I’m looking at bits of medieval history this A-Z that are useful to writers. Today, I’m talking about empires. A lot of people in fantasy fiction like to set their works in empires, often with a Western European flavour. Yet how common were empires? In the Central Middle Ages at least, Europe was mostly a lot more fragmented than that, consisting of many states or regions much smaller than those we know today. Even the “empires” we talk about today, like the brief Angevin one or the Holy Roman Empire, weren’t on the massive scale we imagine today. The Holy Roman Empire was more the memory of an empire than its reality, while the Angevin one consisted of a few bits of France, Britain and the surrounding regions.
Yet there were real empires. The Byzantine one springs to mind, as does the empire the Golden Horde Mongols carved out (getting as far West as Vienna in 1247). There was the Islamic Empire in North Africa that spilled over into southern Spain as well. And there were expeditions to them. The most famous was probably Marco Polo’s journey east but Harald Hadrada made his name before invading England by working as a mercenary in the Byzantine Empire, and the background to the First Crusade in 1096 included the closing of the routes to Jerusalem to European travellers. Implying that it had been open before. Those moments of connection between the established empires and the often fragmented and emerging nations provide all kinds of inspiration for writers.