Top Medieval History Facts You Won’t See in Romance

The ConquerorKris 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.

Dig meat?

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. 

The ‘Facilities’

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?



The Link-O-Lator

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Ros says:

    There’s a missing bold tag somewhere in that post…

  2. 2
    Anony Miss says:

    Sarah, I have been searching for AGES for historical information on leg hair removal! The covers don’t bother me so much – because heck, they didn’t have purple eye-shadow back then either, but bring it on on the covers – but why do we never have a scene with the hero running his hands through her hairy calves? WHY? WHY???

  3. 3
    FD says:

    Some of these can be done you know – Elizabeth Chadwick and Sharon Penman both write historical novels that have a fair amount of decidedly authentic detail, including the public washing thing and dealing with facilities, and other odours, and still manage to create decent romances.

  4. 4
    FD says:

    Rats, how’d my post get chopped off like that?

    One of my favourite icky bits is the hanging of clothes in the garderobe to deter moths. *shudder*

  5. 5
    Meghan says:

    Heh, the lack of mention of hair gets me too!  We often hear about how hairy the hero is, but never the heroine.  No one was hairless then, though, as shaving legs/underarms only became popular in the 20th century, so obviously our medieval hero wouldn’t care if his lady had furry legs.

    Most things with regard to smell and hygiene I ignore.  We don’t hear them much in contemporaries because such things are normal to us.  This would be normal to medieval people too.

    I love this post!

  6. 6

    And then there was the siege of Chateau-Gaillard in 1204 where some guys noticed they could get into the latrine drain, so they climbed up through the pee and crap to storm the castle. Yeah, the smell and sight of them would make me surrender. Excellent post, Kris!

  7. 7
    Kim says:

    Thanks, Kris, for taking us through a day in the life of Medieval Times (not as glamorous as the dinner theater).  My husband and I are Anglofiles, so he indulges me in yearly trips to the UK.  I prefer the crumbing castles to the restored manor houses because their eeriness gives me a better perspective on Medieval Life.  Readers and writers should check out the websites for National Trust, English Heritage, National Trust for Scotland, Historic Scotland, and CADW (Wales) for more info on Medieval sites. 

    Thanks, Sarah, for inviting Kris to blog on your site.

  8. 8
    Suzie says:

    The hero in The Key by Lynsay Sands only bath twice a year, in January and July.
    The heroine complained about his B.O whenever the hero tries to seduce her but
    never mentioned about his breath. I kept thinking that if he doesn’t care to take a
    bath or wipe himself, he wouldn’t bother with cleaning his teeth. So, wouldn’t kissing
    the hero be yucky as well?

  9. 9
    Marie Force says:

    Great info, Kris, and very comical. And they say romance writing is such a
    glamorous job! If only they knew! Nice to see you here.

  10. 10
    Ashwinder says:

    Thing with the BO issues was if everyone had the same general level of stink they became inured to it. So even with the less frequent bathing, lack of deodorant, etc. it wouldn’t have been that big a deal between people of the times.

    Also worth noting that the places where public bathing was still in existence became hang-outs for prostitutes, and general lewdness, because there were lots of naked people about. The Church decided this was Very Sinful and turned the notion of bathing into a Bad Thing among the faithful.

    I’ve also seen references to body hair removal. Apparently the Saracens practiced it, and they thought the Europeans who came to the holy land on crusade were barbarians because they were so hairy (among other things—they were also less educated). It would be possible for a knight to come back from crusade having developed a taste for a less hairy female, but would said female want to submit to that sort of thing? Because they didn’t stop with the legs.

