Wednesday, 23 April 2014

U is for Unknown Lands

This month, I’m looking at aspects of medieval history that might be useful for writers. The idea of Unknown Lands has been with us for millennia, and while the great ages of exploration weren’t quite on the European world, there was still a fascination with the lands outside Christendom in Europe. There were half remembered memories from Roman conquests, stories brought back by travellers like Marco Polo, and of course, plenty of places that were still wild.

Not everywhere outside a city counted as wild. The Middle Ages were a great period for human transformation of land. The city of Hull, for example, only exists because a bunch of Cistercian monks from Meaux were able to drain the swamp it stood on. Yet there were many wild and untamed places. The claims of many kingdoms over their less hospitable parts were often only theoretical.

It was also in this period that a fascination with great voyages of discovery started to come in, both actually and in literature. We have Marco Polo’s journey, the many Viking voyages of which Lief Erikson’s expedition to Greenland was only the best known, but also the literary journey of St Brendan in his coracle, and the mysterious journeys into strange lands that Arthur’s knights undertook. There was also a sense of Western Europe as one of the unknown lands, occasionally, as Islamic invaders from the south and Mongol ones from the East pushed into this strange, unexplored world.


Debra Mauldin said...

I am particularly drawn to the Viking voyages and expeditions of Lief Erikson.

Laurel Garver said...

I remember doing a research project on how interactions with the Mongols changed equestrian "tech" in the 12th century. Once Europeans copied Eastern high-pommel saddles with stirrups, it became possible to have heavy cavalry battles (an armored guy can get knocked off a horse easily without the right kind of saddle). So those explorations certainly opened new vistas.

stu said...

Actually, the saddle and stirrup thing isn't necessarily true. Recreation of Roman saddles suggests that they held people well enough to enable the same sort of heavy cavalry work.

It's what they called the 'new' military history, back before they realised that it was the quickest way to date a name. Cultural factors often counted for more than simple technological ones. The classic example is that practically every civilisation has stuck sharp things on sticks, but only some have chosen to use blocky formations of spear/pike soldiers.