Given a vaguely European Medieval society free of magic, how long does it take for historic record to devolve into fiction? Rephrased, how long would it take an Arthurian legend to form, where the scholars of the setting don't know how much of it (or if any of it) is based on actual historic events and people?

Assume historic examples for measure of literacy rate, cultural trends, value of history/legacies, and societal/social/political upheaval. Further assume there's no outstanding effort to either preserve or destroy historic record outside what trends we saw in Medieval Europe, and no catastrophic events (ie, the Black Plague, hurricanes, mass famine) that might distort the trends.

What is a reasonable timetable for such uncertainty about the historic accuracy of an Arthurian-style legend? What would be the realistic shortest span that we could see this happen?

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    $\begingroup$ It has more to do with prevailing means of preserving historical memories than a fixed amount of time. For example, in the literary genre of "lives of Saints" in Roman Catholic lore, it was a literary convention to attribute miracles not just to prayers made to the Saint, but also during the Saint's life, without corroboration. Legend hit for all readers who didn't have personal knowledge of the Saint immediately. This style of legendary embellishment was common in the Bronze Age. Fact based history was a different less legend prone genera. Attitudes towards rumors likewise shifted over time. $\endgroup$
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Nov 23, 2016 at 21:27
  • $\begingroup$ For me it really depends from where this fact happened, if it happens in a very traditional state, where the story is told by dads and grandads to their childrens, or in a state where things like that are not remembered $\endgroup$
    – JackIta
    Commented Nov 24, 2016 at 7:28

6 Answers 6


Here are some medieval-ish examples:

King Arthur

Estimated to live around 500 AD. Became the subject of the 'Matter of Britain.'

The first works to chronicle King Arthur were the Historia Brittonum of 828 AD, where he is depicted as a military leader, but not a king; and the Annales Cambiae, written in c. 950 AD where Mordred and Merlin are introduced.

The first popularly distributed writing of the legend in more or less modern form was Historia Regum Brittaniae by Geoffrey of Monmouth, published in 1136. This contained most of the well-known parts of the legend; two other important parts were added c. 1180 AD by Chretien de Troyes: Sir Lancelot and the quest for the Holy Grail.


The equivalent to the Arthurian legends in France were the legends that sprang up around Charlemagne. Unlike Arthur, Charlemagne is very real and well documented, as all European royalty could claim descent from him (and still do to this day). He lived from c. 745 AD to 814 AD.

Some important steps in his journey to legend include the poem Visio Karoli Magni in 865 AD, the first work that explicitly adds supernatural deeds to the life of a man who had so far only been recounted by historians purporting to the truth; and his cannonization by Anti-pope Paschal III in 1165 (not recognized by the church at large).

The 'Matter of France' was a cycle of stories and legends about Charlemagne and the 12 Paladins of France, equivalent to the knights of the round table. The first legend written down, so far as I can tell, is also the most famous, the Song of Roland, composed probably around 1040 AD and discussing the Battle of Roncevaux Pass of 778 AD. The chansons (songs) were elaborated upon and increased in popularity through the 12th century until the Girart de Vienne in 1215 established the three part division of the cycle that is recognized today.


Charlemagne made the turn-around from actual no-doubt historical figure to subject of legends a bit faster than Arthur, and had the advantage of being much more actual no-doubt that Arthur was. The first 'legendary' occurrences of Charlemagne in literature took about 50 years, the first whole-cloth fantasies about 250 years, and the 'final' version of the legend about 400 years.

Arthur by comparison was about 300 years until legendary literature, then 300 more years until the 'final' version of the legend. Arthur's stories probably would have picked up faster if it weren't for all those Vikings and Dark Ages that got in the way.

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    $\begingroup$ Also consider that while it took 250 years for Charlemagne's legends to be written down, they probably existed in oral form for much longer. $\endgroup$
    – AndreiROM
    Commented Nov 23, 2016 at 17:40
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    $\begingroup$ These are time lines of things we now doubt more mixing into things we now doubt less. Do you think the scholars of the time shared those opinions? $\endgroup$
    – user25818
    Commented Nov 23, 2016 at 23:40
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    $\begingroup$ @notstoreboughtdirt The sober minded among the Medievals did not believe the legends. Clerics in particular had no use for the legends of Charlemagne in France, since they could read the contemporary records of him in Latin. It is just that the sober minded were relatively few in the middle ages, as were the Latin readers. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Commented Nov 24, 2016 at 0:45
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    $\begingroup$ Instead of "first works" it would be more accurate to say "earliest works that survive". The first works were probably the ballads his bards sang to following generations. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 24, 2016 at 21:08

An event could well become legendary right away as rumors spreads by word of mouth through common populace, or whatever circles who hold interest in the events.

