What Common Medieval Fantasy Tropes Have No Basis In Actual History?

Illustration for article titled What Common Medieval Fantasy Tropes Have No Basis In Actual History?

Fantasy doesn't necessarily have to be historically accurate, but some tropes are so entrenched in Medieval-style fantasy that people come to mistake them for historical fact. What is based on real history and what is just a convincing fiction?

reddit's r/AskHistorians subreddit is a particularly fascinating and well moderated forum, where commenters are expected to cite sources to back their claims and to prove that they have expertise in a particular subject matter. User Vladith recently posed a list of questions to the r/AskHistorians commenters about common features of Medieval-style fantasy and whether they appear in actual Medieval history. "Were there real Spymasters in the courts of Medieval European monarchs?" he asks. "Were brothels as common as in George R. R. Martin and Terry Prachett's books? ... Were blades ever poisoned?"

The answer reveal some interesting details about Medieval life that have been overwhelmed by out romantic ideas about the era. For example, user Naugrith shares this tidbit about the social drinking lives of Medieval villagers:

However, in smaller towns and villages, inns would not be found. But drinking and socialising still would be. Instead of a permanent Inn, villagers would meet in a tavern. These were pop-up businesses. A villager would brew up a batch of ale iun their home, then put up a sign on his front door to advertise that ale was available, and all the villagers would come round to taste it and have a session. There were many brewers in a village, up and down the street, almost all women, and though baking was a closely controlled seigneurial monopoly, brewing was free for anyone to do, so everyone did, including poor people, since it was cheap and easy to brew up a batchof ale and turn your home into a tavern for a day or two. (Source: Life in a Medieval Village by Frances & Joseph Gies. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1990)

In terms of rooms for rent in a village, travellers would be offered a space in a peasant's own bed, or room in the barn, and to share the peasant's own meagre meal.

Some taverns sold wine, for richer customers, and would hang a sign such as a branch over their door to signify this. These would only be present where there was enough money to pay for wine, s[o] probably only in provincial capitals, or in market towns at market days and festivals.


As with any forum, it's best to check the sources that the commenters are citing, but it's a very interesting reminder that many of the things we tend to think we know about the Middle Ages come from works of fiction rather than historical fact.

What common medieval fantasy tropes have little-to-no basis in real medieval European history? [r/AskHistorians via MetaFilter]

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Hands down, it has to be the myth of the sword duel. Everyone thinks that it's a lightsaber battle, when the truth is most of the fighting was done with spears and the only way to beat an armored knight was to use a heavy weapon like a mace, hammer, or ax. If you used a sword you had better win by the first or second move or you were dead. Crossing swords is also a good way to break your sword.