Monday, May 21, 2012

The Devil is NOT in the Details - Anacrhonism and historical fiction

When readers and writers discuss historical anachronism, they often focus on stuff. What saddle Anne Boleyn used, the fabric clothes were made of, the food people ate. And it is a good idea for authors to ensure they get the little things right, if for no other reason that some readers react to any anachronism the way Christopher Reeve does at the end of Somewhere in Time. (Spoiler alert.)

There is, however, an important distinction between not getting anything wrong and getting things right, a distinction that in many cases mirrors the line between the physical and mental worlds of the past.

"Help, help, I'm being oppressed!"
If a character goes to a medieval inn and orders a potato frittata and tea, the author has clearly done something wrong, and even an inattentive reader will notice.  But what if the character rides past a castle and, like Monty Python’s Marxist peasants, thinks thoroughly modern thoughts? Now the Pythons clearly went to an extreme here – which is what makes the scene work – but even the best authors of historical fiction make this mistake with far less amusing results.

For example, Adelia Aguilar, the protagonist of Ariana Franklin’s wonderful Mistress of the Art of Death, rejects the conventional wisdom on the causes of malaria and expresses doubts concerning the medical theories of Galen. This decision – or error, if you would prefer– is different than if she’d had Adelia drink bourbon or express a fondness for hot wings. While it is objectively impossible for Adelia to love southern whiskey and fast food, the question of whether it would have been  possible for a physician trained in Salerno to question Galen is far more subjective.

To be clear, yes, it is possible for Adelia to think these thoughts. But finding an educated physician in medieval Europe who questioned Galen is as likely as finding a modern physicist who challenges scientific method. These people might exist, but they are few and far between. (It’s also notable that Franklin’s protagonist keeps her thoughts to herself. If she expressed her doubts publicly, she would lose all credibility.)

 Note that Franklin’s anachronism here is not born of ignorance: There can be no doubt that she understands the medical mindset of medieval Europe. I think it is also clear why Franklin made this decision. She wanted readers to relate to her protagonist, and did not think that they could sympathize with a character whose assumptions about medicine and the human body were – to our modern eyes – obviously wrong. 

And this, I think, is what so disappointed me about the book. It’s not the just the anachronism, though I admit that I was aghast at that. I was more disappointed that Franklin simply did not trust her readers to understand and sympathize with a character who believed that blood-letting might be valid medical technique.

I am not arguing that portraying the interior lives of characters an easy task, and I admit that my own protagonist walks along the same fine line as Adelia, and sometimes she might cross it. But it is nevertheless the case that telling the truth about the past requires both an understanding of the time period and the courage to be honest with your readers.


  1. As a reader and writer of YA fantasy and historical, I see a lot of this in the YA market, especially when it comes to young women. There is a great deal of pressure for YA novels to present positive role models for today's young women (witness the backlash against Bella Swan) and the ideal medieval princess just won't do. She would be obedient, would have no expectation of -- indeed, little concept of -- romantic love within marriage, and she would be, to today's girls, boring. And the girls whose lives would be less circumscribed, who would have some choice of partner and activities, were the lower class girls or tradesmen's daughters... and who wants to read about them? They don't have gowns and courtiers. So too many writers give their heroines a modern sensibility, and destroy their credibility in the process.

  2. Excellent post! I think histfic authors tend to commit this kind of anachronism frequently when it comes to religion in the Middle Ages. They don't agree with the medieval Church's teachings on total depravity, relics, etc., so they make their protagonist some sort of skeptic or freethinker. Very bothersome!