I’m wondering how people feel about anachronisms in historical fiction. Last week I came across a startling instance in a new paperback reprint of a well-received historical-type fantasy (perceived level of tech maybe 2nd or 3rd century CE). This is from a very respectable publisher, lots of critical attention, etc. Yet I hurled it across the room after reading for three minutes. Why? Because on page 5 a character feels a “thrill of electricity.” Electricity. In the 2nd century. In a fit of pique, I tossed it in the recycling.* And then tonight, rereading one of my all-time favourites, Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave, I found a fish “jackknifing.” It bothered me. Not enough to throw the book, but enough to pop me out of the story for a moment.

I’m working really hard while writing this novel about Hild to be rigorous with the language, probably to an excessive degree. For example, in one dreamy, other-wordly passage I wanted to talk about aconite, the poisonous purplish blue flower–but that name wasn’t around until the Normans. Okay, I thought, I’ll call it Monkshood. But, no, that makes no sense in a society with no monks (we’re in Northumbria, pre-Paulinus, pre-Aidan; no doubt there were some Brittonic-speaking priests skulking about but I can’t quite imagine monks). So, okay, how about Wolf’s Bane? Good–except apparently that usage wasn’t known until the tenth century. If I’ve done my research properly (and, as always, I welcome corrections), the Old English term for aconite was probably thung (þung), a generic term for poisonous plants. But, really, thung? Tuh. It’s not poetic at all. So I compromised and called it ‘the thung that people call Wolf’s Bane’–and one minute later deleted it. I can’t bear that level of clumsiness in fiction. So, despite all my efforts, the flower is now Wolf’s Bane and I just hope all the botanists and medievalists will not fling the book at the wall.

And I haven’t even begun to work out how to deal with the place name problem….

So, your thoughts? Will anyone even notice my (attempted) rigour? Am I being too fussy?

* Yes, I know, I should have recycled it via a loving home, or the library, or something, but it was a freebie (publishers send me a lot of stuff), and I suspect they sent out so many, and it’s such rubbish, that soon all potential loving homes will be inundated.

22 thoughts on “anachronism!

  1. Well, not being an expert on the early Middle Ages, but as your average ignorant reader, I suspect that I wouldn’t give Wolf’s Bane a second thought. Hell, I never even heard of aconite, but I have heard of Wolf’s Bane (in books). I don’t think it grows much in the U.S. I bet most botanists won’t be medievalists or vice versa. Having said that I am in agreement with your feelings about anachronisms. Electricity? That’s over the top.I think the pains that you are taking with these details will make a huge difference, and I applaud your efforts. Even if readers don’t notice it consciously, I think it will have an impact – the kind of impact that makes the difference between good and great.In a cursory search I found < HREF="" REL="nofollow">this bit that mentions Theophrastus<> naming it.

  2. The only one that really bothers me is “okay” before we said okay. Experts may quibble, but to me, a common reader, Wolf’s Bane is just a poisonous plant if that’s what you need to tell the story. I know that Mary Renault did not use anachronisms, but she was only oneof the world’s pre-eminent classics scholars. Lucky for us, she decided to write historical novels. Lucky for us so did you. All that careful research is an admirable foundation, not a prison. As long as you don’t have anyone say okay, out of gas or cool, your’e okay by me.

  3. I don’t think you are being fussy, the time and effort that you put in to the story shows. I for one appreciate it immensely. There is no shortage of poorly written stories in the market place. It is nice to find an author who respects her readers intellectual capabilities.

  4. I think this is just exactly the instance where poetic license is so handy. I know you were thrown out by an anachronism, and they are everywhere, but I would be more likely to have my disbelief de-suspended by a jangley turn of phrase.

  5. (What’s purplish-blue and sounds like a bell? þung)I think the “electricity” line is so jarring at least partially because electricity is emblematic of modernity. “Aconite” wouldn’t have a similar effect- even for an Old English expert, the associations brought to mind would probably be poison and treachery rather than Norman invasions.“Jackknifing” is transparently a metaphor referring to a modern object. When I read it, I see a jackknife. “Aconite” doesn’t have that problem either- it might have been evocative of something specific to the ancient Greeks, but I’m pretty sure it had become completely opaque long before the Normans brought it to English.So, yes, I have problems with the word-choice examples you raised, but to say they’re due to anachronism would be over-simplifying. If the goal is to choose the word most evocative of the world you’re trying to create, then I don’t think linguistic history is the most important factor.-Jonathan

