“Is is seldom possible to say of the medievals that they *always* did one thing and *never* another; they were marvelously inconsistent. ”
― Thomas Cahill, Mysteries of the Middle Ages
Outside of the Victorian Era, my favorite historical period to write about is the Middle Ages. Most of my non-steampunk stories take inspiration from medieval Northern European history, and it’s truly difficult for me to choose sometimes whether I want to work on a project set in 14th century Germany or 19th century England.
Often I choose not to choose, swinging back and forth between them instead. To give my mind a break from one, I’ll turn to the other—which is exactly what I’ve been doing the past few weeks. While Aurelia sat on the back burner, I put my mind back into a project set near feudal Regensburg (modern day Germany) during the Plague outbreaks of the 1340s.
As you might imagine, I have a lot of questions about that place in that era of history. I have a pile of wonderful books to help me unpack the politics and culture. The protagonist of my story is female, too, which in itself adds an extra layer of questioning what she likely could and could not do.
But even that question, I’ve found, is problematic—as I’m reminded in every book I’m reading. Like the eloquent Thomas Cahill quote above, I’m finding that the medievals were little different than we ourselves today: highly inconsistent, full of contradictions, makers of social rules that they themselves routinely broke.
Wonder of wonders, many rule breakers even lived to tell the tale!
Traditionally we tend to think of medieval women as cloistered, naive, and dependent. Yet recent research has shown that for women, while opportunities for authority was highly constrained, it was possible to gain power and influence, and sometimes even to control large amounts of property (and in turn, loyalty from large numbers of male vassals).
Women swung their own swords in trials-by-combat. They politicked and procreated their way into the top tiers of European monarchy. Some of them even dressed like their male counterparts and dared to go to war.
All this is wondrously liberating for my story, which concerns a young noblewoman who is cheated out of her rightful inheritance and sets out, by politics, sword and charm, to get it back.
But while it’s great to know there are actual historical instances of women doing all the things I want my girl to do, no historical figure on record does them all in one life time. (Except perhaps Eleanor of Aquitaine, who’s in a whole other class altogether.)
Which has led me back to the question: even if I can credibly claim women could do all these things, under the right circumstances, is it breaking the bonds of believability to suggest that one woman could have done all of them? And do I even care (too much, at least) about believability, if I’m telling and emotionally compelling and (for the most part) credible tale? Fiction, by its very nature, does not adhere to the facts exactly.
I suspect that there is really a gamut of answers to these questions, and each writer will pass judgment at a different point than any other.
Personally, I know I’m not one of those authors who believes it’s her duty to adhere to historical fact in every slavish detail. I do, however, want to uncover facts of history that make my story that much richer and more intricate.
Yet still I find myself constantly nagged by my responsible, detail-oriented conscience, as if my choice to build off of history, rather than building with history is somehow irresponsible, rooted in a twenty-first century mindset determined to see what it wants to see, and not what its really there.
At the end of the day, perhaps the real question is: “Do I think that believability is the same thing as historical accuracy?”
If I do, then my story is flawed and so is my approach. If I do not, then I’m free to steward the facts of history however I see fit inside a story that could have happened … but didn’t.
I’m actually not sure how I would answer this question yet. Maybe I should be quiet and let you, my fellow readers and writers, weight in instead.
Accuracy, or believability: what do you think?