Setting the Story: Medieval vs Early Modern


Akhi Pillalamarri
Head Web Content Contributor
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Fantasy, as a genre, has largely been associated with the Middle Ages. While this is obviously not always the case, especially with those stories set in the real world (many of which, like Harry Potter, take place in contemporary times), there is some truth to this. The fantasy movement did grow out of the Romantic movement of the 19th century, which was, in part, a reaction against the science and rationalism of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution. The “Medievalism” of fantasy is related the genre’s use of magic, awe, emotions, folklore and escapism, as alternatives to the increasingly rationality, homogeneity, and banality of modern existence.

Thus, most constructed fantasy worlds, both historical and mythical, are essentially Medieval European in nature. These can either be based off of the Dark Ages (500-1000) of early Medieval Europe, which gives off an “empty-world” sort of feeling, or the more crowded and better-historically documented High Middle Ages (1000-1350). Jump forward a bit, and you may or may not be in the fantasy genre anymore. This is when you get to Steampunk based off of the 19th century Victorian Era, or the slightly later Dieselpunk, based off of the “interwar period” (1918-1939) through the 1950s. Relatively little fantasy is set in worlds inspired by the ancient and classical periods of human history. 

So what about fantasy set in worlds based on the period in between the Middle Ages and 8752885.jpgthe Victorian Era? Despite this being the specific era that Romanticism initially set out to avoid, this is time time period in which a lot of new fantasy stories are being set. Some prominent works include Locke Lamora,  The First LawMistbornStormlight ArchiveThe Dagger and the CoinLightbringer, The Traitor Baru Cormorant, and even parts of Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire (places like Braavos), and the game World of Warcraft (in which guns are a weapon). For example, Cithrin, the main character in The Dagger and the Coin, is a banker in training and much of the series revolves around the commercial expansion of banking and the stock market in her world, which parallels our world in the 1400-1500s. The balls and high society of Mistborn are inspired by the pomp and splendor of France during  the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV in the 1600s.

I welcome this development.

The period between 1500 and 1800, which historians usually call the Early Modern Period, is a great mine of inspiration and ideas for fantasy authors, especially because it was an era much more recognizable to modern readers: banks, trade, companies, and greater individualism all appeared during this time. It was an era of gunpowder (this part is often left out of books) and ship-based globalization. Commerce became as important as the rule of feudal-military elites. The world became more interconnected, and products like potatoes, spices, and tea began to reach every part of the globe. On this topic, Brandon Sanderson wrote the following in his notes to Warbreaker on why his world has restaurants, instead of just the more common fantasy trope of inns:

Restaurants. They didn’t really exist in a lot of medieval cultures. Now, most of my books don’t take place in medieval times-they’re more preindustrial uchronias, late Renaissance if you will. (Warbreaker, 568).

Writing an Early Modern world makes it easier for writers to construct several different civilizations in their world, because the trade and contact going on between them led to many shared traits and interactions. It also makes the world more intelligible to the characters within the story: a Hobbit from the Shire could barely comprehend what it meant to be a man from Harad, south of Gondor; but in an Early Modern world, isolation is less of an issue as everyone is now integrated into a world-system.

2000px-Tokugawa_family_crest.svg.pngFor authors who want to explore and derive inspiration from non-Western cultures, using Early Modern settings also helps, because there are more records about the cultural patterns for these times. They are also more relatable than societies based on ancient non-Western civilizations, which are largely unfamiliar to Western audiences — this is not a problem for fantasy made for non-Western audiences, but as much fantasy literature is produced in the West, this is something that needs to be addressed. The Ottoman Empire and the Tokugawa Shogunate are not as alien as their predecessors to audiences.

Medieval settings, on the other hand, make it harder to do all this, because the author has to develop several parallel medieval societies at once, with little contact. This involves more research and might often seem like building several different worlds instead of one, cohesive world. Often, civilizations other than the main one will seem poorly developed or stereotypical. The inter-connectivity of Early Modern settings eliminates this problem, while also maintaining many of the charms of conventional fantasy. Technology is still not at the forefront of the worldbuilding and plot; travel still isn’t fast; and there are still forts, nobles, and other aspects of traditional fantasy, but with the flair of the beginnings of modernity: restaurants, guns, hotels, oceangoing ships, parliaments.

The Early Modern period is an exciting source of inspiration for fantasy authors who are tired of medieval inspiration, in which to set their worlds without necessarily writing Steampunk or Science Fiction. Many issues related to cultural clashes, finance, the growth and spread of ideas associated with the Enlightenment, and so on can be explored in these types of settings in a way that would be impossible if the genre was solely based on Medieval societies.

I look forward to reading more stories inspired by this era.


*Nota bene: All links to books available for purchase through Amazon are affiliate links, which means Backroom Whispering Productions receive a small percentage of the sales made through that link.


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