  6. jennifer, I do think these things resonate at an unconscious level. The trick is trying to find out what lies in the ‘general reader’s’ unconscious.barbara, okay, no okays. But Renault wasn’t a classics scholar, her degree was in English, and her pre-writing profession was nursing. I love her work, and believe it was much admired at the time of publication. Though I don’t, on a conscious level, buy her portrayal of Alexander for a second, I absolutely believe her portrayal of the fictional character because her milieu was–to me, a non-expert in all things Greek/Macedonian–seamless.rory, I try to treat my readers the way I wish most writers would treat me as a reader.chadao, the key, I think, is maintaining suspension of disbelief. Bad phrasing is more likely to pop me out than a mildly anachronistic term. So it becomes a juggling act.jonathan, good point. Linguistic history is a starting point, a guideline, not an inflexible law. I have to bear in mind cultural baggage. Which introduces more complications: general readers in the US have different notions to general readers in the UK. So, in the end, it comes down to me, the writer, being final arbiter: what works for me? That way, at least, the ms. will have coherence. It might not be a coherence that’s to everyone’s taste (sigh) but at least it will be consistent.

  7. Have you looked in Stephen Pollington’s <>Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plantlore and Healing <>? It contains translations of the Old English Herbarium and Bald’s Leechbook. Its a treasure trove of medical lore and I would think perfect for novelists.

  8. What instinct! From pg. 166-167 of Pollington’s Leechcraft:“Wolfsbane see Thung, Aconite. This is a powerful poison which causes severe restriction of breathing, giddiness, numbness and reduced heart rate. If not treated, its effects can prove fatal. Its name comes from its use to poison meat left as bait for wolves.” Pollington on Aconite: “Aconite see Thung: Aconite (known as Monkshood or Blue Rocket) is known to have been collected for use both fresh and dried (mainly the root) for many centuries and is now used in very dilute form as a pain-killer. However, it is such a fierce and deadly poison that it is unlikely to have been used so successfully in ancient times. Under the name Wolfsbane it formed a poisonous bait for wolves. Aconite is also believed to have been an ingredient in witches ‘flying ointment’, a potent blend of stimulants and narcotics that may have induced ‘out-of-body’ experiences. Monkshood (aconitum anglicum) is peculiar to the British Isles, confined in the wild to the western counties.” p. 95-95.

  9. >Blue Rocketthat sings, but even it dates no earlier than the 1500s [as name for a plant, of course; as label for a device, 1600s]. your struggle, tho', puts me in mind of gene wolfe's solution to describing things, in english, in a future setting so distant that the name 'english' isn't even a memory: throughout the book of the new sun novels, he uses latinate labels that we know are placeholders. 'ascians' for residents of the equator, 'destrier' for the mounts [which, almost assuredly, are /not/ horses], and so on. seems to me the balance you seek is a similar one, as the words you'll attribute to hild and co. won't be what would've exited their mouths, but rather an approximation, yes?

  10. Go ahead and use Wolfs Bane; the dates in OED are based on when someone spots a use–and they’re not all that reliable–I’ve submitted fifteen “earlier attestations” myself to the OED–and we don’t actually have a lot in Old English before the tenth century.I can ask someone with access to the right books (everything is now in storage!) to check for an Old Irish name, if you’d like.

  11. edward, yes, it’s about style consistency. That’s one of the things that develop as I go along; by the time I get to the end, I’ll have figured it out. Then I rewrite to make it conform.lisa, wolfsbane it is. Cool. Thank you. As for the Old Irish, I am–of course!–curious but there’s no rush. I can wait til you get your books out of storage hell. I hope your move goes smoothly.

  12. You ask such interesting questions. The suffix “-bane” added to plant names seems relatively late even though the source is obviously Anglo-Saxon “bana” = slayer, killer. But Lisa is right that it is certainly possible that “wolfsbane” simply isn’t recorded but could still have been being used. One other possibility is that the unlovely “thung” could be used as a suffix to make a proper name “wolfthung, wolfesthung” or “wolvesthung,” though those are unattractive consonant clusters and hard to parse without seeing “hung” in there. “Thung” was apparently the generic term for “poisonous plant.”However, you could take philological liberties and construct a folk-etymology situation in which the word is “wolfesthung” and gets, at some point, mis-heard as “wolves-tongue” and then passed along for some generations before “thung / tongue” is replaced with “bane”… especially since one of the symptoms of poisoning with the plant is swelling and numbness of the tongue. I guess the question is whether you think “wolfsbane” has too many pop-fantasy connotations when you are creating an accurate historical feel. Very tangentially related: a few words on plants and their colors, < HREF="" REL="nofollow">particularly fuchsias and foxgloves<>.

  13. michael, I loved the philological ramble through the bluebells and foxgloves. Delicious. And very pleasing to me because in an early (unpublished) fantasy novella I use the name Vuhs for a ghost fox. I’m feeling very pleased with myself.For now I think I’m going to go with wolfsbane when describing the particular flower and thung when talking about brewing potions. But I’m enjoying this conversation immensely. Thank you.

