Fantastic History #49: Whose Middle Ages? by Ariel Bolton

In recent years many writers of secondary world fantasy have been making a conscious effort to broaden their world building beyond the pre-modern quasi-European settings that have been the defaults for decades. Nevertheless, a lot of us still like to set at least some of our stories in analogues of medieval Europe. That’s why the most stimulating writing book I’ve read recently is Whose Middle Ages? Teachable Moments for an Ill-Used Past (Fordham University Press, 2019).

It’s a collection of short chapters, each looking at a different way that twenty-first century culture, from op eds to renaissance fairs, has referenced medieval history and tried to turn it to present-day purposes. The pieces are all written by scholars of Medieval Studies, mainly historians and art historians, and they’ve been edited by five professors at Fordham University’s Center for Medieval Studies.

While the book wasn’t meant specifically for writers of fiction, I found it useful as a catalyst for thinking about some of the tropes and casual assumptions in our genre that are due for overhaul and re-imagination. Here are some examples.

“Real Men of the Viking Age” by Will Cerbone examines the trope of the Viking as a lone warrior with a taste for plunder and axe violence. Cerbone points out that while such men certainly existed in early medieval northern Europe, the Icelandic literature that is the source for much of what we know about Norse culture consistently portrayed them as “tragic misanthropes, awful neighbors and primitive monsters.” The valorization of strongman characters who cared for no community happened only centuries later, when European nationalists tried to use Norse literature as origin stories justifying their own aggressive agendas.

“The Invisible Peasantry” by Sandy Bardsley discusses all the sources that historians use to construct a picture of medieval peasants’ lives. Despite the fact that this class left very few records of their own, a remarkable amount of information about them can be discovered in court documents, tax rolls, sermons, mystery plays, and archaeological sites. When the peasantry, who made up 90 to 95 percent of the population, are left out of modern stories and re-enactments of medieval life, it is not for lack of information about them.

“Ivory and the Ties that Bind” by Sarah M. Guérin traces the source of the ivory used to make three thirteenth-century statuettes found in the Louvre. The fact that French artisans could procure the tusks of savanna elephants to carve reminds us that neither medieval Europe nor medieval Africa were as isolated as has traditionally been believed. In reality, a complex series of economic ties linked Mande hunters in what is now Senegal with Amazigh caravan traders crossing the Sahara, port cities in North Africa, and Italian merchants plying the Mediterranean.

Stephennie Mulder’s “No, People in the Middle East Haven’t Been Fighting Since the Beginning of Time” takes on the cliché that Diana Wynne Jones dubbed the “Fanatic Caliphates”. Some of the responsibility for this image of the Middle East falls on medieval Arab chroniclers themselves, who were fond of depicting conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites as eternal and unrelenting. However Mulder, an architectural historian, points to evidence that tells a more complicated story. The Mashhad al-Husayn (shrine of Husayn) in Aleppo honours a major figure of Shia Islam, but it was built with the help of a Sunni governor during a period of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries known as the Sunni Revival. Inside, linked inscriptions honor the twelve Shiite imams and the four caliphs revered by the Sunnis. Hundreds of structures with similar programs were built and visited by both Shiites and Sunnis in the medieval Middle East, complicating the rhetoric of the chroniclers with the reality of everyday life.

Other chapters discuss medieval sexuality, immigration in the Middle Ages, blood libel, concepts of race, and the crusades. Each one ends with three or four suggestions for further reading. It’s a quick and digestible tour of some of the flashpoints in the current study of the Middle Ages. If you love medieval world building, but worry that it sometimes lacks texture, this book can be used as a primer for imagining a richer, more nuanced medieval world without accidentally setting off alt right dog whistles or tripping over discredited Nazi lore.

A recurring theme in Whose Middle Ages? is the invocation of distorted medieval imagery and medieval themes by modern people to further present-day political agendas. The old medieval tropes still have a power to stir emotions and shape narratives. And that is where our role as writers comes in. We need to think carefully about how we use the power of medieval world so that it is used for good.

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Ariel Bolton lives and writes in Toronto. Bits of her PhD in Medieval Studies sometimes show up in her work. She has published work in Flash Fiction Online, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, and the anthology Myriad Lands.