There are so many aspects of the Medieval era one needs to research and keep in mind while writing hist-fic set during this wide-ranging era. It’s so important to pin down specifics for a particular country, century, and decade. The way people lived in Italy, France, England, Germany, Russia, Sweden, and Hungary was radically different. The Middle Ages never had a one size fits all culture.
But when it comes to language, writing, and reading, things were quite a bit more straightforward than wedding customs and types of food.
34. Latin was Europe’s lingua franca until it was replaced by French in the 18th century. Even into the early 19th century, Latin remained the universal language of science, academia, music, and the liberal arts. People didn’t necessarily speak Latin to one another, but they used it for writing books and letters.
Many schools also used Latin as the language of instruction, both universities and secondary schools. Even if students were taught in the vernacular, they were still expected to learn Latin to fluency. That was part of a standard classical education until the mid-20th century.
35. There weren’t a whole lot of books written in vernacular languages until the 12th century. Writers who wanted their work to be read outside of their own land and have a wider audience had to use Latin. When vernacular was used, it was typically for subjects like parenting advice, instructions for using and making farming equipment, and etiquette.
People like Dante and Chaucer chose to write in the vernacular because they wanted as many people as possible to understand their work. They knew not everyone was an educated élite, and even illiterate people could access the oral tradition.
36. The majority of vernacular literature in the beginning was poetry. Novels and collections of connected stories existed, but they weren’t common until the 13th century. Even then, it took awhile for prose to surpass poetry in popularity. Long-form poetry was the familiar, preferred method of telling stories.
37. If a book wasn’t translated into Latin, and you didn’t know the original language, you couldn’t read it. You need to look up when a certain book became available in Latin before you show your characters reading or referencing it!
38. The 12th and 13th centuries saw a huge windfall of Latin translation of hundreds of works written in Greek and Arabic. This was instrumental in introducing Europeans to the great philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians of the Golden Age of Islam, as well as great Greek philosophers like Aristotle.
39. Speaking of Greek, that was not a language commonly studied outside of the Byzantine Empire. The vast majority of Medieval Europeans never read The Iliad and The Odyssey, since they just weren’t available in translation. What little they knew came from very bad and fragmentary translations. Only during the Renaissance did Greek return to prominence.
40. All languages went through an evolution before reaching their modern form. Many also evolved from a collection of dialects spoken in a region. If your characters speak a language other than English and you want to include some foreign words for flavor, double-check you’re using, e.g., Middle French, Florentine Tuscan, or Middle High German instead of modern language.
41. Many people named languages by their word for yes. So, e.g., Italian was a sì language, the languages of Southern France were oc, and Northern French languages were oïl.
42. Not only were many books unavailable in Latin translation, they were unavailable period, even ones written in Latin. E.g., Quintilian’s famous 12-volume Institutio Oratoria was lost for centuries. Only quotes in other works and small fragments were known. Then, in 1416, a complete copy was discovered in a German monastery. Many other treasures of Antiquity were rediscovered during the Renaissance.
43. Before the printing press, all books were handwritten. Much of this work was done by monks. An illuminated manuscript filled with full-page illustrations, fine calligraphy, decorative letters, and little drawings in the margins could take months, even over a year, to complete.
The abovementioned Quintilian book had to be copied out by hand because the monks refused to part with such a valuable book. It was common for people to make their own copies of books.
44. Books were written with quill pens, which had to be sharpened often to keep a point. Since their ink reservoir was so small, they also needed frequent dipping. They wore down quickly, and might last a week if one were lucky. Goose feathers were most common, while expensive swan feathers were favored for larger lettering.
45. Writing was done on vellum and parchment. Vellum was a cheaper material.
46. Gum sandarac, a type of crystallised resin, was shaken over wet ink to make it dry faster. Sand was NOT used for blotting!
47. You can get a feel for how people like your characters would’ve spoken by reading Medieval literature. Don’t just assume everyone spoke super-formally all the time or that there were no filters on vulgarity and insults.
48. Different styles of calligraphy predominated by era and region. While there were a few popular styles most commonly seen, this wasn’t an era of the Palmer Method either.
49. Watch out for anachronisms. When in doubt, check to see when a word or phrase first appeared. E.g., Medieval people used the word “rosy” or “rose” instead of “pink,” and “hello” only arose in the 19th century. Prior, people said “Good day.” If your characters speak a language other than English, perhaps they used an equivalent expression. That said, you don’t need to drive yourself crazy by looking up the origin of every single word you use!
50. Medieval people didn’t use the word “oh.” Until the 19th century, it was always O, and it was always capitalized.