reflective / sundry

The challenges of writing medieval romance

Along with A is for Alibi, I picked up a romance novel on a whim — not by an author I’d read before, though Goodreads indicates she’s quite prolific.

I did not finish the book, so I’m not going to name it (because this is going to be pretty critical, and it doesn’t feel fair to trash a book I didn’t finish), but I am going to ruminate for a minute about the challenges of medieval romance and a particularly unconvincing storyline that takes place in a historical society less advanced than Westeros in A Song of Ice and Fire.

This is a book set in the 1270s. This is the hardcore Dark Ages, no fucking around. You want to write a romance novel set in the thirteenth century, intended for today’s romance novel readers? Good luck, friend. You are taking on a herculean task. Now I don’t believe period romance novels are required to have the level of historical accuracy as in Longbourn — I’m comfortable with the flexibility in most of Meredith Duran’s books, for instance.

But setting a book deliberately in the 1270s, rather than even the early Renaissance period — you are signing up for depicting a particularly brutal period of medieval life.

I will admit right now I’m not a medieval scholar. My knowledge of medieval culture comes from college classes (mostly literature classes, some of which included primary medieval texts), my own reading, and (most significantly, I feel) Kate Beaton’s comics.

These are some of the hurdles that authors of medieval historical romance are facing, at least with me as a reader, because I do not forget them:

  • None of the characters you’re writing about have ever brushed their teeth
  • Notions of gender, romance, courtship, etc. have zero resemblance to what readers want nowadays
  • No one knows the importance of separating where you excrete waste/dump corpses from where you draw your drinking water
  • Life, in short, was crude and short-lived and, to most modern readers, fucking depressing. The hero and heroine have beaten all odds and gotten together? Great, now if their luck holds, they might get a handful of happy years together before she dies in childbirth or they’re both killed by plague or famine or the latest band of outlaws.

This author wasn’t entirely negligent in acknowledging these issues. Side characters expressed a horror of bathing and female education, suspicion of red-headed women, and other primitive cultural beliefs. Our hero and heroine, of course, share a taboo passion for soap and radically progressive sentiments like “I have always disliked filth, particularly on myself.”

But I didn’t give up on the book because of insufficient cultural accuracy. The premise was just so dumb, I started feeling offended.

Let’s walk through it. Scrape together all the medieval-life knowledge you have, and imagine you are a 24-year-old second son of a noble, in 1278. Let me give you the facts:

  • Your older brother (who had been lord of your family hall and who had sent you away when you were 16 because, you know, younger sons can’t hang around in a 50-mile radius, that’s inappropriate and just begging for a blood feud) has just died suddenly, so now you’ve inherited a castle and lands and a couple nearby towns
  • You go to claim the castle, but find out that some asshole broke in and went all Viking on everything and everyone inside and now there’s only a small fraction of people left within
  • The only person there who isn’t emaciated and weak and broken in spirit is an 18-year-old girl, who is also taking charge of the servants in rebuilding everything
  • She can also read, write, and has what is apparently the rarest of all skills: “making lists”
  • You know immediately that her story (priest’s bastard daughter) and her past in the castle are false (not just because all the other comely young women were ravaged and kidnapped by the asshole, but also she has no familiarity with the castle or the recently deceased lord and lady)
  • But for some reason the other servants are backing her lies up
  • You keep letting her lie to you, even while you let her know that you know she’s lying to you, for no fucking reason

Why. Why would you do that. Your situation is extremely precarious as you’re asserting yourself as the new lord of a place you haven’t even seen in eight years. It was just wrecked by some asshole WHO COULD COME BACK AT ANY POINT, you don’t know how your brother died, and some shifty girl who is indecently educated and intelligent is taking charge of your household AND blatantly lying to your face AND getting all your other servants (some of whom knew you before you left) to also lie to you???

Bitch, please. You are too dumb to live.

Not to mention the whole idea of a noble girl, of a very rich castle, masquerading as a peasant is just mind-blowingly ludicrous. I’m trying to remember what movie it is where a dude grabs and smells a chick’s braid to ascertain that she’s not of the lower class, because she washes her fucking hair. Or has someone to wash it, I mean. Point is, everything about this chick — her skin, teeth, posture, way of speaking (French! She definitely speaks French, may not even know that much English, I forget exactly), good health and lack of malnutrition, the fact that she takes the lead immediately over the staff — screams that she’s nobility. It is absolutely absurd that she tried to pass herself off as anything else.

Also, the opening was very funny to me. It starts in the heroine’s POV, as she’s running away from her enormous castle because her witch-mother (whom she has only seen three times in her entire life) is marrying her to some dude she’s only seen once, and she has a bad feeling about him. She also thinks her mother and her witchcraft are responsible for her father’s sudden death, as well as a few other unfortunate events that befell people and villages who inconvenienced her, and I’m just laughing my ass off, because oh my God, this is 1278, there is no end to the number of things that could have suddenly killed your father or befallen those villages. He might have had a headache one night and tried the hot new painkiller, mercury. This (“Aller-what?”) is how witchcraft works in the middle ages.

Disclaimer: I am not actually a medieval scholar. Everything I know about history is from Kate Beaton.

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