Apr 19 2011 12:30pm

Why Are Medievals Less Popular Than Regencies?

The Coat of Arms of Henry IV and 5 of England

I adore medievals. I read them. I write them. I consume them.

And yet, the honest part of me admits that there are reasons why medievals are not as popular with readers as Regency-set historicals.

Thesaurus.com says that the synonyms for le bon ton, the Regency nobility, are: civility, correctitude, restraint, decency, decorum, good breeding, orderliness, properness, rightness, seemliness, fashionable, high life, and smart set.

If I were to likewise write the synonyms for the medieval period, they would be: honor, loyalty, tradition, fierceness, oaths, fealty, passion, valor, battle prowess, strife, God, and kingmaking.

Life in medieval times was brutally short. Men and women, even the knights and the nobility, grew up fast and lived hard, swift, intense lives. In that short time, they managed to eke out a long life’s worth of living. All life revolved around warriors and battles, even after the widespread advent of the chivalric code.

Just One of Those Flings by Candice HernLife in the Regency for the nobility, on the other hand, was relatively cushier and sheltered. As a result, life was slower-paced and there was much time for revelry and enjoyment. Of course, wars still happened, battles lost, lives maimed. But the society at large went about without much impact.

In Regency stories, it’s possible to avoid any mention of wars, weapons, and the fallout from battles. It is nearly impossible to write a medieval story without those three elements. For example, in Just One of Those Flings by Candice Hern set in 1813, there’s barely any mention of the Napoleonic wars or the activities of the East India Company.

The settled nature of lives in the Regency means that the authors have more time to explore the intricacies of interpersonal relationships and witty repartée. Given the restricted societal rules, the Regency hero and heroine had to become masters of subtlety. Much was conveyed in a single look. For example, in Pride And Prejudice, when Mr. Darcy walks down the center aisle at the Assembly Rooms of Meryton, in one quick glance, that he just as quickly corrects, he notices Lizzy Bennet and she him, and their mutual interest in each other is born. The Middle Ages, on the other hand, was a freer time for men and women. There were fewer restrictions and rules on what they should do and what they couldn’t do. For example, in One Knight Only by Julia Latham, it was acceptable for a knight to pull a lady onto his lap in the midst of the revelry following the tournament. He might get his throat cut, but he wouldn’t be forced to marry her; her reputation likewise would remain intact.

Whereas the Regency hero was concerned with being decorous and seemly, the medieval hero was brimming over with life. The Regency hero needed to overcome his restraint in order to demonstrate his passionate side to the heroine, while the medieval hero had to temper his passionate side to show tenderness towards  the heroine.

The Chief by Monica McCartyRoyalty did not hold their nobles’ lives hostage in the Regency, whereas fealty to the liege lord controlled all actions in the Dark Ages. The kings had vast powers and used them, sometimes indiscriminately. As a result, the king is an essential character in most medieval stories, whether he’s explicitly present or implicitly so. For example, The Chief by Monica McCarty ends with this: “The ten warriors formed a circle around their king. Swords raised above his head, they cried out, ‘Airson an Leomhann!’ For the Lion. A cry that would come to strike fear in men’s hearts.” On the other hand, Prinny shows up once in a while as comic relief.

The nobility in the Regency, the dukes, marquesses, and earls, sat in the House of Lords during a period of major political activity, but they had lives that revolved around their estates as well. So it’s possible to write stories that have nothing to do with the politics of the day and everything to do with the other aspects of their lives. Whereas, politics was a part of the fabric of medieval life, so it was impossible to divorce the two. For example, in Lord of My Heart by Jo Beverley, the heroine must wed one of the trio of lords offered by her king. To refuse such an edict was unthinkable.

Medieval noble men and women were expected to do physical work in addition to supervising the provisioning, safety, law, and order of the castles’ many dependents. Regency women, on the other hand, had fewer responsibilities towards their smaller households. Regency men were not required to be magistrates and soldiers for their estates. As a result, Regency men and women had more time to spend in society.

Religion comes up again and again in the early medieval stories, because the Church was just getting a foothold in some parts of England and Scotland, and sometimes, converts reverted to their pagan ways and had to be re-churched.

