Are Historical Novels Worth Reading?

For about a year now I have been listening to, and enjoying, the Living History Podcast. They are produced by a couple of re-enactors/living historians from the East Coast. The podcasts have been going for a couple of years so there are a few old ones to listen to.

It was during one of these older podcasts when Stephen and Alena were discussing the relative merits of historical fiction that something I have always been struggling with resurfaced: are historical novels really worth reading?

During the podcast Stephen quoted a PBS interview of Bernard Cornwell during which Cornwell discusses the Afterwards that are to be found at the end of his novels and a novelist’s responsibility to history.

I think those afterwords are absolutely necessary, because I am not an historian; I am a storyteller. Whenever the demands of the story clash with the dictate of real history, the story is going to win, because my job is to entertain; it’s not to educate. But I do understand that for many people, as it was for me when I was young, historical novels are a gateway to history; and they will persuade people, I hope, to go on to read the real history. I think that once you finish a book, it’s incumbent upon the historical novelist to tell people where he changed history and maybe why; and also where they can go to discover more about the period. So, yes, I do think that my job is to serve history and to serve historians — but to do it by doing a song and dance.

Firstly, I have to admit that Bernard Cornwell is one of my favourite authors. I have read with great delight every novel that he has written. His Sharpe series got me hooked. Currently I am waiting for the latest novel in his Saxon Stories series to be published.

Secondly, I have to admit that historical fiction is my guilty pleasure; it’s about all that I read. It was for this reason that the podcast resonated with me. I was reminded of a blog post that I had come across in which the author decries historical fiction.

In her post ‘Why I no longer read historic fiction’, Magistra et Mater states that although she had done so in the past, she finds that now she no longer finds pleasure in reading historical fiction. Her reasoning for this is that the anachronisms in dialogue and social attitudes gets in the way of her suspension of disbelief. This is more than likely a common issue with people who, having spent so much time researching a specific topic/area, are too close to or too well versed on the subject matter to enjoy the novel. The former occurred for me when I picked up Arturo Perez-Reverte’s Captain Alatriste.

The problem for me was that Captain Alatriste (this is the novel’s main character in case you hadn’t realized) is a Spanish soldier fighting in the Netherlands during the Eighty Years’ War. As such he is, at least in my eyes, one of the ‘bad guys’.

Perhaps a little clarification is in order. I have spent the past few years researching the Eighty Years’ War from the Dutch point of view. In light of this I tend to view anything Spanish in the late 16th- and early 17th-century as being ‘bad’. This made reading the novel awkward especially when a character would expound on the Dutch or the Netherlands in a derogatory manner. I was able to get around my bias however, and found the series somewhat enjoyable. The movie was pretty good as well.

As for anachronistic dialogue (i.e. Modern English), I can usually get beyond this by reminding myself that this is what it would sound like in my head if I were to read historically accurate dialogue. Of course this assumes that I can understand Old English or such. What bothers me is when an author tries to make their dialogue sound ‘period’.

Bernard Knight, in the introductions to his Crowner John series of novels, explains that “any attempt to use ‘olde worlde’ dialogue in a historic novel of this period is as inaccurate as it is futile, for in late-twelfth-century Devon most people would be incomprehensible to us today.”

As Cornwell stated above, historical fiction is a gateway to more hardcore historic research for some. Perez-Reverte wrote his Captain Alatriste series because he was dissatisfied with the treatment of the Spanish Golden Age in his daughter’s school textbooks. I’ve even toyed with the idea of Napoleonic Re-enactment simply because I have enjoyed the Sharpe series so much.

In the end it simply comes down to this: read historical fiction to be entertained. If you want 100% accuracy then either pick up a textbook or go out and find a period novel. Tom Jones is as good today as it was in 1749.

What do you think? Is historical fiction worth reading or just too anachronistic for you? Leave a comment below.

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Further Arguments Against Long-Bladed Swords

Most SCA Rapier participants tend to think of George Silver as ‘that mad Englishman who had a huge hate on for long-bladed rapiers.’ Not that this description is all that inaccurate considering Silvers describes these swords as an “…imperfect weapon, which serves to kill our friends in peace, but cannot much hurt our foes in war.” After doing some research for another project, however, I have found that not only was he not alone in his opinion but that he wasn’t even the first to complain in writing about the inadequacies of long-bladed rapiers.

Published in 1590, Sir John Smythe’s Certain Discourses Military, was the first English military treatise. Discourses was an appeal to the English nobility to cease the adoption of the caliver, among other Continental ways of waging war, and to go back to the ancient, and in Smythe’s opinion infinitely better, weapon the English longbow.

