England for my writing, I was astounded at how much Hollywood – whether deliberately or by omission – got wrong.
The Middle Ages didn’t sound like a place I’d want to live at all. Not because, in the words of English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, life was “nasty, brutish, and short” but, oddly enough, because, a lot of times, it sounded kind of boring.
Noble lords holed up in their countryside castles strenuously trying to avoid going to war; ladies all dressed up with nowhere to go. God help you if you weren’t nobly born – the tedium would be even worse.
So I can sort of forgive Hollywood for its hyperbole, creative license, and at times outright deception in its treatment of its medieval source material; it would be like future generations trying to create a gripping a show about typical 21st century North America and using my unremarkable workaday life as inspiration.
The journey to reality
Still, according to British author L.P. Hartley, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Part of my reason for reading about and writing about medieval English and European history is because I wanted to learn more on about what that time period was actually like, particularly in the lives of women.
I’ve so far read more than 20 reference books to support the writing of my historical fiction trilogy in progress, with much of the knowledge I’ve gleaned ending up shared at dinner parties and other such social events (how much these forays into the ancient past are actually welcomed at these events is another question entirely).
But now, dear blog readers, it’s your turn to partake of my research. Medieval history currently plays such a large role in my writing life, yet for the three years I’ve been on WordPress, I’ve barely blogged about it.
That will soon change with the introduction of Medieval Mondays, my new blog series in which, on the last Monday of the month, I’ll write about some aspect of medieval history.
Day-to-day life in the Middle Ages may have overall been rather dull, but many of the specific things medieval people did and thought and believed in is astounding to modern sensibilities.
Some of it, meanwhile, is not that foreign at all.
You’ll see what I mean.
What historical time period would you want to visit or live in? Let me know in the comments.
Read all Medieval Mondays posts
12 thoughts on “The Medieval Times Was No Fairytale”
I’m pretty intrigued by the classical age of Greece, though I’m not sure I’d want to live in it. I would like to visit so I could see it in it’s glory.
Good one – me too! Also some of the ancient kingdoms of Africa to see what it was like before the slave trade.
Well timed. Today is “Hug-A-Medevialist Day”, or so I hear. There are so many times I would like to visit, so long as i could have a stockpile of things like modern medical care in my rucksack. I get to play in some of them now and again on stage, but just like you pointed out, that isn’t the most accurate sort of thing, even if it is fun.
Well then I shall expect a belated hug when next we see each other!
Here’s an idea: let’s you and me build a time machine, send you back first to somehow prevent racism from ever becoming a thing, then the two of us can explore the temporal hinterlands at will. 😉
Sounds like my kind of fun. Can’t wait. 🙂
It’ll be a good excuse for me to get my research and references organized. Right now it’s all just a bunch of highlighted and scribbled up books and stacks of papers that I had bound.
I think the Regency period, the early 1800s, in London would appeal to me. A fellow author Susan Grossey has researched this period well and is presently working on her third entertaining crime novel set in that time and location.
But I totally agree with the spirit of that musical clip. I love a bit of social history but the way people sigh and long for the good old days ‘when things were better’ irritates me. We’re living in unparalleled good times and our hardships and deprivations are insignificant compared to any period in the past – certainly here in the First World.
I agree; modern life in the western world is full of previously unheard of and undreamed of opportunity. However, our progress and advancement has largely come at the expense of the sense of community and compassion for our fellow human that seems to have once existed (note that I did say seems). So in that regard, I can understand the nostalgia for the “good old days”.
I seem to have drifted into the late twelfth century. I love to read and write it. I even have a medieval bliaut being made for me as I type this. Would I have loved to live in it? Er, no, I think that’s unlikely. Apart from the fact that, had I lived back then, something as simple as the diseased gallbladder I had removed a few years ago would probably have killed me, if it hadn’t, I’d have had a permanent headache for lack of spectacles. And since I’d probably have been a peasant, I have a feeling the life would not have been for me. Still, we can all dream, can’t we? And I live it when I write it – that’s probably sufficient for me,
I love your articles, by the way. They’re so useful. Thank you for sharing them.
Thanks, Loretta! Yes, the medieval times are a fun and romantic time period to dream about yet probably much less enjoyable to have lived through by our 21st century standards. Although in my writing about it I do try to capture the lesser-known facts about the era, such as that neither women nor peasants were so wholly downtrodden as is commonly portrayed. When I engage with history, I’m always keen to push past the mainstream Hollywood knowledge about it toward that of researchers and scholars who have devoted their lives to the topic. We can learn a lot from our history. But there are a lot of convenient, long-held beliefs about it that are patently untrue that we need to let go of first.
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I’m actually amazed people even survived things like trepanning and cataract ops – through I know they did. A cousin of mine with a medical background took a lot of convincing anyone would survive injuries, but they did sometimes survive the most awful damage, didn’t they? Astounding, really.
Humans can be pretty resilient in general. But I’m sure the rougher living conditions of the medieval times inured the people to forms of injury (and their subsequent treatment!) that would kill our soft 21st century selves real quick.
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