Okay, I confess this is a phoned in post, mostly in the hopes of amusing you. I’m not ragging on indie (scarily some of these weren’t even indie) or even on “writers who don’t do research.” It’s more that in countries with universal public education, books available everywhere and more than a few historical movies (which are crap on the details, but not THAT bad in general) it’s amazing how little people understand of the way people lived just, say 100 years ago. Or 200. Which is not that far. Look, my grandmother remembered stories from her grandmother, and right there we’re at about 150 years. Granted these stories became complete hodge podges in my head, and I suspect grandma’s. I think the Napoleonic wars were mixed up with the civil war, which in turn was mixed up with the deposition of the king. But still. Enough came through I knew people lived very differently. Even if as a kid I had real trouble picturing doing dishes without detergent. And btw, having a regency maid washing dishes with detergent would be a MINOR violation for the stuff I keep running across.
Now, you’ll say, why does that matter? Well, because without an understanding, at least on general lines, of history, people will believe crazy things, like roads are the result of socialism. Or your only alternative to communism is absolute monarchy. Or it’s the increasing erosion of individual rights that brings about technology. Or China is a successful state and people live well there. Or that our times are the most difficult and fraught ever.
That’s the real side of this post and “OMG, how idiotic has our teaching got?” and a wake up call for parents to try to give their kids a sense of what came before.
Now for the funny side.
When I first started making covers and my tools were limited, I subscribed to two or three stock photo sites, and mostly used the thing as was (you can still see it in the covers of Ill Met by Moonlight, etc.)
One thing I figured out very quickly: most of the people posting on these sites — who granted aren’t Americans. Most of them seem to be some variety of Eastern European — have no idea of history. There is present day and then there is “middle ages.”
The middle ages searches will kick up dragons, witches, sorcerers and elves. The illustration above came from a pixabay search for Middle ages.
Worse, the Middle Ages search will kick up everything THROUGH THE NINETEENTH CENTURY.
Now maybe that’s just me who stares at these things in open-mouthed wonder, but what the heck.
As some of you know I’ve spent the last month or so, since things were busy and often weird, without the spoons to give reading “seriously.” For a great part of it I read mostly Jane Austen fanfic, but then eased into other historical mysteries and such.
As part of this let me give some errors in no particular order:
- No matter how much your teachers told us that “peasants” were mistreated by “noblemen: there is no way that at any time since at least the high middle ages, in England, a nobleman could kill a peasant for no reason in full view of other people and suffer nothing. Even in times of high lawlessness, at the very least he’d lose reputation. More likely, he’d come under the purview of the law.
In other times and places this might be honored more in the breach, and even in England people might not necessarily pay for the crime. There have always been corrupt lawmen and ways of evading the law if you’re rich and powerful enough (which is the whole point of noir mysteries) but it wouldn’t be “no one cares”. Not in any Christian country, unless in the middle of a civil war or similar.
Making this the centerpiece of your (trad pub, incidentally) mystery makes me want to scream. Or laugh. Or both.
Peasants are not serfs, are not slaves. If you don’t learn the difference, you should stick to present day.
- Duchesses didn’t do their own shopping. No, seriously, repeat after me. Duchesses didn’t do their own shopping. Not for groceries. And if for some reason (the rest of the house plague stricken?) they decided to go to the farmer’s market (!!!!) they wouldn’t drive themselves in the family carriage.
And if they did this, they wouldn’t be called “a proper Duchess.”
- No one in the regency wrote letters on parchment. Unless, of course, they were very wealthy and eccentric (if they were poor, they’d just be crazy. Also, not able to afford parchment.) At any rate, in the west, before paper became common, people were more likely to use velum than parchment.
However since Shakespeare’s day (and that was roughly as far from the regency, backwards as we are forwards) paper was common, and there were PRINTED copies of books. To have a young woman write a note saying she’s eloping on parchment is idiotic. I’d have thrown the book against the wall, except I was reading on my kindle.
- Horses are not cars. You’re unlikely to go from one end of England to the other riding one horse without stopping. For an education on this, read Dumas whose characters kill horses with fatigue with wild abandon.
Seriously. You. Can’t. Do. That. You also don’t park your horse and go gallivanting around. They’re animals. They need care.
- If you fought a duel in the regency and killed your man, you don’t just walk away. Killing people was illegal. You’d at the very least have to run off out of the country. It’s not a “It’s okay, everyone does it.” Most duels were fought to wound, not kill, because of this.
- If you’re a regency miss, you don’t go around, half cocked with no chaperone. And if compromised you don’t just say it’s stupid, and carry on with your life. Society exacted a penalty.
- There was a war with France for most of the Regency. You don’t go over to France on vacation during the war. Not at the same time people are fighting Napoleon.
