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Book Review: Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders, by Susanne Alleyn

Get your underpants, your beheadings, and your menus right, historical fiction authors!


Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders

Spyderwort Press, 2013, 242 pages



This is not a book on how to write historical fiction. It is a book on how not to write historical fiction.

If you love history and you’re hard at work writing your first historical novel, but you’re wondering if your medieval Irishmen would live on potatoes, if your 17th-century pirate would use a revolver, or if your hero would be able to offer Marie-Antoinette a box of chocolate bonbons . . .

(The answer to all these is “Absolutely not!”)

. . . then Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders is the book for you.

Medieval Underpants will guide you through the factual mistakes that writers of historical fiction—both beginners and seasoned professionals—often make, and show you how to avoid them. From fictional characters crossing streets that wouldn't exist for another sixty (or two thousand) years, to 1990s slang in the mouths of 1940s characters, to the pitfalls of the Columbian Exchange (when plants and foods native to the Americas first began to appear in Europe, Asia, and Africa, and vice versa), acclaimed historical novelist Susanne Alleyn exposes the often hilarious, always painful goofs that turn up most frequently in fiction set in the past.

Alleyn stresses the hazards to writers of assuming too much about details of life in past centuries, providing numerous examples of mistakes that could easily have been avoided. She also explores commonly-confused topics such as the important difference between pistols and revolvers, and between the British titles “Lord John Smith” and “John, Lord Smith” and why they’re not interchangeable, and provides simple guidelines for getting them right. In a wide assortment of chapters including Food and Plants; Travel; Guns; Money; Hygiene; Dialogue; Attitudes; Research; and, of course, Underpants, she offers tips on how to avoid errors and anachronisms while continually reminding writers of the necessity of meticulous historical research.





But the simplest thing to remember about women’s underwear in past eras is this: They probably weren't wearing any.


Susanne Alleyn is a historical fiction author who's evidently seen one too many manuscripts by aspiring authors of historical fiction featuring Marie-Antoinette eating bonbons. And she really has a thing about French Revolution guillotine scenes.

Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders: A Writer's (& Editor's) Guide to Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Common Anachronisms, Errors, & Myths, as the name suggests, is written primarily for writers, and can basically be summed up as a heartfelt plea to do your fucking research! (Alleyn does not use the f-word like me, though I'll bet she wants to.)

I'm not a HF author, but I enjoyed this book a great deal both for its historical tidbits about minutiae that most of us don't think about but have seen in countless bad books and movies (and even good ones), and because Alleyn's rants are both entertaining and informative. One can practically see her gnashing her teeth and throwing books against walls as she describes all the historical infelicities she has encountered.

The first chapter goes into great detail on the history of underpants and the logistics thereof, and from there we move through many more chapters covering geography, slang, food and animals, names, guns, funerals, and a host of other topics. Why your 18th-century traveler cannot cross Europe in a week. Why your 17th-century Englishman was not hanging out in the 17th-century equivalent of Starbucks. Why your Irish Celtic tribesman did not eat potatoes and your 19th-century American heroine was probably not named Dominique or Brianna.

Many of the things the author points out are (or should be) obvious, but she describes some real howlers from people who should know better.


The first page of this writer’s sample chapters included (this is supposed to be England in 1066, remember):

• A character lighting up a cigar [tobacco originated in the Americas, which, if it’s slipped your mind, weren't discovered until 1492; and smoking cigars—rather than pipes—didn’t really become popular until the 19th century.]
• Two characters chatting, while sitting on a leather sofa, in a roadside inn’s cozy lounge [11th-century English roadside inns were not remotely cozy and had neither lounges nor leather-covered furniture; and no one in Western Europe had had anything like a sofa since the days of the Roman Empire.]
• One character casually mentioning that, since the coronation of King William [autumn 1066], he had just been on a trip to the Far East and had had a wonderful time seeing China [two centuries before Marco Polo spent years on his history-making journey from Venice to China and back, and when a traveler was lucky if he covered forty miles a day—did this fellow get to China, and back to England, within two months by going to Travelocity.com and buying a discounted airfare?]
• One character greeting another with "You look great." [Ouch. Just ouch.]


Then she tears into Charles Dickens for his mistakes in A Tale of Two Cities (remember, Dickens was writing historical fiction himself, about events that took place in the previous century, and like modern writers, Dickens relied on a lot of popular myths and then-current propaganda about the French Revolution.)

Alleyn provides a wealth of detail about myths and facts concerning everything from hygiene to employment to travel. She takes aim at the myth that Europeans from the fall of Rome until the modern era were generally filthy and unwashed, and spends an entire chapter on that horrid anachronism we've all seen, the medieval or Renaissance or Victorian woman spouting 21st century feminism, racial equality, and religious egalitarianism.

Of course, she totally won my affections with her trashing of Mr. Churchill's Secretary.

This is not a comprehensive book about writing historical fiction. It covers only Europe, and mostly only the 16th century onwards, with a few notes about earlier times. Alleyn's own work seems to be mostly about the French Revolution, so she spends a lot of pages talking about that. (And she apparently thinks the French aristocracy totally had it coming, since there are many, many sarcastic asides about those "poor, blameless aristos.")

There is also an entire chapter about the nuances of English titles and why "Lord John Throckmorton" and "John, Lord Throckmorton" are not the same. This chapter made my eyes glaze over and was far more detail than any normal person would care about (as the author points out, even upper-class Brits get it wrong nowadays), but if you're writing historical fiction in that era, it would be very useful.

I bought this mostly because the ebook was on sale for $0.99, but it was well worth the read.



Verdict: An entertaining overview of historical fiction bloopers and how not to write them, Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders is an opinionated but informative grab bag of historical trivia of interest even to non-writers. If you enjoy historical fiction, you will want to read this, and if you write it, you really should read it.




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