Posted by: kshayes513 | February 25, 2010

Boskone 47: Worldbuilding in the Middle Ages

I went to 2 panels that focused mostly on the Middle Ages and using medieval settings. What follows here are mostly my recollections and reactions, as I took very few notes at either one, probably because the discussions, while very enjoyable, didn’t present any information that was really new to me. (I did major in Medieval History  after all, and I’ve never completely abandoned my studies in the field!)

First, Resa Nelson’s presentation, Researching Fantasy Novels – Why Bother?

I enjoyed Resa’s experiences in researching her novel, The Dragonslayer’s Sword. No notes, so I’m writing from memory, and if I make any factual errors, I apologize.

Resa decided to use Iceland as the worldbuilding model for her novel about a woman swordmaker. She did tons of book research, of course, including reading the Icelandic sagas (the earliest stories that read like novels!). Then she started on the practical research, and studied sword fighting and blacksmithing! Both proved indispensable to her research. Learning about swords and swordsmanship gave her a real world sword to use as the base for the dragonslayer sword. Studying smithcraft gave her tons of real world details about the craft and the experience of forging iron and steel. (And gave her a good answer for the beta reader who said, “women aren’t strong enough to be blacksmiths!”)

My favorite moment in this presentation: as Resa told about studying sword fighting, I thought, “but all these techniques and schools of swordsmanship were developed for fighting people! How can she apply what she learned to fighting dragons?” I almost cheered when she said, “then I figured out how to kill my dragon.” I won’t spoil it, except to say that it’s based very much on the anatomy of her dragons, who are modeled on the only real dragons we have left, the Komodos.

The other big takeaway was Resa’s comment that she had started with a very specific story and character in mind. And as she did her in depth research, she saw the world, the character and the story change and grow because of all she had learned.

And that brings us back to the fundamental worldbuilding riddle: Which comes first? The story or the world?

Second: What’s Special About the Middle Ages?

Panelists here were Debra Doyle, Michael F Flynn, Eytan Kollin and Tom Shippey, and the subject was the great diversity of the Middle Ages in Europe.

The critical take-away from this panel was this: the Middle Ages was NOT a static period. Forget all those media portrayals of an age of castles, knights and serfs, when Europe just stood still in feudal paralysis for hundreds of years.  European society was changing constantly in all fields of human endeavor throughout the period (just as they do in any historical period).

This is an excellent thing for worldbuilders. After all, a society experiencing any sort of change has much more potential for conflict and for good stories, than a society that is stable.

Another good takeaway: the Middle Ages seems familiar and accessible, not just because we read or see so many stories about it. Its familiar because in many ways it’s still with us. Virtually all of Western society’s modern systems of law, government, economics, literature, art, science, and almost anything else you can think of, had their beginnings during this period.

I add that at any given period in any part of Europe, you would find some significant differences in customs, laws, and economic and political development. Just for example, the Renaissance was well on its way in the city states of Northern Italy by the end of the 13th century, but didn’t reach Northern Europe until nearly 200 years later.

Tom Shippey observed that the modern study of medieval history didn’t really begin until the 19th century. Before then, people of the Renaissance and Enlightenment really did just lump a thousand years together as “the Dark Ages” and were glad they lived in more enlightened times! Medieval study was spurred by 19th century European nationalism. As nations began to develop their modern identities, they looked to their pasts to lay claim to a legitimate history. At that time, he says, “If you couldn’t lay claim to a national medieval epic, you didn’t exist as a nation.” (naturally, this led to the creation of a bogus epic or two, such as a Russian one)

One significant misstatement  I heard that wasn’t corrected during the panel: the manorial system and the feudal system are not interchangeable terms; they’re 2 separate systems that coexisted in medieval Europe.  If you do plan to worldbuild in a European medieval environment, study them both and make sure you understand which is which!

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