2013; 242 pages. Full Title : Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders : A Writer’s Guide To Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Common Anachronisms, Errors, and Myths [Second Edition]. New Author? : Yes. Genre : Non-Fiction; Research Guide. Overall Rating : 9*/10.
Mrs. Julius Caesar wiped the crumbs from her toga, speared the last cherry tomato with her fork, waved the utensil at her husband, and said, “Jules, darling. You really need to do something about those hookers on our street. They're a bad influence for Dominique and Maria.”
Gaius Julius Caesar pushed back his plate of Caesar salad (his own invention), took out a cigar rolled from the finest Tuscan tobacco, and paused before replying.
“Don’t get your panties in a ruffle, my dear. Our two daughters don’t even notice the streetwalkers. They are totally focused on their latest ‘cause’ - Women’s Suffrage.”
What’s To Like...
If you’d rather listen to fingernails on a chalkboard than read the above vignette again; then you are undoubtedly a reader of Historical Fiction, and a stickler for accuracy. I crammed enough howlers (13 or so) into those three paragraphs to annoy anyone who prefers their settings historically realistic. And you will probably also enjoy Susanne Alleyn’s captivating book (and hereafter abbreviated simply as :) Medieval Underpants.
The book is intended to be a handy reference for aspiring Historical Fiction writers. I do not fall into that category (I’m a reader, not a writer), but I am a history buff, so this was a thoroughly captivating read for me. It is by no means a comprehensive treatise on historical oopsies, but it wasn’t meant to be. I felt it was the optimum reading length for the subject.
The writing style is “Sarah Vowell-ish”; witty and interesting, but still fact-filled and thought-provoking. The author cites the bloopers in a number of works by other writers, including one of my faves, Anne Perry. This might come off as borderline snarky, but Alleyn also points out errors in her own works, including the first edition of Medieval Underpants.
I liked the Kindle version structuring of the book. There’s a Table of Contents at the beginning, with links to each chapter. There are also links for every note in each chapter, then a link from that note back to the point where you stopped in that chapter. You don’t have that kind of convenience in a regular book.
The highlight topic is, naturally, the chapter on Medieval underwear. My other favorite topics were Servants, Lighting, Hygiene, and Death-&-Burial. Your high spots may well be different.
Kewlest New Word. . .
Prochronism (n.) : A chronological error in which a person, event, etc., is assigned a date earlier than the actual one.
Recall the plot of A Tale of Two Cities: Sydney Carton, determined to saves Charles Darnay from the guillotine, goes to the apothecary’s shop and buys a mysterious substance with which he’ll drug Charles into unconsciousness. (We won’t even go into the original big honking anachronism in the novel that many literary critics have pointed out over the decades, that Mr. Dickens, in a story set in the 1780s/90s, was clearly referring to chloroform – which wasn’t discovered until the 1830s and wasn’t commonly used until the 1850s. Once again, Do Not Borrow Your Period Information From Other People’s Historical Novels and Movies, not even Great Literary Classics.) (loc. 1586)
Bathing, in the Dark Ages, was too closely linked in people’s memories with that decadent pagan Roman society that had once persecuted good Christians; fanatical Christians believed that dirt and illness, like everything else, were all God’s creations, and those who impiously tried to remove the grime that had collected on their bodies (let alone practiced medicine!) were therefore deliberately going against God’s will; and they also believed that “mortification of the body” – denying oneself fleshly pleasures like cleanliness and smelling nice – was good for the soul. (loc. 2315)
I bought Medieval Underpants for $4.98 at Amazon. Susanne Alleyn has 14 other books available for the Kindle, ranging from $0.99 to $7.59. They are of various genres (including Historical Fiction), sometimes have co-authors, and range in length from Novellas to full-sized Novels.
Oui, mon dieu, c’est un blague, n’est-pas? (sic, sic, sic, etc.) (loc. 620)
The quibbles are minor. I don’t recall the book mentioning anything being said about candles back in Roman times (there weren’t any). And I think every reader would love a chapter on “cusswords through the ages”. But perhaps such vocabulary has been lost in the mists of time.
The two chapters on Money and Aristocratic Titles were a bit of a slog for me. But any writer planning to be the next Jane Austen would find them to be indispensable.
I was motivated to buy this book after recently reading a novel set in 2nd-century Roman-occupied Britain (reviewed here), and which contained a bunch of historical boo-boos. I still enjoyed that book; it was a delight to read. But oh, how those gaffes got under my skin. Historical Fiction is so much more rewarding when everything in it feels "real”.
9 Stars. Highly recommended. The book delivers what the title promises. Add ½-star if you know who Sarah Vowell is and enjoy her books as well.