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Lessons Learned In Writing Historical Fiction

I have just finished writing a novel about a burgravine in the Middle Ages who set out to escape from scheming relatives who want to have her declared a bastard and steal her father’s rights, and winds up at a neighboring fief, trying to survive and help her new friends. I learned quite a bit while writing the book. Here are my four favorite lessons.

Burgrave, Margrave, and Landgrave

Titles are all kinds of fun, and some of the most fun were the titles given to lords in 1200’s Germany. See, power wasn’t necessarily divided by land in the Kingdom of Germany. Different lords would be given different rights, such as collecting road tolls (called the right of conductus) or setting up market fairs, and these rights and associated responsibilities could include lands that were far apart. You could be running a road many miles East of your home and running a market many miles West of your home base at the same time. Not that land ownership meant nothing- it just wasn’t the sole predictor of your title. So, a burgrave was essentially a general, and he got a series of rights for providing his lord with an army. Some of these rights might even involve land that he owned.

However, there were titles that reflected the land you owned. A margrave was someone who received land on the border, say in Estonia or Austria. The word comes from the word ‘march,’ which means border.

What a landgrave did for his rights wasn’t completely settled last I checked.

Livonian Crusades

While the famous Crusades to the Middle East were not really successful, the crusades authorized by the Bishop of Riga to the Baltic areas went swimmingly for the Saxons and Prussians. Estonia, Latvia, and Livonia were full of people worshiping the old gods, and many knights got permission to go conquer and then settle chunks of those lands in the name of Christianity. It’s almost charming to read their justifications too, as they obviously were thinking of the wealth they could accrue from their colonies. In fact, lords would send out agents to recruit tenants and laborers from throughout Germany with some pretty tempting rental agreements just so they could work the Slavic lands. There’s one theory out there that that is what happened to the children of Hamelin: an agent convinced parents to send their kids out to the new colonies, and the parents never saw them again.


This one of those areas where ancient wisdom is not very wise. Since birthwort looks a bit like the birth canal, people used it in varying ways throughout the ages to do things such as expel afterbirth and induce labor contractions.

Turns out birthwort is incredibly toxic and has damaged the livers of many people. Woops.

Research Is Hard, Y’all!

This is less about the Middle Ages and more about my own personal laziness. I picked the era and place at random for NaNoWriMo out of the weird belief that I could basically coast on 3 books about the time period and my memories from high school history. Ha-ha-ha! I have now gone down a multitude of rabbit holes and chased many a plot bunny, and I am telling you now that the 13th century alone constitutes an unending spring of research. I need to do more research, and in fact, may never be able to stop researching this subject.

Let this be a lesson to us all: a writer is never done researching.

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