Susanne Alleyn: Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders

If you write historical fiction, you need Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders, Susanne Alleyn’s “Writer’s (& Editor’s) Guide to Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Common Anachronisms, Errors, & Myths.” If you read historical fiction, if you’re a history buff, you will enjoy this voyage into everything that goes wrong in writing about the past.

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medieval-underpantsUnder General Rule #1, Never Assume, Alleyn discusses underwear, geography, dialog and slang, British vs American English, foreign phrases, what Alleyn calls “presentism,” that is, inserting modern attitudes into historical situations, first names, and introductions.

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Why didn’t most women wear underpants until fairly recently? What do the modern British mean by “pants”? Why doesn’t fall follow summer in Britain? What’s the difference between “arse” and “ass”? When should your characters call each other by their first names? Who should be presented to whom, and why?

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General Rule #2, Wikipedia Is Your Friend, gives a starting point for basic research on food, plants, and animals (Old World vs New World), names (all the way back to ancient Rome), and guns.

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Where did dandelions come from, and when, and why? What plants and animals had Europeans never seen before the sixteenth century, and when did they make their way into widespread use? What does anybody mean by “corn”? What plants and animals had pre-contact American Indians never seen? What’s the difference between a pistol and a revolver? Between a musket and a rifle?

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Under General Rule #3, Do Not Borrow Your Period Details & Information From Other People’s Historical Novels and Movies, Alleyn discusses unnamed novels, Braveheart (Wallace never wore a kilt, and as for that French princess, forget her), several versions of A Tale of Two Cities (even Dickens flubbed a few details when he wrote historical fiction), money, English aristocratic and royal titles (with examples from Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey’s family and Downton Abbey,), lighting, and travel (historically very slow).

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What was money really worth, and what would a sou buy? How many farthings made a penny? How many shillings made a crown? A pound? A guinea? What’s the difference between John, Lord Throckmorton and Lord John Throckmorton? Between a marquess and a marquis? Why is an earl’s wife a countess?

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General Rule #4 is Don’t Just Swallow the Propaganda, Cliches, and Myths. The English and French versions of the French Revolution (Alleyn’s specialty) were very different. This section also includes hygiene and cleanliness, table manners, physical stature, teeth, servants and housekeeping, cafes and coffeehouses, doorknobs, glass and pottery, paper, pens, and pencils, restaurants, rubber and elastic, stirrups, telephones, window screens, and finally death and burial.

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Why did Renaissance doctors discourage bathing? What was the etiquette of eating with one’s fingers, and when did forks come into use? How tall was Napoleon, really? Why were servants more necessity than luxury, and why was being a servant a good job? What’s the difference between a house maid and a parlor maid? How did execution by guillotine proceed? What was life really like in the first half of the twentieth century? When was the fountain pen invented?

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Alleyn includes a final section on research, with several pages of references, broken into time periods, covering ancient times to 1950.

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Even if you are writing about a time and place far removed from Alleyn’s specifics (mostly France, England and North America), her topics and information will give you insight into the details you should be researching rather than assuming. Even if you are building your own world of fantasy or the future, these are details you need to consider.

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And if you are reading the book for entertainment, there is so much interesting material here, and more than a few mysteries solved.

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