Monday, 21 April 2014

R is for Royalty

This A-Z, I’m looking at aspects of medieval history that might be useful for writers. Today, I want to look at the different ways some medieval societies thought about royalty. Writers tend to portray fantasy rulers one of two ways: either as an absolute ruler whose word is law, or as a failed absolute ruler whose word is still law but who is controlled by his or her advisors.

Yet absolute rulership wasn’t really the case for much of the Middle Ages. Kings were bound by convention and precedent, and had to take oaths to abide by pre-existing laws. Most routinely renewed the charters of their ancestors. They were frequently great landholders, but they did not own all land in some neat “feudal” pyramid. Nor were they seen as divinely chosen in the early part of the period. Abbot Suger of St Denis is credited for introducing that notion to France, but it was far from universal.

The fact is that practically nothing was. There were Kings and there were Emperors. There were principalities and city states. There were areas where the nominal authority of kings was ignored by their barons (as in much of France or as with the lords who owned Yorkshire during the Anarchy), and kingdoms where there were regents or councils of regents. Even our most accepted ideas about royalty, with automatic succession by the eldest son/child, weren’t the case in England before the Norman invasion. Prior to that, a successor was chosen by key barons from a group of “Aethlings” qualified by blood. So be prepared to do what you want with your royalty. You can bet that the medieval period did.


Laura Donkersley said...

Great post. I'm fascinated by medieval history. The idea that fantasy writers all follow the same cliched form that the king is all powerful is a shame and I am always encouraging fantasy authors to step away from the tried and tested storylines and environments. Thanks for sharing.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Thanks for this post. I think too many authors of fantasy and historical fiction lack a full understanding of what exactly went on during the middle ages, or other historical periods for that matter. If one is going to be successful in world building and be convincing, then one has to have a command of the time and place.

I just wrote a scene set in Uxbridge England around 1864, and although the scene was brief, it forced me to do a good deal of research.

debi o'neille said...

I used to love reading about the middle ages. Your posts make me want to reconnect with that old love. :-)Thanks for visiting by blog. I hope you'll join as a follower soon. :-)

randi lee said...

This was a very interesting post, Stuart. I'm glad I stopped by. New follower here from IWSG :)

cleemckenzie said...

Watching Game of Thrones proved your last statement right!

Christine Rains said...

Fascinating post. I think many people just take for granted royals could do what they wanted, but that's likely far from the truth.

Liz E said...

I just read through all of your A-Z posts, they are wonderful! It must drive you crazy how most people stereotype the medieval period. I especially liked the post on guilds.

Do you know the Brother Cadfael series? I'm wondering if that passes as a reasonable portrayal of the time.

Thanks for visiting my blog :-)

Liz at Bead Contagion