  11. 11
    AgTigress says:

    I have pointed this out at various times on various forums, and here I go again.  :-)

    All of us unconsciously filter out sounds, sights and smells that form a constant background to our lives.  Our eyes, ears and noses give us the information, but our brains decide how to interpret it. 
    How many of us who live in cities today are constantly aware of the vile stench of vehicle exhaust fumes?  One might notice it fleetingly when just returned from a holiday somewhere with noticeably pure air, but otherwise, it simply does not register on the 21stC city-dweller, because it is ‘background’.  Same with the noise of motor traffic.
    The same would have been true of the more organic (and less harmful) odours of previous generations.  The personal smells of humans and other animals and of waste and ordure of various kinds would just not have been noticeable.
    Anyone who has spent time in countries and cultures that still have elements in common with earlier generations in Europe and North America (e.g. the widespread use of horses, donkeys and cattle for transport), can testify that at first they notice that life smells different,  but after a few weeks, they cease to notice.  The brain starts to class the smells as ‘background’, and omits them.
    As an historian, I like to see accurate and well-researched detail in historical novels, but in imagining the context of a medieval (or, come to that, an 18th/19th century) way of life, it is perfectly reasonable to omit any general reference to organic odours, for the good reason that the inhabitants of that time and place would not have been consciously aware of them.

    One of Kris’s points that I should like to challenge is this one:  the alleged use of spices and seasonings to disguise the taste of tainted meat.  This is often stated, but I believe it to be completely untrue.  The social classes that would have had to eat poor-quality food certainly could not afford imported spices, which were very, very expensive status symbols.  The social classes that could afford them were in a position to ensure that their basic foodstuffs were fresh.

  12. 12
    Charlene says:

    “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. “

    I’m sorry, but this is pseudoscientific quackery and total nonsense verging on a malicious, dangerous lie.

    Processed foods do not automatically make you smell worse, and neither do additives. The pesticides, herbicides, and antibiotics in food are in such tiny, minuscule amounts that they have no effect on body odors. If anything, the preservatives in food make life less smelly because they stop food from rotting before it’s eaten. They also make it less likely that people will get sick and die from eating preserved foods, something often forgotten by the pampered who take sanitation for granted.

    And processing does not instantly turn food into artificial, unnatural frankenfood any more than cooking it does. (In fact, cooking is a form of processing.) This is a dirty lie spread by corporations who sell overpriced “natural” food and quack medicines to the gullible. Processing in and of itself is value-neutral; processing cheese, for instance, just makes it smoother and easier to melt. It’s when processing uses too much fat or starch that the food becomes less safe to eat in large amounts, but only because it contains more calories than the base food would otherwise have contained.

    And washing wasn’t just considered wrong because of the connection of prostitutes with bathhouses; it was also considered dangerous, and rightly so. Swallow a mouthful of that wonderful cleansing bathwater and expect to be very sick in a week from cholera, typhoid, or dysentery.

    I suppose my pet peeve is when people think that modern innovations like food processing, preservation, and immunizations are somehow dangerous because they’ve been led to believe that the good old days were safer and healthier than they were.

  13. 13
    Barbara says:

    Thank you AgTigress!

    I was just going to mention that…. After Maggie Ostrand’s head-desking use of “history” for her humor column at HuffPo last week, I was wondering what was going on in the Zeitgeist this month.

    Here’s a great source on myths in medieval cooking:

  14. 14

    Not a romance, per se, but the film The Lion in Winter (the Peter O’Toole/Katherine Hepburn one; I haven’t seen the more recent version) includes a lot of these details.  Henry breaks ice to get to his wash water in the morning, and there are dogs everywhere, and it really shows that in the medieval period, even kingship was pretty grubby by our modern standards.

    Plus it’s a fan-freaking-fabulous movie.  Brilliant script, and amazing performances all around.

  15. 15
    shaunee says:

    Check out “Knight Errant” by R. Garcia y Robertson.  A War of the Roses trilogy featuring a Hollywood producer who is very very new to witchcraft and ends up back in time and hooking up with an eighteen year old Edward Plantagenet.  And what with Robertson being a history prof somewhere out in the Pacific North West, it’s filled with lots of excellent details.  Fleas for example.  And teeth and the food.  Totally appalling.  Good stuff.

    Reviews are mixed.  Romance is not the main thrust (sorry) of this tale, adventure is and so is all the serious political unrest of 15th century England, but I really liked it.  Robertson really did his homework about Wicca, natural magic and their historical/religious antecedents as well as England.  All that stuff really pops off the page.

    The heroine has an engaging go-with-the-flow attitude, which makes the reader treat the yuck she experiences like the worst car crash you’ve ever seen—you just can’t look away.