- A manor house (the P & P movie, which I ASSURE you doesn’t exist is confused about this too) is not really a farm and the daughter of the manor worth 2k pounds a year does NOT go around barefoot or help slop the pigs. (DO try reading Austen. Consider Mrs. Benet brags that her daughters have nothing to do in the kitchen, meaning they have help. She certainly wouldn’t tell the girls to slop the pigs.) The manor might include a “home farm” which would be tenanted by a farmer family and give the manor family some percentage of the produce, eggs, etc. Arrangements varied. But the manor house is NOT a farm.
- Peasants in the Middle Ages were no more likely to know how to read than they were to meet a dragon face to face (and let us be clear, there were no dragons. Ever, really.) There would be exceptions. Nota Bene Peasant is not the same as “not titled” and even in the middle ages there was a “middle class” for lack of a better term, which might well be educated and work as lawyers or accountants.
- In Shakespeare’s time lower middle class might read quite well. The number of people who could read for fun was calculated at about the same as the number of people who are comfortable reading for fun now.
- Cooking a meal involved a lot more than cooking a meal today. 1) They did not have refrigeration. So, no, they won’t have fresh meat in the house, just “put by”. The shopping has to be done every day. They might have preserved or salted meat, fish or vegetables, depending. You can at least extrapolate it. 2) I don’t have any proof of this, and I might be dead in the water here, but I don’t THINK that making bread was the duty of the least experience scullery maid. Can’t prove it or anything. I just doubt it because it’s not that easy without mixers or packaged yeast, and it takes some finesse. I wonder why everyone thinks it is. 3) in the regency in a well to do family pastries would generally be purchased, certainly for a party. 4)In the regency courses don’t mean what you think they mean. What we call courses they called “removes.”
- Going to the bathroom was more complicated. If you must go there, remember there were no bathrooms IN THE HOUSE for most of the time until oh, the 18th century (very, very rare, and only for what we’d call cutting edge geeks, who were laughed at by normal human beings) and really until the 19th century going to the bathroom in the night involved chamber pots. In the day, and if it was safe (it might be shared by several households) there would be an outhouse. During balls in the regency, (and particularly before, when women wore these unwieldy gowns, including padded hips and who knew what else) the way women relieved themselves during a ball was to go to a room set aside for the purpose and use these vessels that to modern eyes look like gravy boats (you can tell they aren’t because they don’t have a pouring lip and are more “rounded” there) which they stuck under their skirts, to pee standing up. No, seriously. And you think your costume for dragoncon/comicon was a pain!
- Underwear is complicated, because it was all homemade, and might vary village to village or even household to household. As might the wearing of it. Some people say authoritatively that women in Shakespeare’s time wore no underwear, but when you deep dive into it… well, it wasn’t always so. And as Foxfier pointed out there were things found that looked remarkably like bras from the 14th century. (And from drawings, there are suspicions of them among the Egyptians.) So, yeah, you can get away with almost anything, provided you say it was this cunning design her grandmother had perfected/the local seamstress made/etc/etc.
What you can’t do is have a man unzip himself. Please. I mean, I don’t see a point in it, but even if I did, no. Just no. In the regency it’s called a “fall” and it’s a panel in the front of the pants, which can be untied. Depending on time and fashion, it can be a narrow fall or a wide fall. Going back further than that, you’re going to step into codpiece territory, and unless you really want to research that, just have the guy untie his breeches/underwear/whatever. Remember buttons, while older than zippers are relatively recent. You look at them and you go “it’s logical” right? Sure. But no. The Elizabethans had buttons but the concept of a button hole hadn’t occurred to them. So buttons were decorative, but everything was tied. [A friend who is a professional costumer informs me this is wrong. See, this is what comes of believing MY college professors. There was a course on garment construction and they assured us everything was tied on. The inimitable Jonna Hayden tells me this is wrong, and I’ll assume she’s right. She said it’s “teaching from Victorian sources. This makes perfect sense as vast portions of the college were still stuck in the Victorian era. The other half were hard core Marxists. Sometimes it overlapped.]
- And speaking of clothes: in a time and place where laundry was a production, beds were aired. Were the sheets washed between guests? Uh… I’d say it varied, and you know what, just don’t go there. Just say the bed was aired.
Also, because washing was difficult, clothes were constructed of portions that could be changed more often and portions that were worn over and over. And a minor spill/stain might doom an expensive garment.
- Not everyone owned a carriage. Not even among the relatively wealthy in the regency. If you have carriages, research the various types. I very much doubt you could pack a family in a high-perch phaeton or a curricule. Not that this is my era. But anyway, don’t mess it up too badly.
- Remember that books like “A writer’s guide to x” is the beginning. The internet is yours. If it’s important to your book, RESEARCH IT. If it’s not and you can’t find exact information? Soft pedal it.
- But above all, if writing about the Middle Ages? Lose the dragon and the elves.