In Discourses Smythe writes:

… our such men of war, contrary to the ancient order and use military, do nowadays prefer and allow that armed men pikers should rather wear rapiers of a yard and a quarter long the blades or more than strong, short, arming swords… a squadron of armed men in the field, being ready to encounter with another squadron, their enemies…being in their ranks so close one to another by flanks, cannot draw their swords if the blades of them be above the length of three quarters of a yard or little more (i.e. approximately 32-34″). Besides that, swords being so long do work in a manner no effect, neither with blows nor thrusts, where the press is so great as in such actions it is. And rapier blades, being so narrow and of  so small substance, and made of a very hard temper to fight in private frays, in lighting with any blow upon armour do presently break and so become unprofitable.

This sentiment is echoed in the epistle to Paradoxes where Silver states:

…when the battles are joined, and come to the charge, there is no room for them to draw their bird-spits, and when they have them, what can they do with them? Can they pierce his corselet with the point? Can they unlace his helmet, unbuckle his armour, hew asunder their pikes with a stocata, a riversa, a dritta, a stramason, or other such tempestuous terms? No, these toys are fit for children, not for men, for stragling boys of the camp, to murder poultry, not for men of honour to try battle with their foes.

Of course, if it were only these two gentlemen deriding the rapier one could dismiss their opinions as a couple old codgers complaining about the decline of their great nation in the hands of younger men. However, they were not alone. At least not in so far as the length of weapons to be used on the battlefield.

In his treatise of 1591, which in itself was a direct rebuttal of Smythe’s Discourses, Humfrey Barwick recommends ‘…a good sword of a yarde in blade, and no hilts but crosse onely, a dagger of ten or twelve inches in the blade and the like crosse hilt.Smythe too recommends a short dagger of only nine to ten inches. At least these two could agree on one thing even if they were polar opposites in regards to the longbow vs. musket debate.

Smythe and Barwick’s recommended blade length would appear to agree with Silver’s perfect length of a yard and an inch for the average person. Or rather I should say that Silver agrees with them as his Paradoxes of Defense was not published until 1599. Silver would probably have been familiar with both of these books as Smythe’s book sold very well and the back and forth between Smythe and Humfrey was akin to an Elizabethan flame war.

Still, is this just a few Englishmen tending to be a tad protectionist with their weapons? I had thought so until I came across a reference in an article by Tom Leoni entitled “The Rapier Revisited” (which by the way is an excellent read). In it he mentions that according to Bonaventura Pistofilo the ideal military sword was “…three Roman feet or just over 36 inches measured from the hilt.” So it wasn’t just Englishmen who felt that long-bladed swords had no place on the battle field.

Of course neither Barwick nor I’m sure Pistofilo ranted about rapiers in the same manner as Silver and Smythe but they were all roughly in agreement when it came to the length of blade that was serviceable in the press of men on the battlefield. In the end, however, the point I would like to make to you dear reader isn’t that the English basket-hilted sword is better than a long-bladed rapier but rather that if George Silver is a crackpot for his views on this subject at least he is no longer the lone crackpot screaming into the wind. Or am I just another pro-Silver crackpot looking for excuses? Post a comment below and let me know.

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Historic Sites are Great for Family Vacations.

I’m afraid I’ve become one of those Dads. You know the type. They think nothing about driving 100km out of their way to take the kids to see the biggest ball of twine in the world.

Well, maybe not exactly.

There’s no way I’m going to deviate from a planned route, and I’m not sure even I would find such a ball of twine interesting, but lately I have found myself planning trips around historic sites.

The Family and I decided to visit Barkerville this Summer which is a roughly 9+ hour drive. I decided that this was too long to do in one day so we are going to split the trip into two days for ease of travel. What I needed then was somewhere to stop halfway between here and Barkerville for a night. This is where the fly gets into the ointment. I found myself looking for places based on nothing other than what historic sites might be nearby. It didn’t matter whether one campground had free wi-fi or another had showers. I was determined to cram as much history into this trip as possible. Even a decrepid old barn would have sufficed.

Fortunately common sense won out and we are going to camp at a place on a lake instead so the girls can have a swim after being cooped up in the minivan for half a day. (read: there wasn’t anything nearby)

All of this can be blamed on my daughters. It’s not my fault. Honestly.

It all began a couple of years ago when the Family and I went to Fort Langley (an 19th century fur trading post) for something inexpensive to do. K and I were worried that both girls would get bored with such a low-tech outing. The opposite happened in fact. Both girls were enthralled with the old site. We were even treated to a second wedding of sorts as K and I portrayed the happy couple in a traditional 19th century fur trader wedding. M1 still raves about this visit.

