When What We Think We Know, Is Actually Wrong

Some years ago a reviewer on amazon.com took me to task for a blindingly ignorant mistake I had made in my work.  He was disgusted, it seems, by my complete lack of research and knowledge about the military in history.  In either King’s Dragon or Prince of Dogs (volumes 1 & 2, respectively, of the 7 volume Crown of Stars series), I persistently wrote about armies whose numbers ranged in the high hundreds to at most 2 thousand.  I mean, the Romans fielded armies of thousands and tens of thousands much earlier than the early Middle Ages setting I was using as my template for the Crown of Stars world.  How he hated it when writers just made things up, and didn’t do their research!

Except, of course, I had done my research.  I was right, and he was wrong, about the size of armies in the early Middle Ages, and especially and particularly in the region and period I had most heavily drawn from, 9th and 10th century Germany.

As far as I can tell, he was drawing on what he thought he knew based on what we think we know based on the various floating understood understandings of what everyone knows to be true because . . . well, because.

Because it is the generic generalized and inaccurate picture we have been given or have absorbed in our education.  Sometimes it is a lazy generalization that’s been misunderstood as the specific.  Sometimes it is an old and now-proven-wrong belief or interpretation whose error persists because the more accurate and up to date fact hasn’t yet percolated down into the broad substrate of general knowledge.  Sometimes it is some form of prejudice manifesting itself.  Sometimes it is just plain wrong.

I’m reminded of the story I heard from a writer friend whose copy editor “kindly” pointed out that the writer needed to cut the place(s) where a character took a bath because “people didn’t bathe in the Middle Ages.”

I’m reminded of the exhibit in the National Museum of Denmark showing average stature across the last 2000 years, based on actual skeletal measurement:  the medieval era man was taller and more robust (and longer lived) than the early modern era man.  The effects of disease and poor diet took their toll on early modern era man far more so than on medieval dude.  It wasn’t until the 19th century that the “average man” got back to his medieval health and height.  Go figure.  (But it explains the ferocity and fearsomeness of my Viking ancestors, no?)

Inaccurately-known knowns pop up with all too familiar regularity in novels written to conform to what we think we know about, say, certain historical times and our assumptions about that history, or cultures “not our own” which we have previously viewed and interpreted only through our own cultural lens.  (Heck, I’ve committed such errors myself–alas and alack–and I fully expect I will do so again.

What are your favorite or most irritating examples of this phenomenon?

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  1. 1. Kari Sperring

    Yes, yes and yes. In my other life (as mediaevalist) these are the assumptions I am dealing with day after day.

  2. 2. Elias McClellan

    I’m reminded of reading how restrictive plate-armor was. How limiting in motion and how a knight unhorsed or knocked on his back would not be able to rise on his own. Then I read the epics of and other works, including a contemporary account of an English Marshall turning a cartwheel in full plate and helmet.

    As a rule, most people latch onto and cling to a specific piece of information, right or wrong. That doesn’t even begin to address the mutations of information that occur once it is firmly locked in our noodle. And as much as we rail against them, I think generalizations are the favorite pieces of info for our brains.

    I just caution against creating new generalizations from specific instances/examples. In ‘Poland,’ Mitchner contrasts the wealthy, well fed Magnates as large powerful men, against the poorly fed surfs that were small and sturdy but short-lived. Generalizations, sure, but at least there is a variance in the generalization.

  3. 3. heteromeles

    Disclaimer, Kate: I haven’t read your series, so feel free to excoriate me if you’re one of the non-offenders.

    Anyway: swords. Swords? What the heck are they doing littering the medieval fantasy battlefield anyway? The generic hero always has a sword. If there’s a magical weapon, 90% of the time it’s a sword.

    Where are the spears and axes? Those were the weapons most people used. If you think of a spear as a 2-4 meter long rapier that costs a little more than a dagger (i.e. the spearhead), you’ll realize why. And axes are better at going through armor than any non-magical sword, which is probably why the buggers need to be magical. Swords were better for cutting down peasants than taking down Sir Evil Antagonist in his plate armor anyway.

    Or quarterstaves. They should be all over too. Especially if you put a metal spike on each end (see “tipstaff” in England, as carried by Medieval cops). Remember Robin Hood’s duel with Little John? Last I saw, the BBC Robin Hood series had them using (you guessed it) swords.

    Oh yes, and a longsword isn’t a katana. There’s a profusion of YouTube videos and books on the subject, and it’s easy to do research. Heck, if you want to learn the basics of handling a spear or axe, go to Cold Steel’s website. And don’t bother quoting The Book of Five Rings about how the sword is the most versatile weapon. Musashi was right, in a civilian, post Civil War Japan situation, if you happened to be a samurai. If that’s not your setting, it’s worth thinking some more.

    Anyway, sorry for the rant. If you can’t tell, I’m a weapons enthusiast (not an expert by far), and thing I like about weapons is how arms choices reflect both culture and environment. I get annoyed with the video-game approach to armament, because there are so many cultural and logistical choices that go into arming someone that it’s a great way to introduce the world he or she lives in.

