JaneDrew, recent winner of Barb Ferrer’s Name That Character contest, is a grad student in medieval/early modern European history, and, as she says, “yes, that DOES make reading historical romances as difficult as it sounds….”
How difficult, I asked? What are you top most egregious historical inaccuracies?
The reply was so funny I had to share with you. Enjoy!
Jane Drew says:
Oh, boy… horror stories of historical inaccuracy… tricky question; I actually haven’t even tried to read a medieval romance in years; too many attempts to slog through the morass of shiny knights, distressed damsels, oversexed Saxons, and brawny Highland-types with excessively large.. err.. sporrans.
The main problem is that the vast majority of medieval or Renaissance romance are the Middle Ages filtered through nineteenth century Romanticism (which is basically the actual Middle Ages shorn of all the naughty bits and dredged in sparkles). So I’ve kind of blocked it all out by sheer force of will, selective amnesia, and the occasional blunt object (of course, now my roommate wants me to start reading them. And blogging about it. But that’s only because she’s evil).
Things that stick in my memory and won’t. go. away. … well, I remember one book where the heroine was the only daughter in a family of boys, and her family was feuding with the family next door, so she basically spent her time running around disguised as a boy, so that nobody would know that she was actually a girl (and thus kidnappable, weddable, beddable, etc.)… except that the hero, who was the oldest son of the family her family was feuding with, sees her in the woods during a skirmish, and immediately knows she’s a girl (and, as I recall, is baffled that the rest of his family is too dumb to have figured this out). So, of course, she gets carried off and married off, and is understandably not happy about any of it. Except that then she falls in love with her husband, and decides to go to the standard crazy old witch-type to get a love potion so that he’ll fall in love with her. And she gets dressed up for the Special Dinner of Potion-Giving… in a cloth-of-gold dress, the theme of which is MY CLEAVAGE LET ME SHOW YOU IT… which… just… no. I think hero-boy dumps the “potionâ€ out, but she thinks he’s taken it (because he starts rhapsodizing about the aforementioned cleavage.. the word “melonsâ€ is used… it’s all very unfortunate), and then freaks out due to her guilt at forcing him to love her. Cue explanation that he didn’t take the potion, and then they.. um…. get on with the naked, I think. I just remember the dress and the fake potion.
Another scene that will not die is from Knight in Shining Armor by Jude Deveraux.. umm. Modern woman gets dumped by horrible boyfriend; her crying calls Elizabethan knight who is about to be executed for treason into the present; he runs around and tries to deal with modern life for a bit, then goes back into the past; she figures out a way to follow him back to before he was arrested, etc.,.. except of course he doesn’t remember her. So she tries to prevent the things that lead to his being executed the first time around (that part was actually interesting). Except that she’s also the sort of modern woman whose reaction to being dumped in the past is “I am modern, enlightened woman and can thus rip my _own_ bodice! *rip!*â€… so she gets the stableboys to rig up a primitive shower. In the garden. And she uses it. Every. Single. Morning. And _does not care_ that her object of affection AND THE ENTIRE MALE POPULATION OF THE CASTLE all know. And most of them find reasons to be wandering about the garden in the morning. And the hero doesn’t care that she’s getting naked in public either.
The most recent brain-searing experience was actually last spring; I was teaching Renaissance Europe, and decided (silly me) to use the film Dangerous Beauty in classâ€”a friend of mine had used it (and she warned me; yes, she did…), and I had good historical documents to pair with it. Veronica Francoâ€”the real Veronica Francoâ€”was a Venetian courtesan, very famous; wrote wicked poetry and arguments in favor of a women’s right to have an education, was actually tried for witchcraft at one point… so, really, very cool person, historically. The film Veronica Franco… yeah… so… ok, Veronica Franco became a courtesan after having been married, had two kids, got divorced. And they turned her into the Gawky Smart Well-Read Virgin who was hopelessly in love with her best friend’s brother, who she of course couldn’t marry due to finances/social politics. Cue her mother dramatically saying that Veronica can still have him.. she can become.. a Courtesan!!! So the whole thing is framed around this Hollywood-style star-crossed romance. Including the witch trial, which involves her defending herself by arguing that she’s a lovestruck woman who sleeps around due to being in love with love, and it is her mad sexxoring skillz that bring the boys to the yard, rather than evil witchery.. which is.. umm.. so much better? (medieval romances love to inflict witch trials on the spunky heroines… or have witches who are crazy old potion-making bats… or witches who are misunderstood proto-feminist wise women… and yet, do the medieval romance witches ever run around stealing men’s penises and hiding them in nests in the woods? No, they do not.. which just proves that romance novel authors have never read the “Malleus Maleficarumâ€. Heh.)
Now, all of this would have been _fine_ if I’d been watching it at home with friends. Well, possibly not “fine,â€ because, dear Lord, they had every upper-class man in Venice stand up to admit that he’d slept with Veronica and _everybody was ok with this_, and the Inquisition folks just said, “Dang, you Venetians are way oversexed, but whatever, we do not care and will go back to Rome, la, la, la…â€
I, however, was showing this to my class. Of which I was the teacher. And thus responsible for order, decorum, and not snarking the hell out of something I wanted them to write a paper about. EVEN the part where Veronica’s mother, after announcing that Veronica shall become a courtesan just as (dramatic pause) she herself had been before, subjects her daughter to a compilation of every bad sports movie/Ugly Duckling story training/prettification montage as Veronica gets her hair done, learns to dress in an elegantly slutty fashion, works on her posture, and endures lectures from her mother on sensual eating (neeeeeehver eating a banana again, ever).
…Although it was almost all worth it for tbe bit where Veronica’s mother brings her into a room with a naked man and proceeds to demonstrate the, err, functioning of the male anatomy. To which Veronica reacts with an expression of, “Wow! Can it do any other tricks?â€
As I said to JaneDrew, I have to confess that I love Dangerous Beauty because it’s so visually beautiful, even if it’s historically nutty.
It fascinates me the way that romance readers can easily – myself included! – participate in selective amnesia about some things, like the disease free hero who has sexed half of London, or the medieval heroine who dresses like a boy and frolics in the woods, and enjoy the historical romance escape.
Meanwhile, there are other historical anachronisms, like the Viscount who marries the courtesan and lives happily ever after (except what about the social ostracizing of their children who are deemed unacceptable because their mama’s a ho?) that some readers – again myself included – can’t overlook long enough to suspend reality and enjoy the drama. We all have different historical inaccuracy buttons, probably based on the areas we know the least about. It never occurred to me to find the shower in Knight in Shining Armor completely over the top, though the giving-his-mama Benadryl scene made me wonder why mama didn’t freak out at the witch’s pills and have her burned alive immediately.
I’m so curious why some authorial liberties with historical accuracy don’t bug some folks in the least while it makes others want to pull their hair straight. But either way, I LOVE hearing what drives some folks bananas about historical liberties, because, well, it’s freaking hilarious.