“Well,” I thought ” if they enjoyed that experience what else would they enjoy?”And so it began.

Now every chance I get I try to find some way to worm an historic site into whatever we are doing.

My newest idea? An historic geocaching trek for our area that M1 and I are going to do this Summer.

Can you have too much history while on vacation?

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6 Tips to Make Sure Your Fist Garb Doesn’t Suck

My first SCA outfit was horrendous!

I joined the SCA in the Fall after Braveheart came out and really wanted to dress as a Highlander of the 1290’s just like Mel Gibson. I went out and bought a large chunk of ‘tartan’ material and long socks. I made a basic T-tunic shirt and topped it all off with combat boots that I had at the time. I looked just like one of Wallace’s men. The problem was that it was all wrong! I won’t dwell on the particulars of my errors but they did help lead me to the following tips for new members of any historic group.

1. Do some research

Back in ’95 the Internet wasn’t the wealth of information it is today. Nowadays you can get a pretty good idea of what you want to make within an hour or so of surfing.

WARNING: not everything you will find on the Internet is correct. Be wary of what you read. The more recent the information the better chance that it is going to be correct.

If you know what timeframe/geographic area you are interested in try to find a webpage for a Living History/ Re-enactment group that covers it. They will usually have guidelines and/or picture galleries on their sites.

2. Make sure the pattern is correct

This flows out of doing research. Nothing looks worse than an outfit that is put together incorrectly. Make sure the seams are in the right place, the waist is at the appropriate level, the sleeves aren’t too long/short, etc. There are some great books and suppliers of patterns out there.

For my first outfit I had cut the sleeves too short and wore the belted plaid too high. I looked like I had borrowed my little sister’s school uniform.

3. Make the natural selection

This should go without saying but avoid synthetic materials at all costs! Cotton is good. Linen and wool are better. Whichever group you are joining might also have restrictions/minimum standards on what you can make your outfit from.

4. KISS

Unless you are an experienced seamstress/tailor you should try to keep your first outfit simple. Don’t try to recreate Lord Muckitymuck’s Accension Day outfit on your first attempt. Keeping it simple also has the added benefit of keeping the costs down as well.

Keeping it simple will also save you from ruining that nice new Renaissance or Elizabethan outfit with meters of nasty, cheap, metallic trim.

5. Put your best foot forward

I know I’m probably channelling SJP here but nothing ruins an outfit faster than the wrong pair of shoes. Please no sneakers. This may cost you a bit more money but it will be worth it. The Internet has plenty of sites where you can get decent reproductions or where you can find instructions on how to convert modern shoes into passable pair of historic looking ones.

6. Cover up

People don’t wear enough hats. For most of history men and women covered their heads and you should too.

This is just some of the advice I wished I had been given before my first foray into historic costuming. Do you have a favourite piece of advice for new costumers? Maybe a picture or description of your first attempt? If you do please leave a comment below.

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My First Love?

I have had a lifelong love of history although I didn’t know it myself. Looking back on some of the many family/school trips in my life, my favourite moments have all involved immersing myself in the past.

The best part of my Grade 8 trip to New Brunswick? It was the Carleton Martello Tower.

You would think that West Edmonton Mall would have been a highlight for me but instead Fort Edmonton got me all excited.

It didn’t get any better as I grew older.

While studying English Literature and History at university I became involved in the university’s Medieval Club which introduced me to Living History as a hobby. A hobby that I have enjoyed now for 15+ years.

I am often surprised at how history affects our lives in subtle ways. This is one of my motivations for starting TheHistoryphile.

I’m also an avowed research junkie. I really love to look things up. Something will pique my interest and I just have to find out more about it. My bookshelves at home can testify to this. This blog is somewhere to put my research so that I can share my addiction with others; others whom I hope will appreciate my efforts.

What are some of your experiences with the past? Leave a comment below and we can commiserate.

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Come sail away!

Welcome to my mad adventures through history. It may be a bit of a bumpy ride but it will definitely be worth it.

I’ll be using this blog as a repository for:

  • interesting historic facts as I come across them;
  • the research for projects I’ll be working on or wished I could work on;
  • any ramblings that I may have about how history affetcs our lives even though we may not be aware of it.

I’ll be posting at least a couple of times a week so came back often or you could just use the handy subscription button to the right to receive notifications of new posts.

You could also follow me on Twitter @TheHistoryphile.

So sit down, buckle yourself in and get ready for the adventure!

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