    Great post!

  16. 16

    I should also quote Eleanor’s speech in The Lion in Winter, about the great beauty of Rosamund: “Her eyes in certain light were violet, and all her teeth were even. That’s a rare, fair feature: even teeth. She smiled to excess, but she chewed with real distinction. “

  17. 17

    One of my favorite scenes in a Roberta Gellis medieval is when the heroine is using a fine-toothed comb to delouse her husband.  Authentic and loving.

    I agree with everyone else who mentioned the BO issue (“Bring on da funk!”), and it’s one of the things that bothers me the most in historicals—when the author makes a point of how clean and shiny the heroine is.  Your nose filters those scents that are “normal” to your environment.  If not, our senses would overload and we wouldn’t be able to spot the alarming scents we need to spot, like gangrenous flesh or the smell of a wild animal.  Just as some of us are more sensitized to the smell of animal manure than someone who lives on a farm or ranch, medieval types would have had to be truly rank—or ill—for someone to notice the smell.

  18. 18
    dani says:

    i love medieval romances, but i haven’t read many of them because i can’t seem to find them :(  i’ve got For My Lady’s Heart open in front of me now, yet again (privy! garderobe!), and while i can’t smell anything, the sights and sounds are vivid and that’s what matters to me.  i’m really not interested in hygiene practices.  in fact, i find them jarring, especially in the novels i’ve read where the hero and heroine bathe in every chapter.  there’s no reason to go there unless they’ve had some adventure that involves mud or excrement.  i can enjoy a novel where there’s no mention of bathing just as much as one that insists the heroine smells like jasmine the hero smells like sandalwood if the story is good, if it’s intriguing and the characters are engaging.

  19. 19
    Diatryma says:

    I am tired of two-child families.  Not that they didn’t exist, just that probably more of them started as six- or seven-child families.  And childbirth!  With the dying!

  20. 20
    SB Sarah says:

    Maybe this is why the hero notices the heroine’s fresh clean lemony-ginger-sage-lavender-rosewater-Swiss-cheese scent? Because she smells so clean it’s… weird?

    Perhaps this should have been a feature in more of the time travel romances that were so popular in years back.

    *sniff sniff*
    “Forsooth! Aye! Avast! What is that absolutely bizarre smell?”
    “Dinnae tell me a Sassenach lass hath dipped herself in the urine of a musk ox!”
    *sniffff sniff sniffly sniff sniff*
    “Ach! Me eyes are waterin’ like I was a green lad gazing upon his first sight of a fair, rosy bosom, only one that doesn’t smell a thing like actual roses.”
    “What in the name of Christ is that smell?!”
    “Calvin Klein! Like, DUH!”

  21. 21
    Maili says:

    Thank you, AgTigress. I was going to jump in to challenge the meat/spices mention, but you got there first.

    I think the worst ‘facts’ list I have seen is “Life in the 1500s”. It’s such a joke that I still can’t believe some believed the list. I feel sorry for Medieval historians sometimes. :D Let me find the list as I think some here would like to read it. 

    Found it. Someone’s kind enough to debunk each on the list, too. Yay!  Life in the 1500s.

  22. 22

    Hi Kris,

    Great post, and lots of fun!  Along the lines of missing body parts are health issues, in general.  Heroes and heroines rarely are scarred from the pox, or suffer the ailments that would have dogged them on a regular basis.  The one that really springs to mind for me is the good, old-fashioned bladder infection.  Now, we know how much those manly heroes like to claim their heroines from, er, behind.  Often in fairly unsanitary conditons.  Can you imagine how many bladder infections those poor women must have had?  Yikes!  I only hope they knew about cranberry juice.

    As for the odors in general, I’m going to have to be a bit indelicate.  I know that when I eat meat (and I notice it with my husband), my body odor is stronger the next day.  The same thing happens when I take antibiotics.  My perspiration smells different.  The skin is the largest organ in our body, and it helps to process out what goes in.  So it makes sense to me that people in different time periods probably smelled differently than they do now – washing aside.  That’s neither good nor bad, just different.

