Researching the Medieval

by Julie Beard

Even after writing three medieval historical romances, soon to be four, I hardly consider myself an expert on researching the medieval novel. But I have learned a few tricks along the way that I'd like to share with you.

When I first began researching this period about fifteen years ago, there were very few resources available to the non-historian. To find authentic and detailed material, I had to go to university libraries and professional libraries that required proof that I was a writer. Considering that I was definitely an amateur researcher, it was quite intimidating. Now all you have to do to find good material is stroll down the aisle at a Barnes & Noble or comb through Edward Hamilton's newspaper type catalogue or do a search at on the internet.

However you begin your research, it should be an on-going process. One of the peculiarities of the period is that many historians disagree on exactly what happened way back then. They disagree on what certain items of clothing were called, when certain weapons came into vogue, what socio-economic factors created various attitudes and trends, etc. So never assume you've gotten the whole story! Keep researching even as you write.

Here are a few handy tips as you begin your novel:


This sounds simplistic, but it's good advice. It takes gumption to write a medieval novel. You're telling the reader that you know enough to cast your characters in a vastly different era, and that you've done the research to pull it off. If you're like me, you'll live in a constant state of terror that someone out there will find out you goofed on a research item. After ten years of writing in this period, I've become fatalistic about it. I do the best job I can, and if I goof, well mea culpa. I'll do better next time.

It's true that many medieval readers are extremely dedicated and well educated. You owe it to them to do your best job at research. Never assume you know anything. (More on that later!) But don't be so paranoid about it that you don't write your book! After all, this is fiction. The medieval era is wonderful, and you can use history to create the world of your choosing.


The Oxford English Dictionary, or OED, is a massive so-called dictionary that consists of some 20 humongous volumes that take up two rows in the library. Forget buying a set--they run in the thousands of dollars. You might consider a CD-rom, though, if you decide you can't live without one. Here's how I use the OED.

I do general research in various medieval history books. I write my story. Then I identify every word that has any historical context. I take that list, in alphabetical order, to the library and look up each word in the OED. I photocopy each definition and send a set to my line editor when I turn the book in. Sound like a hassle? It is. But I find the OED a must that will save you much potential embarrassment.

Let's look at an example. Let's say your knight has earned his spurs, which happens when he is knighted (as I recall in this particular moment, but then I have a brain like a sieve. Research disappears from my head quickly, so I'm constantly re-researching!) At one point in history the spurs used by knights were called prick spurs and at one point they were rowel spurs. Depending on which reference I used, I would look up prick or rowel in the OED and see when the word first came into use. Was it first used in 1200 or 1400 or 1800? If it came into use after the time my book is set in, I generally won't use the word, though sometimes I fudge if there's a compelling reason. In the case of the prick vs. rowel spurs, I've confused these terms before. And since I can't always remember where I first read about spurs, a quick check with the OED will save me from making a serious mistake. I'll use whichever term was in use during the time of my book.

If you're really compulsive, like I am, you'll go crazy sometimes. For example, women used to make ale in castle huts called ale-houses. Once I referred to them as ale-wives. But after looking in the OED I learned that these women weren't called ale-wives until a couple hundred years after my book, even though the term ale-house was in use. Very frustrating! (And check the OED before using these terms, because I can't remember if they require a hyphen!)


  There were certain things in the Middle Ages that were different that you need to know about or risk looking like a fool. As I've said, I can't remember my research from one book to the next, but let me try to recall a few examples. If I get these wrong, you can have me drawn and quartered. (Just kidding!)

 Degrees of separation: There were various degrees of separation at various time periods required before marriage was allowed. For example, you couldn't marry a cousin, or a brother-in-law, or a God father, etc. They were considered too closely related. At one point I believe there had to be seven degrees of separation. So if you plot a book in which the heroine marries her dead husband's brother, you have to make it clear they were breaking the law in doing so. Frequently kings and queens married in spite of these laws, and when they later decided they wanted a divorce, they claimed they had just discovered that they were too closely related and the Church granted them a divorce.