I think it is more a question on how long actual facts can coexist with the legend. (Unless the legend is so strong that people will believe it over factual records, in which case the legend will start right away).

But, concerning actual factual records I would say it depends on the records in where the events would be stored:

Types of records

Medieval societies were quite interested in certain records, most notable lineages of royalty and nobility (and religious officials). If the legend concerns the fate of royal or noble lines one would expect them to be written down carefully.

The next level of importance is ledgers on ownership claims, debts, deals, taxes and such economic matters. Such texts will be carefully maintained while they are relevant, and sink towards oblivion when they cease to be relevant.

Lastly there would be notices, town-crier scrolls and such.

In each case, the staying-power of each depends on the interest people have in keeping the information. You can see it as if the information falls out of scope.

Scopes of records

The scope of royal lineages lasts as long as their claims to thrones, relatives and associated lines exist. They go out of scope when the ruling elite is completely displaced by another ruling structure that do not respect the old order.

The scope of economic records last as long as they are relevant. If a city gets razed its records go out of scope. If a personal debt or deal is fulfilled or paid it goes out of scope. If an administration is abandoned its records go out of scope.

Short lived documents go out of scope almost immediately.

After information have gone out of scope, it will survive only in old records, libraries and such maintained by learned. Unless the records are of special importance to the librarians and scholars they will be forgotten and risk to disappear. If they are of scholarly interest then only a major catastrophe will destroy them (burning of library of Alexandria), and probably even that is not enough if they are widely copied.

In conclusion:

Think in terms of scopes instead of time.

The relevant factors are:

  • What types of records might describe this event?

  • What societal structures have an interest in these kinds of records?

  • What upheavals, replacements, catastrophes have befallen these institutions since the event? Which of them have gone out of scope?

  • Are the records of scholarly interest?

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    $\begingroup$ Note that there are headers available in the markup. Don’t try to fake them with an all-bold paragraph — embrace the CSS! $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Nov 24, 2016 at 7:19

Five Minutes?

The interpretation of historical events may become controversial as soon as they happen. Look at the people who do not believe widely accepted facts about the Moon landings, or 9/11, or the Holocaust.

In a medieval world, you have a lack of mobility for both common people and scholars, no mass media due to the lack of printing presses and radio or TV, and widespread illiteracy.

Three Generations?

More seriously, it could be about a century. That would be when the last people die who knew an eyewitness. Do you know anybody who fought in WWII? Does that make it more believable, more immediate than the Napoleonic wars to you?

Is there anybody with an interest in preserving the facts? That could be a king who draws political legitimacy from being the heir of Arthur. And does anybody benefit from muddling this claim?


Is an urban legend not exactly the same modern equivalent? Or fake news?

I find that many people who, when they want to make an argument that supports their own point of view, will find something on the internet that agrees with them and they list it as truth.

So, if you trust me and I tell you that I saw a pig fly and you repeat it to another person, it could take very little time at all. It just take a desire to have something be true. (I saw a religious icon in my grilled cheese sandwich. That statue is bleeding.)

If the thing is true but there is no proof other than a few people claim to have witnessed it, it would be the same, I think.

I doubt that a lack of modern media makes much difference. People believe what they want to for many reasons,and I don't think that aspect of humanity has changed that much. Gossip runs very quickly through a community.


Spartacus did it when he was still alive. "I am Spartacus!" As did Alexander the Great.

In the case of Paul Revere, it took generations, and a poet to do it. Israel Bissel was far more successful. All it takes is someone to write about the legend. That is the key factor.


Potentially a really long time

Legends are separated from history because they are not (entirely) factual. It can be closely tied to history however, such as in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. As time goes on, those who recite the tale may add parts of the story of their own design to better fit their current time and culture. How long you wait simply dictates how less factual the story is.

For example, the Arthurian legend is possibly drawn from Sarmatian tradition in the legend of King Batradz and the Narts. It was thought to have been brought to Britain by an Iazyges or Alani (tribes of Sarmatians) garrison around 175AD. The legend may have also been influenced by Lucius Artorius Castus, a Roman commander who may have led that garrison in Britain. The Sarmatian legend in turn was influenced by proto-Iranian mythology. As the story was passed storytellers over time, each modified it to more closely match their own culture.

  • $\begingroup$ Much of the Sarmatian theory comes from the work, From Scythia to Camelot $\endgroup$
    – Kys
    Commented Nov 23, 2016 at 17:24
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure how your text supports your answer. You say that it potentially could take a really long time for history to become legend, then recount how a legend was made up essentially out of whole cloth. $\endgroup$
    – Werrf
    Commented Nov 23, 2016 at 18:08

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