Readers bring expectations to historical fiction and resist when the expectations aren’t met. What’s a writer to do when popular preconceptions don’t match the facts?
Misconceptions about medieval culture abound. The earth was flat, science was stalled, all medicine was superstition, witch burnings were common, sex wasn’t mentioned, orgasms were only for men, and peasants routinely starved. Here are a few I’ve met as a writer:
Age. Readers question the plausibility of characters older than thirty-five or forty, or unmarried women over twenty (other than nuns). Averages are not limits. Life expectancy was low for newborns, but if you survived childhood and childbirth, you were likely to live into your sixties or seventies. One scholar puts medieval average age of first marriage at 17 in Italy, 16 in France, and 18 in England and Germany. Some wed much younger and others waited until their twenties.
Filth. Everyone knows that people bathed once a year and everyone stank. Wrong. Most medieval towns had communal bathhouses, diners washed hands in a basin before and after eating (important if you eat with your fingers!), and soap-making was a major industry.
Vocabulary. This one’s complicated because we don’t write in Middle English. But some readers insist that medieval folk spoke stiffly and formally, never used contractions, and never addressed friends or lovers by given name. Everyday life wasn’t like that. The seemingly modern words puke and booze go back at least to Shakespeare. Contractions were plentiful. Given names existed before surnames and stayed in common use. Ordinary speech was often playful, humorous, and cheeky.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.