An Unlikely Countess by Jo BeverleyThe presence of God and talk about godliness was a constant conversation. Whereas in the Regency, the Anglican branch of Christianity was such an established tradition that it was a non-issue, garnering only brief mentions of attending Sunday services. For example, in Ransom by Julie Garwood, mentions of the One True God and paying a penance and confessing of sins is brought up again and again, while in An Unlikely Countess by Jo Beverley, the toughest part of the Sunday church service for the heroine is facing the local nobility and gentry and their comments and slights.

For all these reasons, medievals are not as popular as Regencies. It is also precisely for these reasons why they are so near and dear to my heart.

Henry IV and V coat of arms courtesy of Sodacan via Wikimedia Commons.


Keira Soleore is an aspiring Medieval & Regency historical romance writer and the comments moderator for IASPR’s Journal of Popular Romance Studies. On the web, she can found on at Cogitations & Meditations, on herwebsite, and on Facebook. She also tweets.

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Teresa Nielsen Hayden
1. tnh
Why are Regencies so much fun? Because the moneyed class has just discovered what a pleasant existence can be had in London and Bath, far from the problems, obligations, tedium, and mud of one's country estates. Urban life is fun! Also, it means that if you've kicked out your farmers and replaced them with sheep, you don't have to watch your former tenants begging by the roadside.

Why were Regency manners so correct? Because so many of the people affecting them were a good deal wealthier and more fashionable than their immediate forebears, and consequently were concerned about looking respectable.

Also, when men are wearing skin-tight high-waisted fleshtone trousers under cutaway coats that frame their crotch area, and women are wearing less fabric on the street than their mothers and grandmothers might have used in a single petticoat, it's a darn good idea for them to behave decorously. Otherwise, one might get the impression that they're engaged in trade.
Jett Wells
2. tjwell01
Courtship is hot these days. Case and point: Twilight.
Jett Wells
3. tjwell01
By the way, can we post stories to this site? If so, can you point out how?
4. bungluna
Re-churched. For some reason this struck my funny-bone, though I know that these procedures could be fraught with pain and torture.

I think Regencies are more popular because they explore a way of life where great wealth is present and people have the leasure to indulge in pleasure without much responsibility. The author and reader can thus concentrate on clever reparte and fashion and frivolity. It's a versatile setting for all kinds of stories.

Medievals have to include references to wars, knights, king, plagues, etc. to keep real context in play. They have a much darker setting.

And then there are Julie Garwood Medievals, which are great fun but more fantasy than historicals, imo.
Laurie Gold
5. LaurieGold
I used to love medievals as much as later historical romances. I think they fell out of favor with me because they seemed to mostly follow one of two plots: Kings commanding Norman or English knights to marry Saxon or Scots noblewomen, or knight working to further his or his overlord/King's position, leading to such a strong focus on the secondary plot that the romance suffers as a result. At this point I tend to read more historical fiction set in the medieval period because I know what I'm getting up front: mostly history. That said, if Madeline Hunter ever returned to medievals, I'd be there in a flash.
Megan Frampton
6. MFrampton
@tjwell01: http://www.heroesandheartbreakers.com/page/submissions Here's where you can find info about submitting stories. Thanks for stopping by!
Olivia Waite
7. O.Waite
I think the last medieval I read was Carrie Lofty's What a Scoundrel Wants. Blind alchemist heroine has a romance with Will Scarlet? I bought that book so fast it would make your head spin.
Keira Soleore
8. KeiraSoleore
@tnh: Otherwise, one might get the impression that they're engaged in trade.

You're so funny. On top of that, some women (Lamb) wet their petticoats for a closer, sheerer (that should be a word) fit.

Clothes framing the men's crotch area have continued to be popular from centuries ago. Remember the times of the jeweled covers worn outside the clothing to show the, ah, glory of the family jewels?

I was just talking to someone yesterday about the Scottish Highland Clearances and they mentioned how similar they were to the English ones all in the bleating name of sheep. When exactly did the English Clearances happen? During the Regency?
Keira Soleore
9. KeiraSoleore
@bungluna: where great wealth is present and people have the leasure to indulge in pleasure without much responsibility

Yes, wealth and social standing are key to being able to be hedonistic with impunity. It makes for fun stories to read and allows the reader and the author to concentrate on issues and events other than the grind of day-to-day living.

