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The Middle Ages and what we see in them
I love Merlin. I ship Merlin/Arthur like mad. I very rarely comment on fanfiction but read tons of it. I also study Medieval History at university and realize that they got pretty much everything wrong from a historian's point of view. So I while I tried to think of a topic for my thesis today I decided I would rather try to explain some of the inaccuracies and the reasons behind them. Then I noticed that I'd have to explain the history of Arthurian literature and sources as well. And the reason we call the Middle Ages what we call them.

I apologize for all the mistakes I might make in this. English is not my first language and I'm neither an expert for English Literature nor for British History. Please correct me if you find any mistakes. The info I use mostly comes from lectures and seminars I have taken as well as some books, most of which are in German. I also apologize if this has been done elsewhere - I don't want to steal anything.

I hope I can give in an insight into Medieval History - it truly is fascinating. I don't want to scare you off, so just a short introduction post for now...

I. The Middle Ages and what we see in them

When we think of the Middle Ages, there are two pretty different things immediately coming to our minds - the Dark Ages, where everything was dirty and a bit barbaric, and the image of brave knights fighting to rescue princesses (*cough* manservants *cough*) or having epic jousts. The reasons for this is that our perception of the Middle Ages is heavily influenced by the perceptions our ancestors had. To explain this we first have to look at the concept of periodization which gives us the concept of a "Middle Age".

Periodization means the division of history in smaller bits for easier use. The most common one is the distinction between ancient, medieval and modern history; the borders between them are blurry because change is always gradual. In spite of that most transitions are marked by events. The events that frame the Middle Ages are the fall of the Western Roman Empire at about 500 AD (we come back to that next time) and some rapid changes at about 1500 AD. At that time Columbus discovered America, Gutenberg invented movable type printing and protestants started to challenge the Roman Catholic Church. New ideas took hold and the Renaissance ("rebirth") movement took hold. People started to look back to the Romans and admired them for their technical skills and their knowledge, much of which had been lost in the last thousand years or so. They started to call those years the "Middle Ages", wedged between ancient glory and the rebirth of said glory. And yeah, some of this is true. The Romans were amazing people in some regards, even Monty Python has recognized this.

However not everything in the Middle Ages was bad - they invented the three-field crop rotation and universities for example - but that 16th century attitude is what formed our picture of the Dark Ages. Well, the Black Death didn't help much.

Then the 19th century and Romanticism came along. Suddenly old castle ruins and noble knights looked awesome. That was the period Turner painted stuff like this:

J.M.W. Turner: Raby Castle, the Seat of the Earl of Darlington

But old castles were cold and kind of ugly and mostly in ruins and not at all comfortable to live in, so some of the more well-off people build nicer ones. For the king of Bavaria, it looked like this:


Others took ruins of existing castles and restored them. So this bleak ruin
Pierrefonds before restauration

turned into a beautiful castle:

After restauration

Which, of course, is awfully familiar.

So in the last hundred years the extremely dramatic and the extremely romantic views of the Middle Ages mixed and formed an image that is a bit skewed. It doesn't help that this period gets a bit looked over in school. Or that Fantasy books and films borrow heavily from the Middle Ages and in turn influence the picture in our head.
And I haven't even started with the fact that knights as we know and see them in Merlin were only around for a part of that thousand years - and certainly not the same part Arthur is supposed to have lived in.

Next time: The Origins of Arthur and how he found his Knights

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This is great! A fun coincidence too, as I just began reading "The Once and Future King" and only today spent hours researching the Arthurian legend and the historical movements around that time. I LOVE your (slightly playful) approach to the subject, and of course how you tied it together with BBC's Merlin (and the ship) :D [However, I think the bleak ruin is just lovely :)]

Srsly, this is how I need my education, so it'll stick!
I see there's more to come, so do you mind if I friend you?

Ohhh my first comment! Thank you so much! Of course I don't mind friending. I love friends!

I hope this will stay interesting even when I start on those historical background details. It's really hard to judge how much of this stuff is relevant for non-historians.

Und wer hatte eigentlich die bescheuerte Idee, das im Englischen das Mittelalter im Plural stehen muss? Sehr lästig :D

(Und grad noch gesehen, dass du Deutsche bist. Hi there Nachbarin! :D)

Ooh, this is very interesting, particularly because I'm thinking about studying this era next year. I can't wait for the next part! :D

And please do study Medieval history! There are not nearly enough people doing this.

I've always wanted to know a bit more about this but I've been too lazy to make the research myself :)

Looking forward to reading more. :)

I'm already working on the the next part and it keeps growing...
I'll try to post later today, after I've done some actual work for uni.

This is fascinating and easy to digest... I'm looking forward to the next installments!

Thank you. I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks this is interesting :D From the face of some of the people I talk to about it you could think I'm reciting the periodic table...

Very interesting! I'm particularly interested because I ended up doing an astonishing amount of research for "Light of Arthur" and discovered several things, two of which are: 1) like you said, there is almost nothing historically correct in canon and 2) there is not very much information about how people really lived in the year 500 (or 530) and what is out there varies wildly. I decided that if canon were going to play fast and loose with the truth, that for the sake of my story, if I ever actually wanted to get it written, I would have to play fast and loose with the facts I encountered. I ended up with something I called an historical AU, but there are so very many aspects that could have been more accurate and weren't. (And of course I was trying to tell a story that people would recognise, so I did maintain some canon elements that were particularly anachronistic). I'm interested to see where you go next!

