If you’re writing fantasy set in a fantasy world rather than a modern setting, more than half the time, you’re writing about the middle ages. By that, I mean that people’s default setting for fantasy is knights and castles, peasants and women with those hats that look like ice cream cones. It’s chainmail and plate armour. It’s long swords and long bows. Even when they’re not specifically trying to be historical, they’re using historical elements. If you do, then here are a few random things worth remembering about the Middle Ages. There are many more, but I've forgotten them.
1. There’s no such thing as the Middle Ages. The term is a renaissance one designed to demonstrate their link to classical antiquity. It’s a way of saying ‘there’s us, there’s the Romans, and then there’s all this stuff in the middle that isn’t important.’
2. There’s really no such thing as the Middle Ages. Remember that what happened in eighth century Ireland is not what happened in fourteenth century Tuscany. What we think of as the Middle Ages is firstly a designation covering some serious geography, but also some major amounts of time (roughly 400-1500 in England, so Edward the Confessor is closer to us than those at the very start were to those at the end).
3. Knights were not initially all that noble. Knights were relatively minor blokes on horseback, a step or five up from peasants, certainly, but not automatically in the league of the barons. Those only adopted knightly habits over time.
4. ‘Chivalry’ is complicated and possibly illusory. In the early years, ‘the chivalry’ meant the blokes who rode horses (knights) rather than any code of behaviour. In fact, what was considered standard behaviour for knights generally wasn’t that nice.
5. The Church was only connected and monolithic in theory. In practice, local clergy may not have had that good an idea of what they were doing in many cases. Heresy often wasn’t just an opposition to the established church. Sometimes, it was just that people genuinely didn’t know what they were ‘meant’ to believe.
6. That said, there were plenty of international connections around, and the Church was a major part of that. If we take my beloved (ish) minster churches, even in the twelfth century, they had a great many foreign canons holding prebends. Of course, how many of them actually showed up is more debateable.
7. Kings did not sit in castles waiting for people to show up. Mostly, they processed around their domains, demanding hospitality and reminding people that they were in charge. The same is true of bishops, barons, and many others.
8. Things did not run according to a neat feudal system. Instead, they ran according to a complex series of relationships, scraps of authority, and moments of beating people over the head with swords.