I do agree with you about Garwood. :) However, she made the medievals stories and historicals in general so popular that she's forgiven much.
Keira Soleore
10. KeiraSoleore

if Madeline Hunter ever returned to medievals, I'd be there in a flash.

Having just finished her "By Arrangement" I'm in complete agreement with you.

Another fairly recent medieval find for me were Carrie Lofty's two print books one set in England, the other in Spain. They're medievals at their best. I'm assuming you've read all four of JoBev's medievals? Again, beautiful, beautiful characterization that feels authentic. But yes, the King is a secondary++ (rather than simply a secondary) character.

Who are your favorite medieval historical fiction writers? Have you read Chadwick?
Keira Soleore
11. KeiraSoleore
I just referenced Carrie Lofty's books in a comment above before reading your comment. I love,love,love both her medievals. I have read and re-read them and still wish to read them again as I'm writing this comment. I have a piece for H&H coming up on her Spanish book.
Regina Thorne
12. reginathorn
I think another issue is the much stronger role of religion in the medieval period - a lot less anathema, nunneries, and fear of damnation going around amidst your Prince Regent's set in 1812!

But more seriously, I think one reason for the enduring popularity of Regency romances is Jane Austen and the other is Georgette Heyer. I read Pride and Prejudice I don't know how many years ago and immediately thought "hey, I want to read more books like THAT!" And Heyer sort of created the modern genre, right?

As for medieval romances, I absolutely adore Edith Pargeter's Heaven Tree trilogy and a more modern writer, Elizabeth Chadwick, whose works are classified as historical fiction, I think, but who always has lots of romance in her novels.
Keira Soleore
13. KeiraSoleore
Count me as another fan of Chadwick. She books are very well-researched and superbly crafted. She tells a good medieval story.

I have not read Edith Pargeter, so thanks for the rec. Should add it to my to-read list.

Yes, religion is one of the main differences, because Christianity was still so new and unknown and push-n-pull of their earlier belief v. Christianity make a for richer angst-y situations between the characters.

Clever repartee...and I'm so there. The appeal of the Regency (Austen-style or Heyer-style) is so obvious that it's no wonder, readers always chuckle whenever the publishing industry says "historicals are dead."
Regina Thorne
14. reginathorn
Keira, you might have heard of Edith Pargeter under her pen name of Ellis Peters - she created the wonderful series of Brother Cadfael mystery novels that were adapted for TV with Derek Jacobi in the lead. The Cadfael books are set during the civil war between the Empress Maud and King Stephen (so late 12th century England) and there is almost always a pair of young lovers in need of a helping hand from Cadfael. (I adore those books!) Pargeter also wrote the aforementioned Heaven Tree books and a series about the last Welsh King Llewellyn (somewhat before Sharon Kay Penman did her series on thes ame topic.)
Keira Soleore
15. KeiraSoleore
Oh, I love the Brother Cadfael mystery series. I have watched most of them. Wonderful sense of place setting, and the characterization is superb. Didn't know she wrote them. Will have to check out her first book to see how the series compares to the book.

I haven't read Penman's Llewellyn books either. Lots of recs here. My thanks to you!!
16. HannahI
I've been more interested in reading medievals lately after reading a couple of Regencies that were so anachronistic I could hardly stand it. The medievals that I turned to right after that seemed more authentic though admittedly, I'm not an expert in either historical period.
Laurie Gold
17. LaurieGold
Who are your favorite medieval historical fiction writers?

Morgan Llywelyn, who actually writes all periods of Irish history, is my favorite writer of Medieval fiction; her duo of Lion of Ireland and Pride of Lions tops the list. Of course, it's at the early end of Medieval...more like Dark Ages, but I think it still counts. I love a good battle scene, and hers are fantastic. I also like Bernard Cornwell. I have an Elizabeth Chadwick book on my Kindle, but haven't read it yet. I interviewed her several years ago and found her incredibly interesting.

I've not read Beverley's Medievals because for some reason her writing style doesn't suit me.

