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.