Fantasy and the mediaeval world

When I was writing my PhD thesis on authenticity in historical fiction (Authenticity and alterity: Evoking the fourteenth century in fiction), I had planned to include a section on the role of “fantasy” in the depiction of the Middle Ages, but I ran out of space (and time!) and had to leave it out. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting aspect of what, in literature and other forms of culture, contributes to the portrayal of mediaeval worlds.

In my historical novels, I choose to avoid magic and superstition (mostly), and also the supernatural and fantastical (entirely), because I want the fictional world that I am creating to appear naturalistic.

However, medieval art and literature are full of the weird and wonderful, the supernatural and fantastical, so it’s not unreasonable to consider “mediaevalism” and “fantasy” in the same breath. And this is what seems to have happened in much of modern popular culture. For many depictions of the “Middle Ages” (broadly, the 1000 years from the 5th to the 15th centuries), in fiction and in film, draw as much on fantasy as on history. Moreover, much fantasy fiction, films, and role-playing games seem to draw on what is perceived as “mediaeval”, including the feudal style of social structure, mediaeval-style warfare, and the mythical creatures common in folklore, as the apparently natural concomitants for depictions of fantasy worlds.

I can’t say much about games – both board and digital – of which I know little, but I do recall some of those that my children played many years ago. Neverwinter Nights, Warcraft, The Legend of Zelda, Dungeons and Dragons and The Elder Scrolls were all “fantasy” and all based on broadly mediaeval concepts.

According to Wikipedia, fantasy genre fiction is “set in a fictional universe, often, but not always, without any locations, events, or people referencing the real world. Its roots are in oral traditions, which then developed into literature. From the 20th century it has expanded further into… film, television, graphic novels and video games.” Magic and the supernatural, including magical creatures – unicorns, dragons, monsters and the like – are common elements of fantasy fiction. And, as Wikipedia says, “in popular culture, the fantasy genre is predominantly of the medievalist form”.

Obvious examples from the fantasy fiction genre are the venerable Lord of the Rings trilogy (and The Hobbit), The Chronicles of Narnia and, more recently, A Game of Thrones. All draw on mediaeval themes to portray what are fantastical worlds. I am not really very familiar with fantasy novels in general, but a quick scan of the genre in bookshops reveals covers that do suggest a very strong leaning towards “mediaevalism”.

In Middle English, it seems the word “fantastik” meant “imagined”, deriving from the Greek phantastikos, which was essentially to do with the ability to imagine and represent ideas. And this ability to imagine and represent the most extraordinary ideas is certainly a talent that mediaeval illuminators seem to have possessed.

The world of the Middle Ages was full of monsters and demons, and their origins are deep in history. The Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote of strange races that lived on the borders of the known world. These included the cynocephali, men with dogs’ heads, and blemmyae, creatures with no heads and their eyes in their chests, and skiapods, one-legged folk who could hold their one giant foot over their heads to protect them from the sun.

Pliny was repeating what he’d read in much more ancient documents, and his words influenced writers of the Middle Ages, when “monster lore” became part of the Christian framework of belief.

The Travels of Sir John Mandeville is a “travel memoir”, first published between 1357 and 1371. “Sir John Mandeville” was almost certainly not a real person and the “memoir” is often fantastical in what it describes. Yet it appears to have enjoyed some influence as a work of reference! Of the blemmyae, Mandeville said they inhabited some large islands in south Asia, somewhere around the Andaman Islands. He wrote:

“In another part, there are ugly folk without heads, who have eyes in each shoulder; their mouths are round, like a horseshoe, in the middle of their chest. In yet another part there are headless men whose eyes and mouths are on their backs. And there are in another place folk with flat faces, without noses or eyes; but they have two small holes instead of eyes, and a flat lipless mouth.”

There are numerous illustrations of blemmyae and other such creatures on maps, in bestiaries and in books of hours.

Consider this image of a blemmyae on the famous 13th century mappa mundi housed in Hereford Cathedral:

Or the blemmya, skiapod and cynocephalus from the 15th century Nuremberg Chronicle:

Since these monsters lived at the periphery of the known world, they probably seemed exotic rather than worrying. “Demons”, on the other hand, were much more frightening, for they were always trying to bring temptation and harm. Demons were, in Christian belief, considered to be fallen – and therefore deformed – angels.

And monsters – deformed creatures – were used to show the difference between morality and sin. The first such “monster” was presumably the serpent in the Garden of Eden, which was considered to be the Devil tempting Adam and Eve to defy the will of God. This serpent is, I suppose, the original dragon, a monster beloved of many mediaeval tales, like the 8th century Beowulf, and a great number of modern ones, including A Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings, and a raft of “dragon” films.

Bestiaries, which brought together descriptions and illustrations of “beasts”, both ordinary animals and fantastical creatures, were not accounts of the natural world taken from, say, the observations by the authors, but were intended to expound the purpose of every creature in Creation. And their purpose was to provide a moral lesson, which sinful man could use to learn the path to redemption.

Manticore_-_British_Library_Royal_12_F_xiii_f24v_(detail)The manticore (which makes an appearance in the Harry Potter books and A Game of Thrones) has the head of a human, the body of a lion and the tail of a scorpion (though this image here doesn’t appear to show such a tail). It apparently enjoys eating human flesh and sings to its victims as it devours them. I wonder what moral lesson the manticore was supposed to be imparting?

One of the most extraordinary manifestations of mediaeval monster illustration is in the books of hours and other such sumptuous manuscripts, where the serious, religious text is surrounded by images of the most remarkable creatures. Some are weird hybrids, made up of body parts from two or more creatures. One wonders why such creatures were included in a religious book. Was it just playful? Perhaps the illuminators knew the reader of the book would simply be delighted by such intriguing images – I certainly am! Yet, given the morally charged interpretations of such monsters in other contexts, perhaps we should assume that these monsters actually stand for the danger that lies outside the boundaries of Christian understanding. Are they saying, keep to the text, else you might stray into this terrifying world of gruesome, and surely morally corrupt and corrupting, monsters?

A very few examples of some astonishingly weird creatures from the 14th century Luttrell Psalter:

What extraordinary imaginations those artists had. One really does wonder quite how such images formed themselves in their minds!

The world of the Middle Ages was full of fantasy, perhaps even more imaginative than our own…? So perhaps it is natural enough that the world of modern fantasy culture draws so much on the “mediaeval” style.

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