Kris Kennedy’s medieval historical novel made quite a splash on Twitter, particularly as it was hella-bargain at Books on Board. Jane and others had good things to say about it, and let’s face it – the medieval is not as frequently seen as it used to be.
While emailing with Kennedy last week, I asked her about the historical details that few really want to experience in the course of a narrative, and she was kind enough to write up a list of historical details we rarely see in medieval romances. Bring on the hilarity, and thank you to Kris Kennedy for giving us a behind-the-scenes look at historical research and details we might be better off not seeing in your nearest medieval romance.
There are just some things we don’t see much in historical romances. Not that we don’t need to know those things. We just, generally, don’t want to be thinking about them.
As an author, you’re constantly deciding what to leave out and what to put in. Historically accurate details often get left out for reasons other than ‘yuck’ factor. Storytelling takes precedence. You want to build the world, engage the reader, and propel the story forward. And not make the reader gag. Not gagging is good.
In my debut release last month, The Conqueror, a medieval romance, I was constantly making these decisions. I probably made mistakes , in part because every reader is different in this regard, the degree of realism she prefers. But here are a few of the things we rarely see in a medieval romance, and maybe some of the reasons why.
The Whole ‘Washing’ Issue, or; The Heroine Smells Like Lavender / Orange Blossom / You Pick The Scent
In the middle ages, they did not wash as much as we do. It’s a lot of work to haul water and, in the winter, heat it up. So the hero might have a hard time detecting the heroine’s pretty floral ‘perfume’ amid the general body aromas of the time. A faint, lingering scene of lavender might not measure up to hard-working B.O.
Then again, there were no processed foods, no pesticides/herbicides/antibiotics/etc being ingested by plant or beast, so I suspect the odors were much less . . . well, odoriferous. And those hard-working field hands were not eating much meat which would also make them stink less.
And the medieval person did wash, more than we might assume. You can find pictures in illustrated manuscripts of people bathing, even with little canopies over them. A man and a woman might bathe together, each in his/her own tub, toasting their good fortune in having servants to carry the heated water up the stairs. There were also public baths, a left-over custom from the days when those communal-bathing Romans played with their weapons in the cold, dark north. (Ques: Why *don’t* we see more public bath scenes in medieval romances? :hmmm….plotting ahead…: ) It could become a whole event.
But in the end, after six months, one month, or even a week of hard work and sweat, yeah, someone’s going to smell like . . . themselves. Unique and noticeable. Maybe pungent.
But the hero might not care too much. His heroine would be judged by the times, and everyone else around would have their own odors. He might not be thinking, “Jeez, she’s funny and smart and hot and all, but whoa, does she stink!”
I think we can expand this to almost all hygiene issues: people are judged by the customs of the times. But the contemporary romance reader doesn’t always want to be making those mental value adjustments as she reads. Such as . . . toothbrushing.
We probably won’t often see the heroine picking food out of her teeth with a twig. The villain? Sure. Give him an old stocking. The hero? Hmm…does it move the story forward? No? Ye-a-ah, I think I’ll leave it out. In The Conqueror, there are no toothbrushing scenes. Not a single reference.
‘Course, there isn’t an abundance of toothbrushing scenes in contemps either. But it’s an interesting factoid that I might want to include, but it tends to burn the bridges of identification enough that I leave it out. Don’t want the reader thinking, ‘There’s no WAY I’d let him kiss me.” Kind-of destroys the ‘romance’ piece of a romance.
Dig Your Privacy?
Too bad. In a romance, the hero and heroine usually get a lot of alone time. Their bedchamber is a place of privacy. But that was not always the case. Early on, privacy was considered rude, and even without the social strictures, these were usually cramped quarters, even in castles. Rooms were small—easier to heat—and people got together for almost everything. Often, even nobles had big old beds so that hero, heroine, their children could sleep together.
Hey, you’re thinking, some of us do that now. How true. But how about servants? A few key knights? In the dead of a freezing (literally) winter, that wasn’t uncommon. It could mean the difference between life and death.
Think of the possibilities. Yet I’ve never read a romance with four or five of them in bed together. (:begins more mental plotting:)
And in villages, huts were often shared with the farm animals. More fun. In The Conqueror, for example, there is such a scene, cows and people sharing a home, but it’s definitely not the hero’s house.
