There's been a recent discussion going on at the Historical Novel Society e-mail list,which I frequent. For anyone interested,it's at the Historical Novel Society e-mail list The discussion started out with an observation that the famous archbishop Thomas Becket was found to be wearing a hair shirt and crawling with lice when he was murdered. There was a general reaction of "eeeewwww", at least until someone knowledgeable about the period explained that some ecclesiastics of that period found it perfectly acceptable to engage in "self-mortification" ,the better, it was thought, to sanctify themselves. Not everyone did this. Quite the opposite, in fact. Most people, contrary to one of the most persistent myths about the Middle Ages, at least attempted to keep themselves somewhat clean, even if this consisted mostly of washing their hands and faces with some regularity. Alexander of Neckham noted, at about the same period, that there were a lot of bath houses in London, which should tell the astute investigator something about how people felt about these things.
However, the following day, I came across another discussion, on the site of a romance reader's, and author's site that I have frequented from time to time. It was part of a blog post called Where Have All the Medievals Gone? The! blog itself was unexceptional; apparently a lot of publishers just didn't think "medieval romances" sold very well-- at least in the US. What flabbergasted me was the responses to the post. A lot of the responders -- romance readers every one -- apparently couldn't get past the idea that people in the Middle Ages "never or rarely bathed"! They all admitted that they had "cleanliness" issues, but romances, after all, are basically a kind of fantasy, and the readers regularly suspend disbelief as they read them. So why can't they suspend disbelief here?
Well, for one thing, this "cleanliness fetish" seems to be a peculiarly American attitude, e.g., "cleanliness is next to Godliness", and probably goes back to (some of our) Puritan ancestors. Now there's nothing wrong with keeping oneself reasonably well-groomed and cleaned up. This is one reason why, I suspect, that Alexander Neckham, who was more or less contemporary with Thomas Becket, wrote that there were a lot of bath houses in the London of his day. It's also obvious that the readers who have "eeewwww" reactions to "medieval romances", simply don't know this. And, to be absolutely fair,I should note two things: first, many of the responders also said that they liked medieval-themed romances, and many of them listed books, like Anya Seton's classic Katherine which, while not strictly romances, are certainly medieval-themed. Second,to be fair, I don't bother with "medieval themed" romances any more, either. Why? Because the authors of these romances(as well as many authors of historical romances set in other periods),simply do not pay any attention to the actual way people of whatever time period they're writing about, actually acted and thought. One dead giveaway, in my opinion, is the use of "out of period" names, usually the kind that would be found in some contemporary "baby name" book or the like, especially for the female characters. Thus, too many of these fictional "medieval" heroines have names like "Tamora" or "Candace",which don't fit the period. And while the men have "masculine sounding" names, they're not medieval by any stretch of the imagination. Just this past Monday, I picked up a paperback whose title and author I can't remember,whose hero character had the given name "Wulfson". This was supposed to be taking place in Anglo-Saxon times, and you'd better believe that no English male of that time and place would have had the given name Wulfson! He might be referred to as something like Edmund Wulfson, if his father happened to be named Wulf(except that's not how men in those times were named), but a given name?? Ugh. As far as I'm concerned, if the names are "out of period" just about everything else will be wrong, too. And I won't waste my money on anything like that. But that's another story.
To get back to the subject, it seems to me that this peculiarly American attitude is partly predicated on the idea that things that aren't somehow "American-related" just aren't very important, interesting, or worthy of notice. It's not just that the readers who won't read "medieval-themed" romances are projecting their own quite modern -- and culture-specific attitudes onto a period they probably know about only through the medium of Hollywood -- but it extends much farther: few of these "medieval" romances get published, because they are too far out of the "range" of many readers' ability to conceive. Romance readers, on the whole, tend to like the familiar and the predictable,and while people from the Middle Ages are recognizable in their quirks, their "context" often is not. And romance readers(as a whole), don't like "alien". There does seem to be an exception made for "paranormal" romances in which vampires, werewolves, witches,etc. appear in modern contexts, but the reader knows this is fantasy, yet the setting and the "mores" are probably reasonably familiar(you don't have to try to understand "alien" mindsets, among other things). A lot of this distaste for medieval-themed romance also seems to stem from what I call a "Hollywoodized" version of medieval times that a lot of people seem to have in their heads. While I, personally, enjoy the "larger than life" quality inherent in certain historical personages of the time, I don't have any illusions that they would have exactly thought, or had the same attitudes toward, a whole range of things. Including the "cleanliness" idea. It seems, again via the knowledgeable author, that many people in that era made an effort to bathe and wash, because doing so was a sign of "good breeding". And given the difficulty of getting together enough hot water to bathe with, it is easy to see why this kind of thinking existed, though there is evidence that even peasants tried to keep themselves as clean as they could, given their circumstances. But as some other posters in the Historical Novel Society list pointed out, part of these "insular" attitudes may be a function of faulty educational systems as well. Combined with the apparently "conventional" socialization,and "conventional" attitudes that many of these romance readers seem to have -- but again, I must emphasize, not all of them -- there seems to be little interest in exploring a world that is somewhat, but not completely "alien".
Of course, I'm "prejudiced" here. I was not brought up "conventionally", and for a female of my time, I had somewhat "unusual" tastes. Practically from the "get-go" I liked science fiction, though I liked historical stuff, too. Thanks to Anya Seton's Katherine, which I devoured as a teenager, I wanted, then and there, to write something set in medieval England. And, also apparently unlike most romance readers, I haven't led a "conventional" life. But that's another story. The point is, I think, that to read anything "different", or perhaps anything at all,one must be "open" to new vistas. And if some romance reader can't get past the fact that they didn't have hot and cold running water, and scented soaps, and toothpaste and dental floss, in the year 1150, then, in my opinion, they are not doing themselves any favor, in the romance, or any other genre.