Swords, castles, princes, serfs – just those four words are enough to place readers in a fantasy setting. They evoke a place both mysterious and reminiscent of fairy tales, archaic enough to hold secrets, but grounded enough to be relatable.
It’s a trope to make all magical settings feel familiar. Let’s reboot the Medieval Kingdom.
Between the castles of Middle Earth, Westeros and even Hogwarts, the trappings of Medieval Europe have come to dominate our image of fantasy literature as a backdrop for the evil, the magical, and the dragons. And while there are an endless number of other settings we can create our stories with, the Medieval Kingdom has become so over-used that many new writers find it difficult to work with.
Creativity in the kingdom has been killed. It’s time to fix that.
In past Trope Reboots we’ve used old tropes to detail part of a coherent story. But in the Forenation of the Citacrown, the Medieval Kingdom we’ll be working with in this article, we’ll instead outline a broader narrative around some of the underused elements of the Medieval Kingdom to show them off in a way that might help writers to freshen up the setting.
We’ll explore ways to make the Medieval Kingdom more magical, more imaginative, and more medieval.
Trade and Economics
Real world cities and kingdoms have often been defined by their trading patterns, and yet we usually overlook trade in the fantasy genre. A kingdom without clear trading resources is like a character without a job. Just as modern day New York City is driven by the fashion, finance and media industries, a Medieval Kingdom might have its wealth depend on specific dyes and fabrics, cash crops like spices and teas, or something as mundane as a purse-making guild. And while the logistics of these trading resources may be boring, it would likely be the most important thing to the king and government, as well as a prime opening for an enemy or rebellion trying to cripple them.
For the Citacrown, let’s explore what happens if we put a fantasy king’s most powerful resource into developing trade products: The royal wizards. The Citacrown could sell fabrics that manipulate light, wooden planks that can shift their center of balance, spices that sharpen your senses, or red sap that can mend broken stone but show the damage like a scar. By organizing its guilds and cottage industry towards producing just a few of these items in bulk, the Citacrown’s royal wizards can ensure the nation’s wealth while providing a target when the plot needs to escalate: Kill the trade wizards, put the people into poverty.
Cities, Serfs and Demographics
We’re all familiar with the Battle of Helm’s Deep, when a massive medieval population fled into the castle walls for protection from an army. But in the real world people usually flee a city that comes under attack, hiding in the countryside to use distance and obscurity as their defense. Between warfare, plagues, and the chaos that followed the fall of Rome, the medieval period was marked by small cities getting smaller. De-urbanization offers us a trove of unexplored stories as urbanites, failing merchants, and immigrant communities are forced to move into rural areas and may even have to establish new settlements of their own. But what they find in their kingdom’s countryside may be harder to cope with than readers expect: Not the peace of the rural lifestyle but the realities of medieval serfdom.
In our nation of the Citacrown, the deaths of the trade wizards, recent threats to a major city and a borderline that’s in flux have forced hundreds of thousands of people to stop developing their magical trade goods and flee deep into the country, including humans of every ethnicity and fantasy races both classic and new. As these citizen refugees clash with petty lords and shake up the peasantry, they put their unique skills to use and their shortcomings on display, creating tension, change, and opportunity for the storyteller. Meanwhile, they leave behind abandoned city districts filled with raw magical goods that criminals, rebels and villains can use to threaten the Citacrown from inside their own city walls.
Castles, Lords and Knights
Far from noble and glamorous, most of the fortifications and knights of the medieval period weren’t dedicated to protecting the people from an army but for protecting Lords from the peasantry. Knights came down from the castles to keep the people at work, the food growing, and the taxes coming in. Serfs didn’t tend a patch of land by their cottage but a long strip of farmland the width of two plows, a half day of lonely work plowing in each direction. Knights and castles kept them working.
For the Citacrown, those knights and castles face the new threat of the citizen refugee, people used to working in organized groups and possessing diverse talents and abilities. Different lords will welcome them, devalue them, give them their own land, separate them in the farms, expect them to work in ways they can’t, or try to put their skills towards plots that undermine the rest of the kingdom. In a short time the politics of the countryside could shift dramatically in response to their changing rural world, opening a pathway for rebellion, treason, and strife to begin breaking the Citacrown apart from within.
Royalty and Warfare
In the medieval ages countries were still forming as each city-state became a county within a larger nation. France: 843 a.d. Poland: 1025 a.d. Switzerland: 1291 a.d. With new kingdoms, kings ruled over local lords used to their independence and had only as much power as their loyalties would allow. Sometimes the kings could coax their lords into letting them meddle with local affairs, and other times the king was powerless to keep them in line. Dynasties may have lasted generations, but the real power of the king was uneven. Who needs a coup when the king can be ignored?
For the Citacrown, as change happens within the kingdom, the royalty has to adapt or risk letting the nation fall apart. As the lords ask for assistance controlling the populace, and the citizen refugees demand new land and autonomy – as poverty deepens, the chaos at the borders escalates, and the kingdom demands leadership – the king may not be able to provide it fast enough to maintain the loyalties of the lords. Deciding to claim their independence behind the scenes, and prosper or fail on their own terms, some of the lords may band together in de facto secession, while others turn traitor all together.
Culture and Religion
We see the medieval period as a time of superstition and ignorance, where people believed in sorcery and suspected the dark arts in those who behaved differently. But most of those stories were retconned into the time period during the Renaissance and the later Reformation. Real serfs were too exhausted by their labors to be scared of their imaginations. They barely even went to church, as attendance was so low that churches didn’t even have seating, and mostly the aristocracy attended the services. And here is where the fantasy kingdom and the real world part the most, for in fantasy the magic is usually all too real to ignore.
Our nation the Citacrown faces growing upheaval from its murdered trade wizards, its abandoned cities, its civilian refugees contesting with serfdom, some of its lords in revolt or treason, and from pressures outside the kingdom. With the chaos it becomes easy for the people to forget the needs of their gods and their traditions, especially when few people were involved in them to begin with. But old magic seldom becomes weaker with neglect. As respect for tradition falls below the threshold, the greatest threat to the Citacrown may emerge from the aethers beyond.
Flooded with strife and conflict, will the Citacrown find its leaders with the charisma and determination to bring the people together? Or will the nation shatter against the pressures tearing it apart?
The Forenation of the Citacrown represents a fantasy medieval kingdom flooded with conflicts rooted in its medievalry. But in truth, the Medieval Kingdom as a trope isn’t based on the Medieval Age. Instead it represents a pre-modern time before technology replaced the role of magic in our fantasy worlds.
So let’s do something creative and make a Kingdom that’s actually Medieval.
Which medieval kingdoms do you find the most creative?
What are some ways you would make a medieval kingdom more creative?
Most importantly, what trope would you want us to reboot next? Let us know.
About the Trope Reboot Series:
Anything can happen in a fantasy novel, but we don’t expect it to. Readers like familiar ideas, and writers want to build on the inspiration offered by others. Historic backdrops. Mythological creatures. Fanatic philosophies. Magic. Let’s do more with what we have to push our creative limits.
The Trope Reboot series tries to find creative ways to remake old fantasy tropes. All ideas presented in this series may be used freely.
To nominate a trope to be rebooted in this series, post your nomination in the comments section below.