MEDIEVAL UNDERPANTS AND OTHER BLUNDERS by Susanne Alleyn, one of our Historical Fiction Cooperative authors, is designed to do two things–make writers of historical fiction aware of the pitfalls of the genre and help them avoid some of the worst of them. Here’s the link in case you’re interested.
It’s a great little book, the kind of thing one wishes she’d read before beginning, and it got me thinking: why do so many authors and movie directors and such make awful mistakes when presenting history?
Well, sometimes they just don’t care. There are those who are in such a rush to write a story that they can’t be bothered to do research. They think they know the details, and they write what they “know.” I learned with my first book, MACBETH’S NIECE, that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did about Scotland in 1050 A.D. Details make a story, and I found myself repeatedly returning to research sources to find out what flowers Tessa might have seen on her trip to Macbeth’s castle, what she would have worn, how she would have traveled, and what she would have eaten. I would never claim I got it 100% right, but I worked at it. I’ve read authors who blithely mention chocolate or rifles or cigars long before their times, and of course, there are the infamous kilts in BRAVEHEART. For some, what they want in the story goes in, real or not.
Other times, we don’t know. The question of Richard the Lionheart’s sexuality is a good example. He spoke of loving other men. He married but pretty much ignored his lovely wife Berengaria. He was close to his minstrel Blondel. Does that mean he was gay? We don’t know. Some novels present him as such, while others portray him as a warrior too busy fighting to have time for his queen.
Some are misled by history itself, which is written by the victors (those who can write). Original sources often had an agenda, which modern authors must be aware of. Priests wanted to teach moral lessons and tie people to the church. Functionaries wanted to glorify their betters and gain approval. Playwrights like Shakespeare had to have sponsors, so (like many research labs of today) their output was designed to please the men with the money. A well-known example is Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard III as an evil hunchback when the man was very likely neither evil nor visibly hunch-backed.
Some generalize based on a few examples. Like our teenaged children, we have a tendency to say that “everyone” believed or did something because of one or two references to it in history. Does everyone in America today go clubbing every weekend? If you only had ET as a source, you might think so.
Some can’t imagine that people have always been people. We hear of down-trodden women and stupid peasants of other times, and there’s certainly evidence that the lifestyles of the past, with their rigid social structure and physically demanding, boringly repetitive tasks, would have kept a lot of people from thinking lofty thoughts. Still, the human spirit soars in people in every generation, and an individual might question the values of his age in his own mind, even if he doesn’t act on those questions. The hero of my Simon and Elizabeth Mysteries (see HER HIGHNESS’ FIRST MURDER) often wonders why things are as they are, but he knows better than to try to change it.
A writer of historical fiction should begin with a wide knowledge of the period she’s writing about. She will weave her story into that tapestry, anchoring her characters in their age but recognizing their individual differences. Then she’d better check every single detail to make sure it’s accurate because–in case you didn’t know–there weren’t any medieval underpants-boxers or briefs.
Peg Herring, August 5, 2013