Marriage Rituals: I don't know all the rituals, so you should research carefully, but at one point in the history of the Roman Catholic Church, the bride and groom exchanged their vows on the church steps, and then a mass followed inside the church. This happened when the early Church fathers decided that marriage was a sacrament they wanted to control and they wanted everyone to know that matrimonial unions had the blessing of the priest--so do it outside where everyone can see! And don't forget the wedding banns. The priest had to announce the intended marriage on three consecutive Sundays in church so that anyone knowing of any impediment could step forward before the wedding took place. These impediments were frequently inadequate degrees of separation. And hand-fasting was another interesting marriage ritual. As I've heard it, the so-called bride and groom would join hands and swear to live as man and wife for a year and a day. If things worked out, they remained permanently wedded. If not, they could go their separate ways. And wedding dresses were not uniformly white until very late in history, I believe sometime after the 1500's.

Inheritance laws: These varied wildly depending on the century, but inheritance laws can be critical to a plot. For example, at one point in time the first son was the only one to inherit his father's property due to the law of primogeniture, though exceptions could be made. That meant the second son usually had to go off and lead a dangerous and often short life as a knight errant or a mercenary. Third sons frequently became priests. Women sometimes were able to inherit, but you need to research this closely. Again depending on the century, attitudes toward women varied. Some women had a lot of power, though usually the power was reflected from a man.

Religion: Religion and church were fundamental aspects of life in the Middle Ages. Most people were expected to go to church every day. Bear this in mind when plotting your heroine's day.

Feudalism: The structure of society changed over the course of many centuries, but in the purist form of medievalism, the king held possession of all the land. He in turn gave big chunks to his earls, who then divvied out parcels to barons and knights. In return, the people on the lower end of the totem pole owed their allegiance and knight service to their liegelord, the person who gave them land. Sometimes the king was almost superfluous to those lower down the line. Research this carefully depending on the century you choose. Later on the feudal system started to break down, allegiances shifted, the barons became more powerful, commerce gave more power to merchants, and society gradually turned into what we know today. But bear the politics in mind when figuring out how your hero and heroine think about their situations and status.

Exceptions: There were always exceptions to every rule, and you can use these to accomodate your plot. However, it's important to know what rules you're breaking. If you don't acknowledge that your hero or heroine were the exceptions to the norm, the reader will lose faith in your research abilities and will be less willing to suspend disbelief.

When in doubt leave out: As I mentioned earlier, don't assume anything. One time I had my hero sitting in a 14th century tavern eating meat. I was about to throw a couple of potatoes on his plate but at the last minute decided not to since I hadn't studied the origin of the potato. I was on deadline and didn't have time to look it up. Turned out to be a very good call on my part! After the book was published, I learned that the potato wasn't eaten in England until something like the 1600s. Who would have thought a vegetable so fundamental would be a late discovery in merry old England?

So, how do you start your research? Use the inverted pyramid. Start with broad general histories and narrow it down as you go. Pick a period. Then read more specific books about events in that period. Then research costumes, modes of transportation, housing, etc. Don't forget to read first-hand accounts written in the period. They can really give you a flavor of the times and words you might never have heard of.

If you go to your library, or look on the internet, start with general searches. Middle Ages, Costumes, transportation, etc. University libraries are the best places to find specific and hard-to-find information.

Before you do anything, though, go to the library to borrow, or buy all of the Francis and Joseph Gies books--Women in the Middle Ages, Castle in the Middle Ages, a Medieval Village, etc. They will give you an excellent overview.

Finally, good luck!

Julie is the best-selling author of three medieval romances--

LADY AND THE WOLF is set during the plague in the 1300's and was just re-released; the award winning A DANCE IN HEATHER, set during the later Middle Ages at the Battle of Agincourt was also just re-released; and FALCON AND THE SWORD, set in 1200, which focuses on a former Knight Templar and a female falconer. Her latest novel, ROMANCE OF THE ROSE, is an Elizabethan that was recently released and made the USA Today Bestseller list. Julie's next book will be another medieval tentatively entitled SPIRIT OF LOVE.

You can visit her website at

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Copyright 1998, J. Beard