I loved Light of Arthur! I'm so excited you are reading my posts! :)

I think your approach to accuracy the only possible one. There is no such thing as Arthurian canon. Some of the earliest sources we have do not know about living in the time they're writing about and it only gets worse the later we go. What Geoffrey of Monmouth does when he writes about Arthur is nothing else than an AU of the legend in his own time. So as you said, sometimes it is better to just focus on the story you're trying to tell because there is no way you're going to be accurate. As long as the feeling of a speific time comes through, I'm completely satisfied reading inaccuracies.

Another mistake that's unavoidable is the character of the protagonists. What we do by writing fic (and Geoffrey did when he was writing) is putting people with a modern mindset in a medieval setting. They did think differently do what we think today but of course it's extremely hard to reonstruct mindsets of people. I will probably say a little about that in a future post.

Wow, I'm rambling. Thanks again for reading. I hope we can continue this discussion, it is so interesting for me to see how you as a writer handles this!

:-) Thank you so much! I'm really glad you enjoyed it!

You've hit on something that's almost impossible to do: reconstructing the mindsets of people. But I almost wonder if it's enough to try as best we can to take their point of view and let the rest of the mindset go. The reason I think this is because our readers live in the modern era. If we were to make too many assumptions that are foreign to them, assumptions that they don't live with in their daily lives, then the characters will become incomprehensible to them and they will lose interest in the story. In LoA, the only way I could make sure that my readers understood why Merlin was so impressed with the beads (and why Arthur teased him for it) was to say in the story that they were rare, so people could sympathize with Merlin's wide-eyed wonder. Same with the Chinese silk. Something like that would have been practically unheard of in that place and time. But if you feed the reader hints, and you give them props (like the authentic food) and refer to items of the times, then I think you can get away with a more modern mindset because you've dressed your characters up properly.

i loved reading this, thanks for the insight :)

You're welcome, thanks for reading!

Great post! I'm giving a presentation on Arthurian fiction in class tomorrow night, and my bias has always been toward the more historically accurate novels (even if a lot of people complain about how dark and non-idealized they are!)

Part of the fun of Merlin (imo) is how historically inaccurate it is. Gives me an excuse to do research XD Can't wait to see the rest of your posts~

Good luck with your presentation!

I agree, Merlin is so much fun beause it doesn't take itself too seriously. It knows it's incorrect but really doesn't care. I find it highly amusing how they just ignore history. But then, so does every bit of Arthurian literature. Ever. So nobody can blame the producers of a family show with dragons!

Fun stuff. Three-field crop rotation, huh? I had no idea. I'm a bit of a student of agricultural practices, but I've never done much research into how old some of our best practices really are. You've inspired me!

I love the anachronisms in Merlin, and as the producers have pointed out, nobody's complaining about the dragon (or the other crazy magical beasts), so I don't see why some people get so upset about it. It's lots of fun to nitpick, though. Can't wait for your next installment - I'm curious about your take on the actual origins of Merlin himself. All I know is what wikipedia told me.

I admit that I really don't know much about those agriultural practices except that it was great that they were discovered. I know that new ploughs were also a big deal back then but my knowledge of plowing is severely lacking :D

Ah yes, Merlin. He's going to be a bit of a problem. His origins are even more obscure than Arthur's and I'll probably have to do more research first. Sorry to keep you waiting!

your subject is great! thanks for sharing ^^ that how I like getting an education! Can't wait for the next part! Could I friend you?

by the way, would you know about some other people (English if possible) who built neo-medieval castles or fake castles as decoration for their gardens in the 19th? I can't seem to find anything

Thanks for commenting, of course you can friend me.

I don't know of any 19th century English castles right now, sorry. I think there was probably a lot more crazy royalty on the Continent :D

But maybe this article helps

thanks :)

I have to do a presentation on medievalism and how it was fashion to build fake medieval architecture in the 19th. I need to find paintings and real pictures but it's hard to find some good examples.
I'll keep looking!

Gute Idee, und unterhaltsam ist das auch. Wenn ich Merlin gucke, muss ich immer meine Geschichtskenntnisse in den hintersten Gehirnwinkel einsperren, sonst würde ich nur noch "Weia" sagen.

Aber wie gesagt, die BBC wollte ja Fantasy drehen, und all die Kinoversionen, die mit "historisch authentisch" warben, taugten bei näherem Hinsehen auch nix.

Ich freue mich auf den nächsten Teil Deiner Serie.

Js so geht's mir auch. Ich sehe Merlin hundertprozenting als Fantasy an, daher finde ich es auch gar nicht schlimm, wenn nix stimmt. So lange keiner mit Ipod auftaucht bin ich zufrieden :D

Danke für den Kommentar. Ich werd das nächste Mal auch noch ein bisschen was zu Verfilmungen sagen.

I found this really intriguing, and the way you explain it makes it an enjoyable read! ^_^ Looking forward to more, may I friend you?

I love history and I want to study about Greco-Roman history in college, but everyone is going "Meh, what are you going to do with a degree in classics?" :/

I very much enjoyed this post, thank you for taking the time to write it out! :)

Thanks for the info.I loved the picture of the ruined castle and what they did with it. :D

What? You mean they didn't have beer cans, reading glasses and high heels in the middle ages? Oh woe! LOL!

Log in and let the naughty fun begin! Go Here

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