Trope Spins #7: Medieval Europe

Second-to-last post in our Trope Spins series! And our topic today is…

The Pseudo-European Medieval Setting.

If you think I’m looking at you, I probably am…

Thatched cottages. Peasants tilling the land under the rule of a forbidding or (on the off chance) kindly landord. Horses. Illiteracy. Market-places full of con men, ballads, and chickens. Plagues.

Oh, and don’t forget the magic.

Well, magic aside, why did the medieval life become the choice for high fantasy stories? Well, that question may have an answer somewhere, but we’ll leave y’all to argue it out in the comments. The fact is, it has become a trope of tropes, and is still going strong, in spite of the recent surge in steampunk and urban fantasy. Whatever the rationale, Medieval Europe has an allure all its own.

And I’ll grant you, it’s a fun schematic to explore. But like all tropes… it has its drawbacks.

First of all:

Most writers who implement it seem to do so without a thought of causes.

They create a world, slap a medieval skin on it, and subconsciously assume that, with of course a few initial breakthroughs (the wheel, perhaps; fire; kissing?) medieval culture has dominated humanity since the dawn of time.

But the real Medieval Europe did not exist in some kind of sub-eternal stasis. It was a definite timeframe that was caused by specific historical events. The Roman Empire had fallen apart, leaving its territories in a state of panic. Barbarians were everywhere.

Countries split up and warred with each other, causing information to be isolated and technology to regress.

People needed protection against the invaders, and the feudal system developed.

Suvival was optimized, leaving things like literacy to fall by the wayside. Once literacy was virtually dead, even more information was lost. The Roman Empire had had running water. Medieval Europe did not.

This unsolicited history lesson is simply to say, your medieval world shouldn’t have existed indefinitely in its backward state. Man’s instinct is to progress. He experiments with the world around him to figure out, “How can I do this quicker/better?” But three things can cause a halt and, ultimately, a regression in that pattern, namely:

-War

-Natural disasters

-Fear of one of those two things happening again, and thus sticking to whatever traditions and lifestyles seem to have kept it at bay.

Any of these can produce a medieval level of technological advance, though cultural differences can — and should — cause variation from instance to instance. Chinese serfdom was different from German serfdom. Which brings us to point two.

Why Europe?

The world we know is seven continents big. We hardly need to confine our fantastical inspiration to just one! While representation purely for the sake of representation can feel tacky or forced, consider other cultures and see if one of them piques your interest. You might find that 12th-century Korea would make an excellent jump-starting point for your fantasy world. Or the Incan empire. Or — ?

People today are on the lookout for unique fantasy. Something that hasn’t been done before. A fresh setting goes a long way to help you out.

So, what’s good about this trope?

Mainly that it provides a familiar framework for the reader, freeing you up to incorporate your unique world-building without concern of losing him/her on too much new ground. Some people aren’t panting for something new every day. They like the same scenario with variations.

It also is easy. Because we all know medieval fantasy, its building blocks are practically second nature. Research, while still advisable, isn’t a massive undertaking.

(On that note: No matter what real-world culture you have as your base, don’t stress about authenticity. Some writers feel like they need every minuscule detail to check out. What is this? Historical fiction? Going for an accurate feel is great; still, a bit of discrepancy never hurt anyone. It’s your world. Be realistic, but don’t be legalistic.)

Tips on working with the Pseudo-European Medieval Setting trope:

  • Do some research. You might be surprised to find out how much of medieval fantasy is, well, fantastical. And while yes, you want to make it fantastical, you probably want to be aware of which parts are true and which aren’t.

  • Let your characters belong to their time period. A lot of writers, not wanting their characters to be “narrow-minded”, create them to be exceptions to the norm. This is not true to life. Every culture has blind spots, including our own. Your readers will thank you for creating relatable, good-hearted characters who still don’t have 20/20 vision about everything.

  • Women in medieval Europe were not heavily oppressed and exploited. This is a common and false concept. A woman was more free in certain ways than in Greek or Roman society centuries before. Arranged marriages were intended to benefit all parties, especially to give a girl a safe, secure future in those unstable times, and were rarely completely non-consensual.

  • Does your world have a magic system? Think about how the magic plays into the setting. What aspects of medieval Europe are you less likely to find replicated in a land where glowy balls of light can be summoned by a snap of the fingers? Or where air, fire, earth and water are easily manipulated? Don’t worry, this is less complicated than it sounds. Just evaluate and use cause-and-effect logic. If there’s no obvious cause-and-effect, don’t worry, move on.

And always remember: Write what you love, and write your story.

Verity’s opinionated (and possibly deranged) ramblings have concluded. Till next time!

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This article originally posted in the May 2019 issue of The Fae Folk’s monthly magazine, “Trope Breakers”.