Dangerous, semi-realistic adventures in pre-modern Europe
August 3, 2020 12:44 PM   Subscribe

Several novels and short stories I've read, such as Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho, Flammenberg's The Necromancer, and Le Fanu's Spalatro, have parts that focus on the rather rough and lawless world of the 14th-18th centuries in rural Europe. Details inside, but I'm looking for more along the lines of banditti, evil innkeepers, and corrupt barons.

The situation I'm thinking of is the period — feudal or feudal-adjacent — in which it was wise to be armed if traveling alone because of the many forms of predation one was subject to. In restoration drama everyone is wearing a sword and ready to fight while traveling not just because of honor but simple lawlessness. In gothic novels there are dens of evil encountered tangentially but rarely directly.

Protagonists (probably) aren't knights but what I imagine to be the middle class of the time, wealthy enough to travel and own a sword but still must rent horses, stay at inns while traveling, and not have a retinue or guards.

Are there any prominent adventures along these lines that I should be looking up? Bonus points for dreadful mysteries, supernatural (or seeming) elements, gothic castles, and all that wonderful stuff.
posted by BlackLeotardFront to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Jan Potocki's The Manuscript Found in Saragossa might be worth a try, if you've not already read it.
posted by misteraitch at 12:54 PM on August 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'm reading Robert Merle's Fortunes of France series, and it fits. Protagonist is the son of a minor Huguenot landowner, setting is the French wars of religion era in Perigord. I don't know that it's quite as good as the listed quotes in the reviews section of that Amazon listing promise, but I'm enjoying it. There are definitely bandits, rioting villagers, wicked barons etc. At the start of the second book the protagonist has just started traveling, staying in inns and so forth, so right on point for your request.
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:06 PM on August 3, 2020

Company of Liars, by Karen Maitland, is a good (dark) Black Plague road trip story that I think fits the bill.
posted by gideonfrog at 1:35 PM on August 3, 2020

Response by poster: Thanks, these already sound great. Dark and depraved definitely encouraged.

Are the Waverly books at all like what I'm asking about? I've avoided them because I thought they were more strait-laced but I am basing that on very little.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 1:54 PM on August 3, 2020

Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon is about 300 years earlier than your era of interest, but it is such fun that I thought it might still fit the bill:
They’re an odd pair, to be sure: pale, rail-thin, black-clad Zelikman, a moody, itinerant physician fond of jaunty headgear, and ex-soldier Amram, a gray-haired giant of a man as quick with a razor-tongued witticism as with a sharpened battle-ax. Brothers under the skin, comrades in arms, they make their rootless way through the Caucasus Mountains, circa a.d. 950, living as they please and surviving however they can—as blades and thieves for hire and as practiced bamboozlers, cheerfully separating the gullible from their money. But when they are dragooned into service as escorts and defenders to a prince of the Khazar Empire, they soon find themselves the half-willing generals in a full-scale revolution—on a road paved with warriors and whores, evil emperors and extraordinary elephants, secrets, swordplay, and such stuff as the grandest adventures are made of.
posted by ChuraChura at 2:15 PM on August 3, 2020

Lorna Doone is all lawless banditry and no cookies. Excellent indomitable Nurse, too.
posted by clew at 2:19 PM on August 3, 2020 [3 favorites]

Some Jeffery Farnol, though I can’t remember which, but hey, free. Georgette Heyer’s medieval books - Simon the Coldheart, for instance.
posted by clew at 2:23 PM on August 3, 2020

I feel like Boccaccio's Decameron is the original of these sorts of stories, at least to the modern world. It is a group of young people sheltering in place from the Black Death (topical!) telling each other gross, erotic, macabre, funny, tragic stories--100 of them, hence the titile-- to while away the time while the world perishes around them. Free versions here.
posted by seasparrow at 3:04 PM on August 3, 2020

The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini is a colourful account of life in renaissance Italy written by a raging egotist.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 3:18 PM on August 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

You might enjoy Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen -- it's a parody of then contemporary thrillers like Udolpho, etc. featuring IMO the dreamiest hero Austen ever wrote.
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 4:45 PM on August 3, 2020

Have you read The Three Musketeers and the sequels? They fit the bill really well and are eminently readable. Don't be put off by any films you may have seen!
posted by london explorer girl at 3:49 AM on August 4, 2020

Rafael Sabatini wrote swashbucklers that might be up your street. Perhaps Scaramouche (set in France at the time of the Revolution, so late eighteenth century) or Bellarion the Fortunate (set in Italy at the start of the fifteenth century) would fit the bill.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 6:13 AM on August 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

Neal Stephenson's Baroque Trilogy, starting with Quicksilver, is a lot of this.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 6:56 AM on August 4, 2020

Response by poster: Thanks for all these suggestions. I'll leave the question open for a few more days in case people are trolling the tags, but this netted me a lot of good ones! Many that I'd heard of but never filed correctly. I'll treasure this thread.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 11:37 AM on August 4, 2020

The House of Niccolò, an eight-book series by Dorothy Dunnett, is EXCELLENT and seems like it would scratch your itch. It starts in Flanders in 1460 and travels all over Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, following the fate of a young man of uncertain birth as he makes his mark on the world. The first book in the series is Niccolò Rising. And if you like that series, check out the Lymond Chronicles by the same author, which are also excellent.
posted by ourobouros at 7:33 AM on August 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

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