Writing a Story Set in Medieval Europe

Medieval Europe is a common theme for many novels or short stories, especially in the fantasy genre. But it’s also important to stick to the historical facts, so here are a few aspects of history to stay mindful of while writing a story set in medieval Europe.

Geographical

Europe is bordered by two oceans: the Atlantic Ocean in the west and the Arctic Ocean in the north. Despite its relatively small landmass (compared to other continents), it’s incredibly diverse, featuring southern lands scattered with mountains, most flat plains to the east, and large expanses of icy fjords. Weather is mostly consistent with warm, humid summers and snowy, cold winters.

Religious

Europe is well-known for a long history of religion in the region. During the Middle Ages, Christianity was the main religion among nobles and poorer populations. The Church was an influential feature and often competed with kings/nobility for the central voice of power, going so far as to influence politics and cultural ideas. The Black Death (1346-1352) killed an estimated 25 million people and led to a questioning of the Church’s strength. Ultimately, the Protestant Reformation (1517-1648) took advantage of the crack in the Church’s power and led to the Thirty Years’ War between Catholics and Protestants.

Social

Feudalism was the overarching structure of society in medieval Europe. It was comprised of a king, lord/vassal, and serfs. Kings were the most powerful people in Europe at the time (aside from the Church) and would gift land, called a fief, to lords in exchange for military aid. Lords would provide shelter, food, and supplies to knights in return for their loyalty. The land often came with or had forced serfs to work on it. Serfs were bound to the land, not the lords they served, but their current lords still owned them. Serfdom was not slavery, but it was similar. They were paid with food or the land they were living on and had to ask for permission for many things, such as marriage, leaving the fief, or changing an occupation. Serfs rarely left the fief and most never left during their lifetime.

Political/Economic

Feudalism was also the political structure of medieval Europe with the king at the top and lords/vassals below. The Church also influenced political ideas at the same level as the king/monarch.

Medieval Europe was mostly rural and agriculture was a major part of its economy. Later on, as trade grew more, towns started to get bigger and the number (and importance) of merchants rose. They used multiple coins as currency but the most common was a small silver coin known as a pfennig or denarius.

Cultural/Arts

Ideas of individuality, a type of democracy, and an acceptance of the differences in religion started to emerge, but didn’t fully come to fruition until later times. It was also focused on artistic abilities and art. Medieval artists created sculptures, tapestries, stained glass, cathedrals, and mosaics. A lot of the artworks had religious influence and focused on Christ or the Virgin Mary, and churches developed into a form called the basilica plan in the shape of a cross, featuring mosaics chronicling Christ’s life.


Additional reading

General overview (geography, etc.): https://www.britannica.com/place/Europe

The Medieval Church: https://www.worldhistory.org/Medieval_Church/

The Protestant Reformation: https://www.worldhistory.org/Protestant_Reformation/

The Thirty Years’ War: https://www.history.com/topics/reformation/thirty-years-war

The Black Death: https://www.history.com/topics/middle-ages/black-death

Feudalism: https://www.worldhistory.org/Feudalism/

Main ideas of medieval art: http://www.vwarthistory.com/early-medieval.html

Introduction to medieval art (and important artworks on the left): https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/early-europe-and-colonial-americas/medieval-europe-islamic-world/a/introduction-to-the-middle-ages

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