I’ve had an epic fantasy series brewing in the back of my head for over a decade now. I’ve got about 70,000 of a first draft of the first novel written, and though I’ve put it aside temporarily, I plan on returning to it after I’ve completed a few other projects I’m working on (three current works in progress, and counting).
I originally imagined it as a fairly straightforward “medieval”-style fantasy–knights on horseback, lords and ladies, etc. While over the years it evolved into something much more unique (or so I like to think), much of the world’s social and political dynamics are rooted in my understanding of our world’s Middle Ages.
Much of that understanding can be attributed to two distinct but related sources: my wife, who studied the Middle Ages in college, and her substantial library of books on the subject, to which we have both added over the years.
As I’ve often seen writers and aspiring writers seeking guidance online for good research materials on this subject, I thought I’d share some of my own go-to resources. Here they are, in no particular order.
Sadly out of print, European Arms & Armour is an excellent survey of the subject of Western armament, ranging from the prehistoric to the advent of gunpowder (and slightly beyond). It spends most of its time, though, discussing the Middle Ages proper and the weapons and armor that served the fighting men and women of Europe during this often-tumultuous period. The New York Times, in 1967, called the book a “magnificent volume” with “much of the charge which belongs to historical romances[.]”
I was lucky enough to come across this tome, quite well preserved, in a second-hand book shop in Marblehead, Massachusetts. It looks and smells like it may have spent the intervening decades between its publication and now in a dry but dusty basement, before falling into the hands of the bookshop owner from whom I happily acquired it.
Ashdown’s discussion of the development of arms and armor is simply and expertly presented, giving the reader a sense of the organic evolution from leather and bronze to mail and plate. But perhaps most useful are the hundreds of engravings and photographs (black and white, unfortunately), complete with labels and terminology, that litter almost every other page of the book.
You should be able to find it used on Amazon, or perhaps in your local independent bookstore.
Whereas Ashdown attempts to give a history of all European arms and armor, Oakeshott focuses on the most famous and pervasive of medieval weapons: the sword.
Originally published contemporarily with Ashdown in 1964, The Sword in the Age of Chivalry has found new life in digital printing and is still readily available through Amazon.
With photographs and hundreds of detailed illustrations by the author, this is the quintessential reference on the Western sword. Indeed, Albion Swords uses Oakeshott as their primary reference guide for their functional, museum-quality recreations. Invaluable for those who love the art of it, and want to make the sword a part of their story.
If you’re wondering what type of sword a person from a particular place and time might have used, this is the book for you.
A thorough and scholarly investigation into a subject much ignored in the study of the period, Shahar’s book is the first to look specifically at the role of women in medieval society. She does so with a view toward a general and comprehensive discussion of all women, and in fact deliberately avoids discussing the ones that may spring immediately to mind: Joan of Arc, Matilda, etc.
She does so not only because, as she explains in the introduction, much has already been said of these singular and exceptional women, but because her intention was to shed light on women whose lives and positions had not been discussed.
Shahar herself is a professor of Medieval Studies at the University of Tel Aviv. The book was translated into English by Chaya Galai. The narrative approaches the subject rigorously, making no assumptions, and as such uncovers a wealth of contributions by, realities of, and life choices for women in the Middle Ages that is rivaled only by the insidiousness of their persecution by the Church as the centuries progressed.
An absolute must for anyone trying to write women in a medieval society (or its fantasy analog).
Nichola Fletcher, a goldsmith, deer farmer, and food writer, bookends her history of feasting with an anecdote about Charlemagne. He had an asbestos tablecloth, or so the story (almost certainly apocryphal) goes, which he would dramatically throw into the fire at the end of a feast. The fire would burn off the crumbs, leaving the impervious asbestos intact, a magic trick sure to impress the majesty of the Emperor upon his guests.
What this book does quite well, with a joyful, engaged tone, is describe the food and festivities involved in history’s most extravagant and legendary meals. The “golden age” of feasting, as she calls it, is of course the Middle Ages, and Fletcher’s description of dishes and entertainments from this age would make even George R. R. Martin blush. Great fodder for descriptive passages and general scene setting.
