Friday, October 3, 2014

Some Medieval Myths

First and foremost, I want to emphasize that most of the fantasy novels out there are not, strictly speaking, taking place in the middle ages. Lord of the Rings, for instance, incorporated elements of "Merry England" into the shire, Anglo-Saxon culture into the Rohirrim, Norse mythology into his dwarves, and classical society into Gondor. Joe Abercrombie's First Law Trilogy, for all that it lacks firearms, takes place in a world that bears more resemblance to the Renaissance, with its emerging class struggles and its brutal inquisition. And his Empire's military rank structure and the description of its officer's uniforms definitely conjure up images of the 18th century.

Part of the fun of fantasy is the ability to mix and match elements from different settings and cultures. And of course, the presence of the fantasy elements themselves (magic, active gods and so on) will cause even an alternative history to differ from the real one.

But inevitably, readers of fantasy will assume that the setting is medieval European, and sometimes writers will get comments about what is and isn't realistic about their world building based on misconceptions people have about the middle ages. I've got a long list of these notions, and it would take far too much space to cover them all this week, but I'll cover a few of them today.

1. Forty was a ripe old age.

I think this notion stems from the fact that average life expectancies were much lower in the middle ages than in modern times. Of course, life expectancies in general were much lower before the middle part of the 20th century, and in the middle ages, actual life expectancies varied somewhat by period (they certainly plummeted during the Black Death), location, social class, gender and so on. But the average life expectancy for a baby born in Medieval Europe was probably somewhere around thirty. This makes sense when you consider the high rates of infant mortality. Between 30%-50% ofchildren did not survive to their fifth birthdays.

But if you calculate the life expectancies of people who survived their childhood, the odds of making it to middle age and beyond improved considerably, even in ancient times. Of course, infectious disease, war, childbirth complications, accidents, and famine, claimed far more lives than they do in modern times. But this is not the same thing as saying someone in their forties was the equivalent of someone in their seventies or eighties today.

Or to put it another way, a high percentage of the people who perished before they were in their sixties or seventies did not die of the kinds of diseases we associate with old age today (heart disease, strokes, cancer, diabetes and so on).

There are many difficulties with obtaining accurate morbidity and mortality statistics for pre-industrial societies, but it's unlikely that people older than fifty were rarities throughout most of the middle ages.

2. No one ever bathed, washed their clothes, or cleaned their teeth.

When I was in school, my history teacher told me that medieval Europeans had only three baths in their entire lifetimes: when they were born, when they were baptized, and when they died. It's also stated sometimes that people only bathed once a year. This is simply untrue.

Obviously, medieval Europeans (along with pretty much everyone else prior to the 19th century) lacked access to hot running water and a microbial theory of disease. But they did understand the basics of hygiene. They knew it was important to wash their hands and faces before eating, and health manuals extolled people to get rid of dirt and grime on their persons.

 As for clothes washing, people tended to brush their woolen outer garments instead of washing them, but they did wash their linen shifts, shirts, smocks and aprons. This site has a wealth of information about clothes washing in the middle ages.

People in the middle ages also spent time caring for their teeth and trying to combat bad breath. People often used tooth cleaning sticks or rubbed their teeth with cloths and mild abrasives, and used a variety of herbs and rinses to try and freshen their breath.

3. Girls were nearly always married and having babies by their early teens.

This is an assertion that has puzzled me for a long time, since it makes little sense to marry before one is likely to conceive or survive childbirth.

I read in Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's book Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants and Natural Selection that women reach menarche (first menses) much later, on average, in pre-industrial societies, and that there is a three year sub fertile period following menarche. If medieval girls didn't tend to start menstruating until their mid teens, and they weren't fully fertile until their later teens, or even early twenties, what would be the point of marrying 12-14 year old girls?

However, the legal age of marriage was as young as 12 in many places (and girls are sometimes married this young in modern times too), and there are certainly records of girls (and more rarely boys) becoming parents at very young ages, at least in noble families. This suggests that 12 has been at the lower end, at least, of menarche for girls throughout history.

Obviously, age of menarche has always varied around a mean, and factors like available energy, body fat composition, and socioeconomic status influence, and maybe even childhood experiences, will influence it. So there were certainly some girls who reached puberty earlier than average for their era, and earlier puberty may have been more common in the upper classes (where most of the recorded examples of early marriage come from). It's also important to note that legal marriages weren't always consummated right away. But there were many nobles and royals who did not marry for the first time until they were in their later teens or twenties. And the average age of first marriage was likely later for commoners (who were not marrying for political reasons).

This blog by Silvia Moreno-Garcia "The Trouble with Juliet," examines some of the available data about marriage ages at different times and places in the middle ages and provides evidence that refutes the notion that it was commonplace for pre and young teen girls to be married and bedded in the middle ages.

4. There were no people of color in medieval Europe.

This is often given as an excuse for omitting characters, or even any mention, of people with ancestry outside of Europe in either historic fiction or fantasy set in medieval-Europe like settings. In fact, Europe was far less isolated from the rest of the world than we like to think. Moreover, modern notions about race and racial segregation (including intermarriage) are much more modern than most people suppose.
One of the black gondoliers who worked in Venice during the 1300s-1600s

Malisha Dewalt's tumblr blog is dedicated to artwork that features people of color in medieval Europe. In addition to the influence of the Moors on the Iberian Peninsula, and the presence of people from the Middle East in Southern Europe, there is evidence that there were at least a few people of African descent in medieval Britain.

What does this mean? For one thing, writers of historical fiction should take this into account when they depict medieval societies as being 100% white. And fantasy writers shouldn't assume that a society at a similar level of technology as the European middle ages would be lacking in racial or cultural diversity either.

5. Armor and weapons were so cumbersome and heavy that only the brawniest of men could wear/use them.

Actually, a full suit of plate armor only weighed around 45-55 pounds, which is in the same neighborhood as a soldier's kit today. This is hardly light, but since the armor was distributed evenly across the knight's body, it was actually easier to carry than a backpack. A treadmill study that placed volunteers in plate armor did discover
Full Plate Armor 1548-1569, Wikipedia
some interesting issues. Obviously, plate armor was hot, and it limited breathing. But it is a myth that plate armor was so heavy that knights couldn't walk in it and had to be winched onto their horses.

Plate armor was also elaborately jointed to allow full mobility.

They actually had plate armor for children (probably ceremonial, rather than utilitarian), and Joan of Arc reportedly had a suit of armor commissioned for her.

There are also many misconceptions surrounding medieval swords. One is that they were crude weapons that only allowed their wielders to hack at their opponents. Another was that they were extremely heavy (some people say in excess of 15 pounds) so that only the strongest warriors could lift them. Actually, medieval sword fighting was complex and involved cutting, thrusting and parrying. And medieval arming swords typically weighed between 2-4 pounds, not that much more than a modern fencing epee. Even William Wallace's claymore (a large, two-handed weapon) only weighs around 6 pounds 

These are only a few of the less than factual notions that people have about the European middle ages. There are plenty of others floating around. What are some others you'd like to see addressed?