Unless you were rich, too bad. Not much of that. The good news is, that’s a good beginning to a heart-healthy diet, all those grains and vegetables. But not raw. Raw vegetables were thought to be bad for the digestive system.
Dig your dog?
Let him sleep with you? Feed him off the table? Sure, why not? Well, then why make him go outside to relieve himself?
They didn’t back then. Thus, those rushes on the floor (and in winter, straw), scattered through with herbs and flowers to alleviate the stench.
And while we’re at it, bring in the horses, and your prized hawk too. Because the lord of the castle was a bird-loving man. (Stop.) I mean a hawk-loving man. And he had a relationship with his hawk. (Stop that.) It was very common to have Hawk with him all the time. On a perch behind his seat (or on his shoulder) at meals. In the bedroom. Wherever. And birds definitely do not get potty-trained.
(Oh, and much as they loved and needed their animals, the average medieval person may not have been able to wrap his mind about the concept of animal shelters, but we sure can. Check out the charity fundraiser hosted by SB and Dear Author in Edith Layton’s memory, to support animal rescue efforts. Now, back to the regularly scheduled history tour.)
If You Were Cold…
Too bad. If you were in Northern Europe/England, we’re talking like, really cold. There was a what’s known as the Little Ice Age smack in the middle of the Middle Ages, but even without that, castle and village life was pretty cold.
Of course, they had really warm blankets. Furs. And rooms were small, to conserve heat. Rugs or tapestries covered the walls and helped a little. And, of course, there would be a lot of people there with you to help spread the heat. But still, it’d be cold. Really cold. Yet we rarely see the heroine performing her morning toiletry by plunging her hands through the layer of ice that’s formed in the water bucket overnight.
If You Were Sick…
Bring on the leeches.
I have never, ever seen a hero in a romance get ‘hung with leeches.’ (That’s what what they called it. Is that not bad enough?) I’ve never seen a romance heroine hung with leeches. It’s probably not going to happen much, at least not on-screen. (SB Sarah: And thank God for that. I’d start thinking about that scene in Stand By Me.)
Body Parts Strewn
Seriously. People would have a lot of missing body parts. Teeth, arms, ears. Malnutrition, battle, tournaments (especially the early ones) and a multitude of bad accidents with various implements of destruction/farming/milling, populated the medieval town or castle with a motley-looking crew. Still, we rarely see our heroes missing arms or eyes. Unless they’re a pirate, of course, with the patch and all.
The Frequent and Varied Uses of Urine
Urine was a very useful agent in the middle ages. It was used for everything from working wool to building plaster. They used it as a cleaning agent and to diagnose illnesses. And it keeps the hands nice and soft! Mmmm.
Not a pretty thing. When privy chambers were inside a castle, there was simply a chute that ran to the outside, and straight down the wall. Some of the refuse might make it into the moat or other defensive ditch surrounding the castle. Some would stick along the way. Even today, centuries later, many castle walls are still stained.
Only villains have these sort of walls.
And then there’s the accoutrements. We have toilet paper. They had . . . straw. Or moss. Or soft leaves. Sometimes in richer homes, there’s been a linen cloth. Or . . . your hand.
Okay, that is so not in my book.
Food was highly colorful and wildly spiced…
Often to disguise the fact that the meat was rancid. Fortunately, if you were a peasant, you wouldn’t be getting much meat.
The Good News:
Drinking ale was good for you.
The medieval person didn’t get a lot of vitamins, particularly A, C, and D, and in general, especially amid the lower classes, they didn’t get a whole lot of calories either. No, this isn’t the good news. The good news is that, as a result, drinking ale fortified you, especially with calories.
Yay, ale! Yay beer! (Fun note: it was called beer after they discovered it was much much better to add hops instead of bark or leaves, about mid-16th century). And this, we do see in romances. A lot of drinking. (Not water, for reasons related to the above, see: The ‘Facilities’.)
And I suppose, in the end, treated water or no, our relationship with wine and beer is something that hasn’t changed very much after all these centuries.
So, what about you? What sort of ‘history’ do you see/want to see/not want to see in your historical romances? Any other interesting historical realities we just don’t see much in a romance?
SB Sarah says: I happen to LOVE the fact that just about every heroine in historical times, whether in the description in the text or portrayed on the cover, has hairless legs. My theory: all the time-travel heroines secretly brought cases of Nair for the historical heroines.
Thanks to Kris for Fun with Rather Revolting History! What are your favorite historical facts that would never make it into romance?