  14. I read a Generic Medieval Fantasy one time that was describing the twin princes that were born “8 minutes apart.” That’s where the book would have been thrown across the room and the reading ceased if it was discretionary reading. Where in this pre-industrial society is the timepiece that can measure exactly 8 minutes or even the concept of “minutes?” This said to me that no one involved in the book from author through editor and copy editor was paying attention or cared about this sort of thing. It enforced to me how generic and non-thought out the GMF really was.

  15. dave, when I was really tired this afternoon I came *this* close to having one of my characters say, “Wait a minute.” I made my own eyeballs bulge in horror. So then I stopped, ate half a jar of olives and had a beer…

  16. OK, so I agree that electricity per se is an anachronism but it is also wrong to think that the early medieval world did not understand the power of lightning, or static, or those little shocks one gets when one’s wool skirt rubs and then you touch someone else. They may not have known the science like we did but then did know about sparks, and that electric feeling. So while the writer’s word choice may have been wrong, the sensation she was trying to convey was not.As a recovering medievalist I’m not really bothered much about anachronisms as they are so very much a part of how the modern world views the middle ages. Indeed some of those “things people know to be true about the middle ages” are often what gets students interested in studying the time period that they eventually uncover the “real” medieval world is the prize at the end. So I’ll over look things like chastity belts, first night rights, and the idea that the people thought the world was flat and take the romance of the middle ages to turn students and readers onto the really wonderful stuff that is out there.Hild is a great example of that wonderful stuff. I’m excited to hear that you’re writing a novel of her life and trust that it will turn others onto the fascinating lives that we know of. Margery Kempe, Marie de France, Christine de Pizan, Hrotsvita, Etheldreda, and Hild are just a few of the women that we should know more of.So I might laugh at the anachronism of a naked Chaucer on a road and knights jousting to the rythmns of Queen I’ll not dismay because somewhere someone is thinking, cool! And then they start down the pilgrim’s path.AnonShellyP.S. Use the name of the plant that feels best to you. I trust that in your search for the right words that you’ll remember that Saxon poets were so very found of those little two word poems we call kennings, as well as puns, riddles, and double entendre–wordplay was a joy to them and in our search for what is real it often leads us to forget or overlook the humor. For example, in thinking about Beowulf our image of him is as hero, kind, monster killer, dragon slayer, warior but we forget that Bhis name means “Bee Wolf” or bear and is sort of a joke about a “wulf” that hunts honey. Now does Beowulf evoke Winnie the Pooh? Probably not, but that does give a different color to a poem that does have a bit of humor in it. Anyway I’m babbling on because I’ve not had my tea this morning. Forgive my blather, hwaet!

  17. I enjoyed your blather. All very interesting.Yes, I’m with you on pre-moderns of all stripes understanding static and lightning etc. but story occurs at the interface between text and reader–and readers know that the word ‘electricity’ means cables and generators and when they see it they’re helpless before the sudden invasion of tech-based imagery.I have nothing against deliberate anachronism–I absolutely loved A Knight’s Tale–but I want to write the kind of novel that sweeps the reader off their feet, that makes them nod and think, <>Yes, this is how it was<>.I’m hoping to have some word play but play takes up a lot of space. I’m layering in a series of scenes with the medieval equivalent of Shakespeare’s Rude Mechanicals, using class and (to a degree) ethnicity i.e. British vs. Anglisc to allow for humour. (Think of Sam and the other hobbits’ dialogue in comparison to that of Aragorn and Gandalf.) But I may end up having to lose a lot of that. Sigh.

  18. Probably beside the point, but Egyptians BCE understood the effects of the (electric) sheatfish, and Scribonius Largus CE46 recommended using the torpedo fish for curing headaches. I do rather like Pullman’s ‘anbaric light’ — though I don’t know that Roman novelists wrote of a thrill like an anbaric shock. For that matter, when did that kind of metaphor in writing really come into fashion (writing from depths of literary gnorance, here).

  19. There are so many different kinds of metaphor (bless the list makers of the world). Wikipedia has a < HREF="" REL="nofollow">handy entry<> (and tells us that it’s been going on since the <>Epic of Gilgamesh<>). Anbaric is a fun word; I want it to be related to other ‘an-‘ words such as anaerobic and anabiosis etc. But of course it’s not.

  20. Ok, since I stumbled across this I have to make mention of something. First, I LOVED “Hild”. I recommend it to my SCA friends. That said, when Hild goes shopping she uses Pennies. At that time it would have been the Gold Tremiss (Found at Sutton Hoo) and perhaps the Frisian and/or Saxon Sceatta. The Penny didn't come into use until late 700s. The 12 pennies to the Schilling, 20 Schillings to the Pound system was created by Charlemagne. Now, you could argue that Penny is derived from the word “weight” so maybe you could have called it a penny. Still, it is really not the right term for Hild. Anyway, you probably “pushed a button” for all 100 of us Medieval coin geeks. Looking forward to Hild II Hopefully with Sceattas and not pennies. 🙂

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