Medieval societies in fantasy.
...and up forthright upon his steed
Leapt, as one blithe of battle, Palamede,
And mightily with shock of horse and man
They lashed together: and fair that fight began
As fair came up that sunrise: to and fro,
With knees nigh staggered and stout heads bent low
From each quick shock of spears on either side,
Reeled the strong steeds heavily, haggard-eyed
And heartened high with passion of their pride
As sheer the stout spears shocked again, and flew
Sharp-splintering: then, his sword as each knight drew,
They flashed and foined full royally, so long
That but to see so fair a strife and strong
A man might well have given out of his life
One year's void space forlorn of love or strife.
Obviously, how rigorously these will apply will depend on how close your fantasy society is to our world’s real medieval age. If it’s an alternate history or fantastorical, then of course you’ll want to do more research than if it’s just the typical medieval-like fantasyland. Even then, though, there are some elementary things to keep in mind.
1) Keep the consequences of your inheritance laws realistic. The most common system in medieval fantasy seems to be primogeniture, the inheritance of everything by the eldest son. However, this didn’t mean in the medieval world that other siblings were cast out with nothing on their backs, or that no provision was made for them. I’ve read a few medieval fantasies in which noble parents care only about their eldest son and leave the others to starve.
Not the way it worked. Having extra children was an advantage in medieval society, as long as the parents could afford to feed them. There was always a chance the eldest son would die, either in childhood (mortality for children was extremely high), or in war or an accident or a plague. So more heirs would be needed. If the eldest son succeeded without trouble, the younger sons would find careers in other places, often in positions in court, as long as the family had good ties there. Daughters would be married off. Noble parents might easily look to make connections through their daughters. Who would all the eldest sons marry, after all, if families produced only eldest sons? The bride’s parents would have to pay a dowry, but it might be considered a small pittance for the political connections that would result, and for having their grandchildren in high positions.
If you have another system in place, such as the complicated bargain that Henry VIII worked out (his son inheriting first, then his firstborn daughter Mary, then his second daughter Elizabeth), then keep the consequences realistic there, too. The other siblings might not be valued that much in comparison to the one who stood to inherit first, but they’re unlikely to be beaten and locked up in closets, either.
2) Characters won’t know that much. Most people in the medieval era didn’t know how to read or write. For most people, it was considered irrelevant to their daily lives; peasants wouldn’t be in the habit of writing letters or books, and the nobles could afford trained scribes on those rare instances when messages were necessary. Copying of books was left up to monks in monasteries, and sometimes to paid scribes. For example, Eleanor of Aquitaine loved reading romances, and since she had lots of money, she could pay to have them written or copied. But most people in a medieval fantasyland are not going to have that kind of money.
Even if you have a world in which there exist people like academies of mages with a need for books, these should still be rare and expensive, and a random peasant character shouldn’t be able to read them automatically. The same thing goes for other disciplines like mathematics, alchemy, and magic, if you have it as a formal study. There are people who can learn them, but the knowledge wouldn’t randomly appear in anyone in any household, and a character who wanted to learn this knowledge would have to attract a teacher’s attention in some way.
3) Women shouldn’t have that many rights without a very good reason. Only exceptional women in England before Elizabeth I had much power. Eleanor of Aquitaine was feared by her husband and sons for her meddling in politics, and as a result kept locked up for a good portion of her life. Other noblewomen passed from father to husband without a say in their own lives; if they outlived their husbands, their sons usually had power over them. Peasant women worked beside their husbands, rearing children and farming and preparing food without much of a chance to think about equal rights. One reason feminism got the push it did long after the medieval period was the improvement in technology that could free some women from labor long enough to think, as well as improving standards of education (not a priority in a medieval society; see the second point) and higher standards of living generally. If you have a world with a middle class, it might be more realistic for the women to have time to philosophize about their position and start a movement, or be the usual “I don’t wanna be a lady!” types (who usually do nothing to help anyone but themselves). If your society is strictly medieval, however, it’s difficult to see where women will get the time or education to question their position.
If you’ve made alterations to the medieval world so that witches or other free women of power exist, then try to make the consequences realistic. If other women are still considered subordinate, then men are likely to fear these women’s power. If the free women are considered special and not attacked, why is that? Is it fear of their power, bargains with them that have these women providing magic or whatever it is they do in exchange for not having to live ordinary women’s lives, or something else? And are these women attempting to free others, and why? One point of feminist scholarship is that until recently women weren’t taught to think of other women as allies; they were taught to see themselves as part of a class, a family, or some other unit that had nothing to do with gender. If you have female characters who are for “women’s rights,” then you’ll have to explain where these ideas came from, and how some women just managed to shatter the usual education and social conditioning to have them.
