Redheaded Neanderlady

Redheaded Neanderlady
This is a photoshopped version of something I found in National Geographic about the time I started researching

Monday, February 16, 2009

Those pesky little rivet counters

Nan Hawthorn's blog Booking the Middle Ages has an interesting post today. She is commenting about readers of historical fiction, who seem to live to tear apart a particular piece of literature, looking for inaccuracies in historical detail.  Sometimes this kind of pickiness can get downright silly.  She mentions that some people have jumped on her for using the word "tavern" to describe an establishment in Anglo-Saxon England, where liquor was served.  For the record, I, myself, wouldn't use "tavern" here.  In my own work, which takes place at a slightly later period, though still in early medieval England, I use "alehouse" or "inn".  I think this works better. But I am not going to criticize Ms. Hawthorne, or anybody else, for using "tavern" in this time and context.  I fully agree with her, when she describes these people as "rivet counters".  Her post is worth reading, because it does point to a problem I've had in online discussions with readers of historical fiction -- some of them are absolutely "accuracy obsessed" to a degree that really bothers me, and in ways that suggest that they may be people who want to learn about "history"; they seem to want a good story, but only if it conforms to their idea -- assuming they know something about the time period they're reading about -- of what that time period was "really" like.  This leads some of them into some of what I consider fairly serious misunderstandings of whatever period they're "into", and to me, this is far more serious than "rivet counting", which is just plain silly. 

 

I'm not talking about writers -- and I've read a fair number of these -- who write hastily, don't research their period very well, and insert gross inaccuracies that even I can spot.  Some of these writers, in certain venues, have been extremely popular.  I'm thinking particularly of certain romance writers who basically just use a historical period as "wallpaper", and don't care, and/or perhaps don't think their readers care, about whether or not what their characters are doing re that period, or they put historical characters in the wrong geographical place, or write completely inaccurate descriptions of the events they purport to describe.  I'm talking about readers who read historical novels and then get upset because the description of swordplay isn't quite right -- or something like that.  The reader who came up with that one is also a member of a well-known recreator's society.  This is all well and good, but the recreators themselves tend to be, as far as I can tell, a bit overly obsessive about certain sorts of "accuracy" themselves -- an "accuracy", which, BTW, may or may not be all that accurate.  And then there are those who absolutely insist that people of a given period "wouldn't" have acted the way some historical fiction writer describes them as acting.  These are the ones who prattle on about "mindsets".  Now it's true that most white people, 100 years ago, thought that black people were just somehow "naturally" inferior, and "couldn't" be "civilized", whatever that was supposed to mean.  But there were enough people(Mark Twain, oddly enough, was among them, as well as some other writers and musicians, who actually tried to soften their plights when they interacted with black people), to suggest that the common "mindset" of any given time wasn't necessarily universal. 

 

The same is most likely true of every single historical period anybody wants to write about.  Not everybody, IOW, was a conformist.  Attitudes in the earlier Middle Ages, for example, even among the nobility and aristocracy, varied, though perhaps within a narrower range than we would expect today.  So when I hear people talking about "the medieval mindset", for example, I tend to cringe.  It's also true that in the past, most people had a much narrower range of life choices  than they  do at the present time. they until recently, even in the "developed" world, this was true.   If you don't believe this, just ask any woman who is old enough to remember how feminism developed, or, it they're younger than about 50, ask them what their mother's lives were like, and you begin to get the picture.  I myself can remember a time when it was thought that any woman in science, for example, was somehow an exceptional anomaly.  I had a ninth grade science teacher who couldn't fathom Marie Curie!  I was puzzled, because my parents certainly could.  But back then, a lot of people couldn't fathom a woman scientist at all.  There was a "mindset" in the middle of the 20th century that assumed that women were "meant" to be housewives and mothers,. and not much else, but not everyone bought into this.  As I say, the same is true of just about any era.  And this is where true creative writing comes in.  If you don't assume a universal "mindset" for any era, but recognize that yes, you will encounter  differences from "today", there is plenty of room for creativity.  Of course, some historical novelists don't write like this.  And some historical readers prefer a narrower approach, which is why I am sure some of them may not care to read my work, when it's finally fit to publish.  That is fine. People who write, must write in the way that suits them best, and I am all for the encouragement of reading in any form.  But, puh-leaze. . . . just don't get "picky" about minor things, or things that, if you think about it, may not be accurate, only what you might imagine is accurate!

Anne G

5 comments:

Nan Hawthorne said...

Excellent points. May I add about the exceptions to "mindsets" that while we can remember or ask our mothers about women's life before the early 1970s, all we have of the middle ages is the word of priests and monks. This is not a group of people too favorably disposed to women's independence. What surprises me about the folks Anne is talking about is that they seem to believe what the clerical chroniclers and commentators say then utterly forget what Chaucer and Boccaccio suggest in their ribald tales. The truth is in between, I suspect, and more than that, the truth is individual.

Nan

Anne Gilbert said...

Nan, I'm working in the "earlier Middle Ages", but you're right about Chaucer. It's not so much in his "ribald tales" that his attitude that women then were perfectly competent people, but in things like the Wife of Bath's Tale and the one about Patient Griselda. In that one, he told the story about this woman who was put through all kinds of "tests" by her husband to show how faithful and obedient she would be, and he apparently told it "straight". But at the very end, he tacked on this little bit that suggests that women don't need to put up with that kind of stuff. In the earlier Middle Ages, a lot depended on the priest or monk. Some were very anti-women, but some seemed to think that married couples should do whatever they could to make each other happy, so even then, there were differences of opinion about these things. As for the "mindset" people, I guess a lot depends on what they're reading or writing about, or who they're reading or writing about, but I still am of the opinion that people then were as varied in their "mindsets" as they are now.
Anne G

Anonymous said...

As a "Living-History" re-enactor, I see this type of person quite often. Different folks have differing views of historical accuracy. If I am doing a children's educational event, then I feel that "looking the part" and giving accurate information is my desire. Now if I am competing for historically accurate garb, then yes, it should all be hand-sewn and accurate. (even then some complain that I am too clean!) Hey, I just had my yearly bath! It is the "Stitch-Nazis" as we call them that get annoying. They expect that a re-enactor not wear underwear or use tampons because they have not been invented yet!! My group typically feels that if it does not show, it does not count. We also make certain allowances for health and hygiene. (don't forget the sunscreen) hahaha

Barnabee Wilde
Merchant of Opportunity
Overland Crew

Anne Gilbert said...

Barnabee:

I don't know what period you reenact, or what group you may be in. But this is one of the reasons I avoid reenactors of all kinds and, for that matter "accuracy purists". The problem here is, while I think all of us recognize that, say, the 18th cdntury was "different" in some ways from the 21st, and you have to take this into consideration, some reenactors and "accuracy purists" act as if there was only one "mindset" or one way of doing things, across whole societies! This is just not the case. While in the "earlier Middle Ages", which is what I know most about, having painfully learned, had few written sources of information, and the written sources of information were largely about "important people", there are, even there, sometimes some glimpses into the lives of people lower on the food chain, and hints that thewir ways of thinking about things wasn't "the same". There certainly seems to have been varying attitudes toward women and marriage, for instance, though nobody thought of marriage in the way we do today. But "accuracy purists" tend not to even think about this. And I won't even go into the kind of people who absolutely insist on using "old" place names, or "old" spellings of names, which may well be confusing to modern readers. Accuracy in facts, yes. The rest of it? I wonder how much we can actually "know"?

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