Did you ever imagine yourself living in the Middle Ages, in a drafty, magnificent castle with unicorn tapestries on the walls? My childhood playmates and I weighed the glories of that life against the lack of modern medicine or plumbing. We always pictured ourselves as princesses, never as scullery maids.
My friend Tom in college Latin class said he’d rather be learning medieval pronunciation than classical, just in case he woke up in a medieval monastery. I advised him to drop Latin and study Old Norse, as he was just as likely to wake up a prisoner on a Viking warship.
Maybe it’s the contrarian in me, but it’s struck me that we imagine past lives of fame or privilege or adventure more often than lives that are nasty, brutish, and short. You’re more likely to have been a serf than a castle dweller. I rarely see historical fiction about the lives of serfs. Is it because they were too dull to contemplate, or because they were so alien that our imaginations can’t stretch that far?
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.