The history of the Middle Ages is, in many ways, a history of Christian heresies, the greatest of which was the Cathar heresy, which led to a series of crusades called by Pope Innocent III.
The Cathars were an ascetic heretical sect most active in Northern Italy and Southern France. They were dualists and Gnostic revivalists, believing in a binary godhead with good and evil gods. The good god, the god of the New Testament, created the spiritual realm, while the evil god of the Old Testament created the physical. Hence, physical was bad. Hence ascetism. The Catholic Church didn’t like this, so much, particularly the part about the evil force–who they interpreted as Satan–being equal in power to God. You can guess where this is going.
O’Shea makes it riveting, however, and by focusing on this central conflict within Christendom, identifies a defining theme of the Middle Ages: dogmatic strife.
No conflict–perhaps no event–encapsulates the medieval mind so well as the First Crusade. Those who took up the cross, a diverse and only tentatively allied force led by five great princes, did so in response to a call by Urban II that stood in the face of a thousand years of Christian dogma: to launch an unprovoked war to reclaim the Holy Land by blood.
The First Crusade has always been the most interesting to me, and I particularly enjoy Asbridge’s discussion of the philosophies and cultural and religious values that led to what amounted to a craze among the nobility of Europe: to take penitent vows and seek their fortune in the foreign east.
Combining a loose interpretation of Augustine’s Just War theory and the incitement of racial and religious hatred of Muslims who held the Holy City of Jerusalem in their “unclean” hands, Urban ushered in an era of Church-sanctified violence that would not end for centuries. This book is a fascinating exploration of medieval thought and the desperation with which the Latins pursued their salvation–both physical and spiritual.
The subtitle says it all: illuminating the dark ages.
Referring to the years between the fall of Rome and the rise of Charlemagne as the “dark ages” has long been frowned upon by medieval scholars, and Wickham’s thesis runs with that idea. Rather than a long period of barbarity and intellectual darkness, the early middle ages were “critical to the formation of the European identity.”
This one is a particularly relevant read for fantasy authors, I think, because it deals with the real world history behind one of the more common fantasy tropes: life in the aftermath of empire; people living in the ruins, physical and societal, of a greater, more accomplished civilization.
Wickham’s thesis goes a long way toward demonstrating that rather than the abrupt, dramatic cataclysm that exists in the public imagination, the fall of the Western Empire and the underrated survival of Byzantium were in fact part of a more gradual shift from a purely Roman identity to the beginnings of what would eventually become modern Europe.
This is a fun one: a glossary of words of medieval origin and/or importance. Etymology nerds won’t be pleased by the lack of sources or derivation, but given that Ms. Cosman was a professor and director of the Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at City College of New York, I think we can trust her.
I’ve found this one useful for general inspiration and worldbuilding. A great coffee table book just to pick up and read at random, the subjects range from the quotidian to the serious to the downright lascivious.
Here are a few favorites (with cross-references in small caps):
Lewd tales depicting ebullient philanderers, bed-hopping with exuberance. Stock characters in dramatic situations include the senex amans (old lover) cuckolded by his lusty young wife and her sexually athletic lover; the miles gloriosus (braggart soldier) whose boasting undoes him; lascivious clerical lovers with willing women congregants; and bold bawdy wives of sexually senescent men. fabliaux women oppose the idealized domna of the eva-ave antithesis.
A fishpond, bath, spa, or whorehouse. “The Stews” was a name for fourteenth-century London’s red light district, coexisting with the title cock’s lane.
A mythic heraldic beast, gracing the coat of arms of England and many a bestiary. An animal the size of a horse with an elephant’s tail and a boar’s jowls, each of the yale’s extravagantly long horns can adjust as battle requires; at need, one horn can point forward, the other behind.
These are only a few of the books my wife and I have on our Middle Ages shelves, and for everyone I selected to talk about here there were three I considered in its stead. But these eight are books that have proved helpful and enlightening to me. I hope you find them so.