Friday, May 30, 2014

Historical Fiction and the Middle Ages

I have trouble with a lot of historical fiction set in the Middle Ages.  Too often the characters are just modern people wearing medieval outfits.  And of course it is far too easy to mess up such basic tidbits of medieval social history as when the Black Death came through or when knitting was invented (clue: both were at the end of the Middle Ages).

One book (which shall remain nameless) got me very irritated when the heroine planned a romantic wedding at a nunnery (nunneries were not places to get married, being instead the opposite), when the hero had a friendly chat with the abbess, who sat on the front porch knitting (knitting was not yet invented, and abbesses did not have friendly chats outside the cloister with passing strangers), and the hero went on to disguise himself in the clothes of a dead leper (which he would have recoiled from in terror).

Real medieval people were grim, ruthless, without any religious tolerance, and thought about death a lot—and those were the good guys!  For modern readers, medieval-themed fantasy, where you don't have to worry about historical accuracy, seems to work better than accurate historical fiction.  As a bonus, it doesn't get historians like me upset.  After all, I write fantasy too! (see previous post).

The closest I have come to real historical fiction is Count Scar, which I co-wrote with my husband.  That's the cover to the print edition, done by the late, great Darrell K. Sweet.  The novel is set in a thinly-disguised version of southern France in the early thirteenth century, a time when fear of heresy was rampant.  We mix it up a little by introducing magic, which in the story is practiced by an order of monks.  This actually makes sense, as people interested in the life of the mind mostly went into the church.

In the book, we tried to strike a balance between real medieval society and characters who would appeal to the modern reader.  If you read it, hope you agree that we succeeded!  (Also if you read it, see if you can guess which of us wrote which character.)

Like my Royal Wizard of Yurt series, the book is out of print but is available used, and also as an ebook from iTunes, Kobo, B&N - Nook, and of course Amazon.
For more information about my novels, go to

© C. Dale Brittain 2014


  1. Dale, what about crochet? That is older than knitting isn't it? I read one book that was set during the Black Death where there were embroidery scissors and an outdoor privy. Not sure about the privy, but the scissors are definitely in the wrong place.

    1. I don't know about crochet specifically, but they did have lace, and I believe that lace-making is a form of crochet. There's a museum in Troyes (in Champagne) dedicated to the history of knitting, which was invented there--which is why the French for knit is tricot, from the Latin name from Troyes.