4) Remember that medieval life was not clean. To some extent, I brought this up in the teenage rant; why do all these teenage characters have flawless skin and clean hair all the time without the benefit of facial cream or shampoo? But it’s especially important in a medieval society where magic isn’t common enough to be used for such things. Showers were unknown. Enough water to take a bath would require a lot of servants to haul it, and since servants have to do other things, this probably wouldn’t happen every day, either. Perfume would be used to cover the scents of sweat, among those who could afford it. Those who couldn’t (peasants, serfs, and yeomen) would just live with the stink.
Bugs on humans would be quite common as well, given the close proximity in which medieval humans lived to animals. Remember that the Black Plague was spread by rat fleas, which says something about how unconcerned the humans were with driving both animals away. A noble would probably have cleaner living conditions than a peasant, but fleas, lice, and other bugs would still be common, especially if the nobles shared their homes with animals like hounds. The floors in a medieval home will probably be covered with fresh rushes, which absorb a great deal of the mess but still stink until they’re changed. Dental and health care is almost nonexistent, meaning that people have bad teeth and die early, especially in childhood. Crowded living conditions mean that diseases like the plague spread very easily. Problems with the water encourage diseases like cholera. In a town, if you have a society based more on the Renaissance, garbage is often dumped in the street, and few cities would be able to afford enough people to keep the streets sparkling clean.
Does this mean you need to mention all the down-and-dirty details? Probably not. Does it mean that I want an explanation for Krystalynne, the princess who takes a bath every day and has flawless teeth and skin and no bugs at all in that shining hair of hers? Oh, yes.
5) Travel is rare and dangerous and takes a long time. If your characters live near the sea, it will probably take less time than almost anywhere else, but the means will probably be by sailing ship and galley. That means that journeys will be delayed by the whims of the wind and the strength of the rowers, and will have to respond to the wind and tide; the characters can’t just leave whenever they like. Ships can also spend months at sea, if they’re on a journey across an ocean as wide as the Atlantic was, and get blown off course or destroyed entirely by storms. There’s also the risk of disease on board ship and mutiny from sailors that aren’t treated well, and the risk of piracy. Sea journeys should never be entirely safe.
On land and without magic, there will be travel by foot; by horses and similar animals; and by carts and carriages drawn by animals. And that’s it. If your characters are peasants, they probably can’t afford carriages, and any person of low birth riding a fine horse runs the risk of being charged as a horse thief, even if he isn’t. Horse thievery was a serious crime, and could be punished with death.
Noble characters can probably afford carriages and horses without trouble, but it’s still an uncomfortable way to travel, and can take days or weeks to reach the destination. There are also dangers on the road. Many knights in our world’s own medieval period made a habit of kidnapping noble hostages to hold for ransom, and highwaymen would rob, rape, and kill if they could get away with it. Women should never be traveling unescorted by men if they aren’t protected by some heavy-duty magic. They would make too tempting a target for robbery and rape, and even if they are nobles and ransomed, their captors are unlikely to treat them kindly while they’re in their care.
6) Remember that most medieval societies are highly hierarchical. That means no random peasants getting in to see the king just because. A royal progress from village to village would be one thing, but in most ordinary situations, peasants would be far distant from the centers of power, and may know the king only as a rumor and a distant name, like the Pope. If they’re serfs, they would be bound to the land and couldn’t simply leave it to ask for justice. Even yeomen would probably spend a lot more money in travel expenses and more time away from their fields than would be worth it to them.
Nobles in an absolute monarchy will have more chance to gain royal favor, but will still have to gain it. If SpunkyGirl Generic gets the king’s attention just by being perky, I’ll be looking into the sky of the fantasy world for flying pigs. A pretty girl might win more attention, but since arranged marriages were common in medieval society, she would be more likely to end up a mistress than a wife. Bribes, family connections, shows of wealth and power, and manipulations would be the means of winning the king’s favor and climbing to high positions, and no one should start leapfrogging over social classes just because.
Finally, it should not be as easy as pie for characters from one social class to pass for another. For one thing, how are they going to get hold of the proper clothes? England actually had sumptuary laws detailing what members of certain social classes could wear, and many of the finer cloths would be beyond a peasant’s price range. Peasants stealing from nobles could expect harsh justice, if they got justice at all. Similarly, nobles were not supposed to dress up as peasants. For another thing, they wouldn’t know anything about each other’s manners. This is often represented in fantasy as peasants failing comically at understanding things like cutlery, but it works the other way around, too; nobles on farms would be unlikely to slop out pigs correctly, never mind any more complex task.
I probably didn’t get everything, but I think I targeted most of what bugs the shit out of me in medieval fantasies.