Medieval Underpants? Really? by Peg Herring

Posted by on Aug 5, 2013 in Historical Research, Historical Tidbits | 9 comments

 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

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

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


  1. Aw, thanks for the plug, Peg!

    It’s just so darn easy to get historical details wrong. While I wouldn’t give someone in 1793 chocolate candy (didn’t exist until 1820s), I did once mention a few food items and wines that I had pulled right out of a Paris restaurant/cafe guide, with menus, printed in 1815. Which probably would have gotten past everyone except the historian who read the ms and pointed out, nicely, that most of the imported wines I mentioned wouldn’t have been available in Paris in 1793 because France was at war and the ports were blockaded. It’s just that easy to get stuff wrong. What I strive for is to get wrong (if I must…) only the details that it would take a highly specialized professional historian to recognize as wrong–not the general history buff. But it’s inexcusable to know less about your subject and your details than your average well-read reader does.

  2. What a great post. I especially agree with your comments that not all were downtrodden and thought alike – people have always been people, and no thought is a new thought. Though keeping quiet was certainly the best way to stay alive and not be tortured or burnt at the stake.
    Fun, smart post!

  3. Peg Herring and Susanne Alleyn, you are both absolutely right. There are many people who make a hobby out of picking faults with a writer’s work, and I suppose they do provide a service. But it is far better to check one’s research before, not after, the book goes out. Once it is published it really is game over for revisions, and the damage is done. In short, it’s just lazy writing.
    And may I make another point, Peg? Just read again your last paragraph from my point of view. Spotted it yet? Correct! Don’t assume that all writers of historical fiction are women. It’s not fair on the boys!

  4. Fun post, Peg. Yeah, I wonder whether people 100 years from now will think that everyone age 14 – 30 during the 1960s was a hippie who went to Woodstock and tripped out on acid. Focus too heavily on period music and magazines, and you wonder how we survived as a race. But hippie culture wasn’t representative of Earth culture in the 1960s.

  5. Great post – and a subject close to my heart. It’s amazing how many details you need to write a historical novel, and how much research it takes to ensure they’re spot-on. I’ve actually changed plot points because research couldn’t document whether the details I wanted to include were accurate or not, and I’d rather shift the scene than make it up unless I can document with a fairly high degree of certainty that things would have looked (and people would have behaved) in the way I’ve planned it.

  6. Love the post, Peg and also loved reading MEDIEVAL UNDERPANTS–great book, Susanne!

    As much as I abhor poorly-researched books, the opposite situation is often as off-putting. Just because massive amounts of research have taken hours/days/weeks of an author’s time, not every piece of minutiae needs to be dumped into a book simply to prove the writer did the research.

    Suzanne mentioned the 1960s (the decade before my own teen years) and as odd as that decade may seem a century from now, my greater fear is what our descendants will learn from our texts and tweets. Will our “written” English be as strange to them as reading Chaucer’s English is to us? And will folks in 2113 even know how to read cursive at all (it is no longer being taught in many schools here in the South)? But I digress…

  7. I hugely enjoyed Medieval Underpants and I maintain that every aspiring HF author (and many professionals) should have a copy on his/her bookshelf. By the way, Shakespeare’s research was faultless: the Car Park skeleton identified as Richard III was really a hunchback.

  8. These are excellent posts, long overdue. I thought I had all the bases covered in my novel ‘Talisman’, which depicted life during the California goldrush of the 1850s until a history buff friend read it and pointed out all the errors. Fortunately I was able to locate diaries of folks that lived during this era. It is worth the research time spent in order to get it right.

  9. Fun post, Peg! I’m lucky in that I only have to go back a hundred years or so, but even then, it’s easy to make mistakes. For instance, I didn’t know until too late the “Hello” was a word created specifically for telephone use. Therefore, anyone using it in the 1880s would have been WAY before his/her time! Love this stuff!