Redheaded Neanderlady

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

Friday, May 1, 2009


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.

Anne G


Nan Hawthorne said...

This is one of the myths about the Middle Ages that drives me the nuttiest. Where do these people get their odd ideas?

I had a heated debate a little while ago about what "the Dark Ages" were and and why they were called that. One woman insisted the "Dark Ages" refers to the time of the Black Plague... she just wouldn't accept that the two periods were several hundred years apart. This is a well read and intelligent woman. The other woman with us had the more common notion that the people of Europe fell into total chaos after the Romans.. and nothing whatever is known of that time.. I used to believe that too.. when I was 14!

Another one that gripes me is the idea that people were totally under the thumb of the Church and therefore did not have illicit sex... which just defires human nature. If that was so, why did so many Churchmen have bastards?

We enjoy many aspects of the mythos of the Middle Ages.. but where do all these horror-laden images come from? I watched the British series about Robin Hood faitfully as a child.. and they sure seemed darn clean.. I even remember a scene where Robin bathes in a waterfall.. so why don't romance readers have the same impression?

Anne Gilbert said...


You'd confuse the woman even more, if you informed her that the "Black Plague" of the 14th century was the second plague pandemic. The first one was the so-called Justinian Plague(same disease, but much earlier), which similarly depopulated Europe and helped bring on what was once called the "Dark Ages", mainly due to depopulation. However,as you have implied, things didn't fall into "total chaos", it just shifted the center of power to Byzantium, and Western Europe more or less reorganized itself locally. It's a long, complicated story. I didn't know much about this either, until fairly recently. As for people being "under the thumb of the Church", that's kind of a complicated question, too. The Church was the center and repository of past knowledges, and monks, especially, kept some of this alive, but the Church was more like a political party and less a "religious focus" than it is today. As such, there were divisions within it, as there often are in political parties today.

I don't blame people for being ignorant about these, and many other things, however. Ignorance is usually correctable. The problem is, at least for (some) Americans, is that they really aren't interested enough in expanding their horizons enough to discover whatever "truths" are out there,for themselves. This would require work on their part,that they are not prepared, or are not interested in doing.

Anna van Gelderen said...

Sadly, most people's image of the Middle Ages is of the Hollywood variety: castles, knights and black death.
I am now reading Marcia L. Colish's fascinating account of the intellectual development during the Middle Ages, but I am not telling any one, because I am sure the only reaction I would get would be an incredulous "There was intellectual development during the Middle Ages????" ;-)

Anne Gilbert said...


Oh cripes! Heck,I have my "Hollywood imiages" of the Middle Ages, which, I think,was what first prompted me toward the idea of writing something set in medieval England -- when I was about 15. But I read a lot,and have continued to read a lot since then, and what I've learned is far more interesting to methan Hollywood fantasies. You know,telling people what you're reading, might be a "teachable moment", though. I've shared alot of what I've learned with my writing partner(including the "cleanliness" stuff),and she has been quite receptive. So have mostof the people I've shared parts of my Great Science Fiction Masterpiece with.
Anne G

Dawna F said...

I had to laugh at this!

My local group has already seen one of my chapters that our Historical Fiction Writers have not. My heroine recalls her several days she spent on the ship, and recalls (in a couple of sentences, mind you) the earthen ballast where she had to relieve herself. She comments how far she has come from her abbey (and she doesn't mean in mere distance).

I thought the sentences were pretty tame (and besides, I'd always wanted to know where folks took care of this when on a ship). But my local critique buddies wigged out on me. The comments were "Gross!" "Do we really have to know this!" and "TMI = Too Much Information!"

Of course, the whole point of these few sentences (and they were a few) was that the character was really having a radical shift in her circumstances, and how she felt alien in this new environment.

Anyhoos - despite the protests, I've kept the scene... GULP

sarel said...

This discussion is very interesting for someone who isn't versed in the Middle Ages. Thanks, Anne, for getting the dialogue going. I love your closing line, "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." Everytime I think I'm not affected by my culture I'll think of that line and consider how ingrained those notions are in my psyche.

Anne Gilbert said...


Well, of course you should have kept the scene! If that's the only way to establish that something for this character has actually shifted,then it isn't "too much infomration"! Unfortunately, some romance readers don't appear to be interested in that(BTW, I don't think all romance readers are like this.
Anne G

Anne Gilbert said...


Well, my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece will, I hope tell people something they didn't know, especially if they're "open" to learning new things. As for my comment, I don't suppose many readers of these kinds of books, who get all hot and bothered by "cleanliness" issues, have ever been to, say, parts of Mexico or much of Africa. They don't have hot and cold running water, central heating, scented soaps, toothpaste, etc., in many parts of the modern world, either, yet people in those places also try to keep themselves tidy as best they can.
Anne g