Swords, castles, and knights, Oh, my! A reluctant scholar’s guide to medieval research
Note: this post is part of Jenelle Schimdt’s February is Fantasy Month event. If you’re looking for more great posts about fantasy, be sure to check it out!
Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles! Aren’t fantasy stories wonderful? The problem for writers is, most of us have never had first hand experience with any of those things (well, okay true love hopefully being the exception).
For the giants and the monsters we can use our imaginations. We’re rather good at that. Or we can draw inspiration from nature. But what about that first part of that lovely quote from The Princess Bride Movie (you did know where it was from, right? Of course you did.), the fencing and the fighting?
And I’ll also throw in a bit about castles and other aspects of medieval life. Because the fighting has to happen somewhere and most fantasy stories are set in that milieu. If a writer is going to write about characters living and breathing medieval air, they would do well to taste a little of it themselves.
Keep calm and read on
Now if you’re like me, you’re no medieval scholar. In fact, I’d wager most modern people don’t know much at all about this rather large stretch of history (generally considered to span between the 5th and the 15th century).
My natural inclination when writing is, I confess, to wing it as much as can. I mean, I’m not writing historical fiction, it’s fantasy, right? I can break all the rules I want.
Well, yes, but even fantasy needs some grounding in reality for the reader to relate to. In most fantasy novels you’ll find things like horses, trees, boots, farms, etc. And the more authentic a writer can make such things, the more verisimilitude (such a lovely word) they can put into the novel. Because fantasy has to have that ring of truth even if it is shrouded in a veil of magic and mystery.
But even if you know next to nothing about swords and castles and such, never fear. You are a writer, right? You’ve got a secret weapon: reading! This is your key to opening the doorway into the past and that all important treasure trove of verisimilitude.
Medieval research for writers
When you’re tackling medieval research you have to be focused. You’re a writer, not a medieval scholar. You can’t learn everything or spend all your time reading or you’d never write anything.
For my current writing project I knew there would be several things: lots of sword fighting (and other melee weapons), lots of travel on foot or mounted, and a few major battles involving castles and armies.
Knowing what I needed to be familiar with, I set out on my epic quest of conquest and glory! (and learning)
Hitting the road
The first stop on my medieval research journey was travel. How did people get around? How dangerous was travel in those days? What did they eat? How did people deal with the weather? What were inns like?
To find out the answers to these questions, I picked up a copy of The Medieval Traveller by Norbert Ohler. This book was amazing. Because not only did it tell me about how people got from one place to another, it filled in all the surrounding details about what life was like back then for everyone from kings to peasants.
For instance, did you know most kings did not have a fixed place of residence? They had to rule their kingdoms, you see. And to make sure their subjects knew they were still in the ruling business, they travelled around, going from place to place, checking in on things and making sure everything was going smoothly.
Another thing I learned was that people who were not nobles hardly ever rode horses. They were far too expensive to own and maintain. For the common man, the mule was the medieval man’s mode of choice when it came to hauling anything bigger than a rucksack.
This book had so much more to it. I could write a whole post just on what I learned from it. It was a veritable cornucopia of information. After reading it I was well on the road (ahem) to earning my medieval research wings.
Everybody wants to rule the world
I also knew there would be castles in my novel. Quite a few in fact. Now I had a bit of a leg up here as I have been to Europe and been in a few castles. But just walking through them didn’t tell me everything.
Some of the things I needed to know were: how were they used in defense? what sorts of rooms were typically in castles? what different styles or architectural features did they have? what terminology was used in referring to the various parts?
For this, I actually started by reading a children’s book about castles. It wasn’t all that detailed, and I can’t remember the name of it, but it was good because it gave me a good overview on how they developed from wood forts with of the motte and bailey variety, to the stone juggernauts of later periods.
Bonus: Did you know there is currently a project in France where they are building a castle using medieval techniques? I would love to check it out some day!
I ended up not reading a whole lot about castles. Mostly this was just due to my schedule. I just didn’t have the time. Instead, I ended up going to the time-strapped writer’s best friend when it comes to research: online videos!
In this, I found a gold mine of information on a Youtube channel called Shadiversity. I think the guy who runs it is some sort of teacher. He certainly knows more than I’ll ever forget about castles and medieval weaponry. One of the most fun things I learned about was machicolations, which are holes at the tops of walls where defenders can shoot or drop things straight down onto enemies. Never build a castle without them!
I learned much that ended up working its way into my novel.
Naturally, you must suspect me to attack with Capo Ferro
And finally, I came to the most important part: sword fights. One of the main characters in my novel is a budding swordsman. Not a trained master like Inigo Motoya, but someone who had to at least know the basics about wielding a blade.
While I did attend a few sessions of fencing club in college, I’ve never actually fought with a weapon. So I did some research online about classic sword fighting styles and stances. I relied on Shadiversity for discussions of axes, bows, and other weapons, but also stumbled across something called HEMA, which stands for Historical European Martial Arts.
These clubs exist all over the world, and participants endeavor to use actual fighting techniques from traditional sources. They fight sometimes with sparring swords, but often with actual steel blades and padded armor.
I watched a number of videos of sparring matches and others where swordsmen explained their technique. Here is where I actually think video has an advantage over books because you can see the combatants actually fighting.
Let’s get to fightin’
So, am I a world-renowned expert on all things medieval? Not by a long shot. But I hope all of my hours of research will pay off in creating a more living breathing world for my novel.
My aim here really was not to give you every last detail of what I learned, but to point you to some of the resources that helped me. I certainly feel more confident in the story I’ve crafted having learned more about swordplay, castles, and medieval life.
Hopefully there are a few spring boards here to launch your own medieval research journey. Let me know what other helpful resources you’ve discovered in the comments below.
And when you’re ready for battle, armor up, and let’s get to fightin’!