If you liked By Arrangement by Hunter, try By Possession. She makes the period come alive like no other author I've ever read.
18. Medieval Historian
As a medieval historian and someone who also teaches modern history, I would have to disagree with your characterization of both the medieval and early 19th century. I think you very accurately describe how those periods are portrayed in romance novels but I think the genre only chooses to depict slivers of both periods. To the idea that the medieval period is more violent than the Regency era, I would really disagree. What makes violence acceptable in the Regency Era, it is that it takes place outside of England in places like India and Africa. The idea that medieval politics is always centered on the king is again a convention of medieval romance novels. In reality, royal power or state power is extremely weak in much of the medieval period, and I think clever romance writers could write stories that depict this world rather than focusing on the English kings. I think the real reason that medievals have fallen out of favor is the rise of urban fantasy and erotica. Both genres really emphasize the alpha hero who is often violent, thus displacing the medieval knight/lord.
Keira Soleore
19. KeiraSoleore
It's always good to meet someone who likes medievals as much as I do.

Bernard Cornwell's Viking series are my favorite. I have read his fight scenes over and over again to try to figure out the choreography and battle emotions. Amazing storyteller!
Now, I have to pick up Morgan Llywelyn's books. I have studied early medieval Irish history, but haven't read any fiction based in that time period. So thank you for that recommendation.I have Hunter's "By Possession" also. Her two "By" book are among my top medievals.
Keira Soleore
20. KeiraSoleore
@Medieval Historian:
Thank you for stopping by to comment. This post was only in the context only of romance novels and how the medieval and Regency period is depicted in those book. So it's always refreshing to read what a historian has to say about the actual historical facts.

I absolutely agree that with the British Raj expanding outwards around the world (real worldbuilding) all the atrocities were committed elsewhere. There's rarely any hint of the East India activities of the aristrocrats though many of them had their hand dirtied by the EI Company's international political shenanigans. However, they did have frivolous sides to their lives, which are what rom novels focus on.

"The idea that medieval politics is always centered on the king is again a convention of medieval romance novels. In reality, royal power or state power is extremely weak in much of the medieval period, and I think clever romance writers could write stories that depict this world rather than focusing on the English kings."

As a medieval writer, I'm dying to know more about this. How much influence did the king really exert on his barons? Writers want to write stories about the newly forming noble class and the kings are thought to play a large part in the glitterati.
21. EvangelineHolland
The Regency reigns supreme because it is ever present. We have Jane Austen films, Jane Austen sequels, Jane Austen TV dramas, Jane Austen parties, etc etc, not to mention the influence Georgette Heyer has on the modern historical romance. When Jane Doe decides to try her hand at a historical romance, she turns to the Regency setting because it's what she reads and it's what her favorite authors write. I believe preconceptions and misconceptions of other time periods play a factor in the lack of Medieval romances (or anything not set in 19th century Britain or the Scottish Highlands), but it's mostly due the ubiquitous influence of the period all around us.

I've always wondered what would happen if, say, Julia Quinn, decided to write a historical set in the screwy, frothy 1920s, or Eloisa James actually wrote Elizabethan romances instead of using her professional background to influence her Georgian/Regency historicals. Would readers fall away by the droves? Would they follow Quinn or James anywhere, simply because they loved their writing?
Keira Soleore
22. KeiraSoleore
@Evangeline: The Regency reigns supreme because it is ever present.

Yes, there is definitely truth to that. The visual period dramas and the sheer number Regency-set books, beginning with Georgette Heyer make for a constant immersion into that time period, or rather then world Heyer constructed for us.

I belive that the Regency is so entrenched in our minds and hearts, that if Julia Quinn were to write books set in the 1920s or Eloisa James in Elizabethan times, what would most likely happen is that readers would add those periods to their reading repertoire, while continuing to read Regencies at the same rate. What could also happen, and has been known to happen, is that readers would get angry and disillusioned with the author for breaking "faith" with them and changing sub-genres.

I do hope medievals come more into vogue, though I personally know people who would never touch a medieval for the intensity and rawness of the stories. There are conventions to every sub-genres and those conventions put some people totally off complete sub-genres.
Tara B
23. box5angel
I read both but I actually prefer medieval romances exactly for the reasons you stated. :)
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