    You know, I read historical romance for the emotion, the love story, the adventure, the triumph of good over evil, of the ability of courage and determination to overcome the challenges that separate the hero and heroine.  I want the history to be accurate and evoke the period, but I’m not reading it as historical fiction.  I’m not interested in smells or missing body parts, unless they serve the story or setting.

  23. 23
    Elizabeth Wadsworth says:

    Re the “tainted meat” medieval urban legend:  there were extremely strict laws against selling spoiled meat or other foods, and very nasty punishments meted (hah!) out to those who broke them.

    One book I can think of that mentions the lice and fleas is a YA titled Catherine Called Birdy (forget the author’s name.)

    And second the shout-out to Sharon Kay Penman, who writes very detailed, meticulously researched medieval historicals.  I really wouldn’t consider her a romance author; though she does include the occasional love scene, you won’t find any HEAs in her books.  She writes about the lives of actual historical figures, most of whom came to unpleasant ends.

  24. 24
    Jane O says:

    Thank you AgTigress. That bothered me too. Also, there were times and places when everything was going well and meat was more generally available so that even the peasants got their sausages. It didn’t balance out the hungry times, but there were good moments at the table.

    The point about the cold is a good one. Indeed, before the advent of central heating, everyone was cold in the winter. The rich may have been less cold than the poor, but they weren’t warm. Anyone who has ever lived through a winter power outage and tried to heat the house (or even just a room) with a fire in the fireplace knows whereof I speak.

  25. 25

    I visited an old castle in Ireland a few years back and got a detailed “life in the castle” lecture from the tour guide.


    One thing they certainly don’t mention in romance novels is how short-lived these people were. Half the children died before the age of five and an adult who lived to the ripe old age of 40 probably counted himself lucky.

    Not something I want to think about after the happily-ever-after.

  26. 26
    Kris Kennedy says:

    Anony Miss~
      You know, I DID have a section about hairy legs.  Then I pulled it, as I was trying to cut space.  But you’re right!  Smooth silky skin might be something a romance hero notices, but I’m not too sure it’s an accurate.

      Then again, an author-friend Kim Killion was reminding me that women have been getting wax jobs for thousands of years, so there’s the flip side, too.  Not sure they were doing their legs tho.  :-)

    I don’t think I know about clothes in the garderobe to deter…moths. Tell me more!

  27. 27
    Willa says:

    Re processed foods: I generally see the term used to refer to a food object that has been refined a great deal, not necessarily any food that has been modified from its natural state, such as a cooked veggie. Following that, if “In Defense of Food” by Michael Pollan is anything to go by, usually the reason something edible lasts a really long time is that the parts of it that are “alive” and therefore nutritious have been taken out, which leaves the edible thing not so nutritious or useful. Grocery-store bread, highly processed, has had the living part of the wheat stripped from it, which is why those horrid unprocessed-food-advocating liars warn against it so much: all of the nutritional value has then been artificially added back in, apparently inefficiently.

    Whether that makes us smellier or not I don’t know.

  28. 28
    earthgirl says:

    I have one nitpick, as a paleoclimatologist—the Little Ice Age didn’t start until the 1600s. Before that, in the period we’d commonly call the Middle Ages, was the Medieval Warming Period, from 800 to 1300. That’s why they were able to grow grapes in England and the Vikings colonized Greenland—it was a lot easier to farm at higher latitudes then!

  29. 29
    Brandi says:

    Regarding the use of spices in medieval cookery: others have already pointed out that it wasn’t about concealing rancid food, but I recommend checking out the book Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants for a look at the use of seasonings as status symbols, among other things. (It’s a very good read.)

  30. 30
    Theresa says:

    In the 1500-1700s, Edinburgh was one of the most densely populated cities in the world.  Because of the city wall, they built up (6-7 stories) with very narrow pedestrian walkways (closes).  And of course, no sewers or plumbing or other sanitation.  So what did they do?  Toss the slop out the window with a cry of “Guardie Loo!” into the closes, where it would hopefully wash down to the Nor Loch (now Princes Street Gardens).

    And of course, when the plague came through, they boarded or bricked up entryways where the infected were located until the plague passed.

Comments are closed.

↑ Back to Top