31 Days of Post Day 13: Historical Periods and Heroic Fantasy/ Sword and Sorcery

Yesterday, I read an interesting essay by James Enge at his blog discussing heroic fantasy and imaginary history. I also read the reaction post of John R. Fultz on his blog. It got me to thinking about historical periods in general.

You see, Enge points out brilliantly that the “Middle Ages” never existed. Nebulously placed between the Fall of Rome and the Renaissance, the medieval period is exemplified by its uncertainty.

Rome fell in 1453 with the fall of Constantinople (yes, I know that the fall of the Western Empire is the traditional start date of the “Middle Ages”). That is the death knell for the Roman Empire. Now, if you really want to be a historical douche about this, you could posit the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1805. But let us keep with 1453.

The Renaissance began in Italy around the 12th and 13th centuries. And even if you can make the case that the Renaissance started later, it was in full swing when Constantinople fell.

So, where does that leave the Middle Ages/ Medieval Period?

Now, I think you can expand the critique of the Medieval Period into a full blown critique or questioning of whether or not any historical period rightly exists.

Clearly, the ascription of names to centuries and “periods” are based more on a need to quantify and simplify history on the part of those who studied it. And often, how those periods are broken down tells us as much about those who break it down as it does about the periods in question.

Enge is right that the medieval is a construct created during the 18th century as a means to contrast to the Enlightenment.

This then, raises the persistent question of why the “medieval” has such a strong hold upon fantasy, especially heroic fantasy?

Well, perhaps in the act of creating the medieval world, the thinkers of the 18th century also created a nevernever land in opposition?

Finally, I have some thoughts about Fultz’s comments on the preferable inspiration for heroic fantasy/ sword and sorcery.

I get where he’s coming from. There is something powerful about imaginary worlds  incredibly removed from ours. Whether it is the Hyborian Age, Zothique, etc. makes no difference.

But, I also think there is something to imagining or making our own world (or a world like it) into something very radically different.


Edit: Thanks to Michal for catching my error on the fall of Constantinople. For some reason, I always thought it was 1463 not 1453.


Posted on October 13, 2012, in Books and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Constantinople fell in 1453. But in terms of the “end of the Middle Ages” (of which 1453 is often cited as the date), it is, indeed, an arbitrary marker. As for Roman Empire, Enge’s critique of this periodization is a bit off-target, as the beginning of the Middle Ages is set at the fall of Rome–the city–and thence the elimination of the Western Roman Empire as a political entity. The Eastern Roman Empire did survive until 1453, but Byzantium by that time was a significantly different beast from the Rome of late antiquity.

    It’s still a useful label, even though the name itself is a big fat misnomer that we can blame on the Enlightenment (“Middle of what?”, as it were).

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