I spent about six hours today reading up on British history, only to realize that I should have been researching central Europe. I’m working on a fairy-tale-based series of short stories (and novellas because this is me we’re talking about), and the longer it sits in my head the more I realize that I want it to vaguely follow history. While I do have another series idea that’s just retellings of fairy tales in a different world, this one instead takes elements of fairy tales – magic, curses, trolls, elves, witches, and other elements of Grimm folklore – and applies them to real time periods.
This wasn’t the plan when I woke up this morning. I’d decided that that all sounded like too much work and/or a good excuse to never get around to writing the series, so I was just going to go with the Brother Grimm style of setting, where you have a basic idea of time period but you apply whatever historical and or made-up details as they pleaseth you. And then the six hours happened. All because I asked Google “when did castles and kingdoms start to be a thing.”
But really, I just can’t let go of the idea of eventually writing a story that takes place between the industrial revolution and WWI, in which part of the debate of the age is whether science has surpassed magic. But I want to start off earlier in history with castles and princesses, so of course I had to look up when castles were a thing, and discovered they were later than I thought and also power was too centralized for the stories I have in mind.
(Of course I forgot that die Brüders Grimm were German folklorists and so their collection is naturally predisposed to the more scattered nature of power in Central Europe. But that’ll be tomorrow’s research.)
The search started and then six hours later ended in the Primary Homework Help website, a collection of 90s-esque web pages of historical facts collected and written by a teacher for British elementary/middle school children. Naturally, I fit right in. But seriously, because it’s written for kids, she summarizes 2,000 years of British history (sometimes I forget how old the rest of the world is) in an easy-to-pick-up manner. Who were the Celts? What did they eat? What did they wear? What weapons did they use? And all the violent stuff is brilliant: “They beheaded their enemies and stuck them on spikes outside their gates!” she writes with an enthusiastic exclamation point because, let’s be honest, anyone on this site is going to be more excited by the death toll than anything.
Anyways, it’s the everyday stuff that I need. In every single age, insane stuff has been happening, but most of us are just plebes living our lives while the battles rage elsewhere, only occasionally sweeping through to cut multiple branches off our family tree. I’m not going to write this series around major historical events. I just want to make sure I understand the general political landscape going on behind the scenes, that I describe their houses correctly, that I don’t have them digging latrines when they should be pooping into the moats (looking at you 11th /12th centuries), that I know when kids started going to school, and that they’re eating the proper food and getting married at the right times.
[That said, my goal is to stay out of the weeds. I’ll look as far as I need to and wave the hand of imagination over the rest. There’s no point in 100% accuracy because it’s impossible in English. So much of culture is wrapped into language; I already know I’m going to be using idioms and phrases that didn’t show up until the 19th or 20th centuries because it’s more important that your readers understand a character/setting/plot point (and the feelings attached to them) than it is to be 100% accurate to the details. In Old English the sea was called a swan road (swan-rad), a spider was a gangelwaefre (walking weaver), and your body was a ban-cofan. Bone cave. This stuff thrills me to no end, but there’s no time for the linguistics lesson in your story, unless that’s the point of it.]*
With that aside aside, let’s talk about the fact that the Romans conquered Britain, built the settlement Londinium (you can still find Roman structures in London), introduced flushing toilets, central heat, heated floors, built a 73-mile wall across the UK to keep the Scottish out, and then left in 410 AD to protect borders closer to home. The Angles and Saxons rolled in and just stomped the Britons, because the natives had no professional soldiers of their own, Rome having kept the doors locked and guarded for the previous 350 years. The Saxons didn’t bother raiding as they had in the past, just attacked, burned out who they wanted like cockroaches, and settled in.
What’s fascinating is that the Romans, though they were there for nearly 400 years, hadn’t really bothered with roots. They inserted Latin into the language and introduced the Roman calendar, their legal system, and coins, but when they left the culture went with them. Their economic system broke down within 40 years. By 450, the Britons were back to trading goods, having punched holes in their coins to wear as jewelry. By then only squatters remained in London and pretty much every other Roman town and villa had been abandoned. Goodbye, too, Christianity. Welcome back paganism.
From a different site: “The loss of Christianity in this part of what had once been the Roman Empire is very bad for historians because with the disappearance of Christianity goes the disappearance of literacy as well, and the disappearance of written records. What we know about Anglo-Saxon England and this period is derived almost entirely either from archaeology or from accounts written after Christianity is reintroduced, and often dating hundreds of years from the events they purport to describe, or from Celtic authors living in Scotland or, perhaps, Ireland who were somewhat removed in time and space from Anglo-Saxon England.”
And that, as I understand it, is why they’re called the Dark Ages. Talk about a dystopian collapse. The entire country just dissolved into darkness. What happened? Who knows! Maybe some Irish bloke a hundred years later can tell us.
From there I read over another 1,030 years of history before I quit, which was long enough to realize that I want the chaos of the multiple kingdoms from the dystopian age of the Anglo-Saxon takeover but also the aesthetic of castles, which, in England, came about 600 years too late to the game. William the Conqueror introduced those at the same time he introduced the feudal system (oh yeah, and England became a French-speaking country for 300 years), making him head honcho by renting out all the land to his nobles in exchange for soldiers whenever he needed them, rather than operating as autonomous kingdoms allied with one another.
I’m pretty sure ye olde German barbarians – those tribal, pagan Anglo-Saxons who collapsed Britannia into the Dark Ages – have got my back on this one. With fingers crossed that I stay out of Eastern Europe. I think that’ll keep me clear of the Huns.
*Admittedly, “Bone Cave” is probably going to be the name of one of my stories someday. Or my band. Or used in the sentence: “Don’t believe that myth about the seven gangelwaefres and your ban-cofan, which are swallowed before uht**.”
**Uht = the time of day just before dawn when the last few stars are still out and the mist hangs heavy over the fields and lakes.