    And BTW, I think swords are lovely and own a couple. They’re just overused as props, and often the authors don’t have a clue what the they can and can’t do. I’ve also seen too many rapier or rapier equivalents used to behead people (or recently, take someone’s arm off through the bone) to suspend disbelief any longer. Do your research, folks!

  4. 4. Elias McClellan

    Heteromeles I see your point, all puns intended, and agree. What I think feeds this sword-silliness is the same derailed train of thought that insists on Kings, Queens, Princes, Princesses, Dukes, Barons, Doges, Counts, and on and on and on. It’s classist, royalist, foolishness.

    See ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail;’ the line about the king between the two peasants. Being nobel, (yawn) means you don’t dig in the sh!t. Carrying a sword must mean you’re important and not just a spear-chunker. BTW this is a major issue that needs addressing; you throw a javelin, (short, straight, lite-weight, simple point) y’know, like a missle. You wield a spear, (heavy to deal with horses, long to deal with nobel-@ssholes on horses, pointed dependent upon intent) and you impale, slash, and guard with it.

    Oh, if you simply MUST have some blue-blood, royalist-boob, swinging the ol’ meat-cleaver, don’t have him using it to counter other swords, axes, etc. That’s why God gave us shields. If you’re clanging away with yon-excaliber, it’s not gonna be so keen when it’s time for the the cutting. That’s if you haven’t broken yon-Gillette in all the heroic goings-on.

    You think this is just a fantasy trope? Oh, no. See most infantrymen/women want pistols, ‘cuz they look cool. Never mind that 4/5 of combat is sheer numbers or the amount of lead you put on a target before the target puts it on you. You don’t aim, heroically taking down bad-guys in slow-mo. You hide behind cover, (if you’re lucky) and stick your long-gun out and cap-away. Your .223 or .308 rifle round is gonna go further, faster, and do far more damage than that cool .45 or 9mm p!sser. Still, everybody wants their Nina or 1911. But then everybody wants to be an officer and not a grunt. Me? I’m up on the hill, with a sling-shot and rocks, 200 yards from the battle. I also damn all gentlemen and call ALL men ‘sir.’ But then I’m not much for swords. Go figure.

  5. 5. Andrew A. A.

    My current biggest complaint when it comes to combat is the term Martial Arts. Every Combat oriented culture had a Martial Art. Some of the Martial Arts have been lost because technology overcame fighting styles in quick waves of destructive adavantages. And because of lack of recorded history. Yes, some combat had culturally restrictive rules, But combat had to work with what was around. And this took training and focus and ritualif one was to become the elite in combat.

    Just read an article about Jeremiah Johnson (Liver Eater, Crow Killer) used kicks in his mountain man private war against the Crows and how this proved something. Well The Native Americans in the area that Jeremiah Johnson ranged were well trained in kicks and had kick games. But was this mentioned by this Asian Trained MA who wrote the article. No. (Ignorance on Native cultures is another sticking point for me)

    The illusionary mysticism of Asain Combat Arts is mostly based on their kicking styles and cutting weapons. Western European Biases to kick fighting (Ignoring fight styles of things like Sabbat) was heavily based on Rapier work of the Renaissance which was a jabbing weapon. American Boxing academies followed the same techniques throughout 18th through early 20th century but most schools practiced wrestling almost daily(Part of fighting history buried by monetary necessity in specialization.) But these Martial Arts still worked.

    I guess the grass is always greener on someone elses battlefields.

  6. 6. Laura

    You know, I am going to answer this one as a reader. What ever happened to just enjoying a book for it’s story and the break it gives you from reality, which is why you pick up fantasy and not a book report.

    I read a book and enjoy it for it’s self, not to pick it apart for it technicalities.

    If you want truth and fact, try non-fiction. Or a book report.

    Yeeesh! And to think I want to become a fantasy writer. Is it really worth it?

  7. 7. S.C. Butler

    The cavalry charge through the woods at the beginning of Gladiator. Aiiee!!

  8. 8. Kate Elliott

    But . . But . . .Russell Crowe! Oh, wait, you were talking about accuracy. I didn’t notice. ; )

  9. 9. Kate Elliott

    Laura,

    I think you bring up an important point. Some readers will get thrown out of the book by inaccuracies that bug them; other readers will get thrown out of the books not by such things, but by unsympathetic characters or plodding plots, and don’t mind the things that aren’t, say, historically accurate as long as the story is appealing enough. I think that is fair enough — I think every reader has to be the reader s/he wants to be, rather than the reader someone else wants him/her to be or thinks s/he ought to be.

    Of course, I admit that in my case, in the example I used at the beginning of the post, I was taken to task as a writer by a reader who was “thrown out of the book” by something he considered wrong, which was in fact right.

  10. 10. Kate Elliott

    No worries. I have my spears, axes, and bows. It is a good point, one worth mentioning.

  11. 11. Kate Elliott

    Laura,

    I wanted to add that for me, personally, as a reader, I find that if I am being asked to read in a fantasy world and the worldbuilding is about at the level of the Comedy Central show Krod Mandoon (which could be quite funny at times), then I do tend to have trouble continuing reading because the setting is like a very rough stage set and I stop believing in the reality of the world the characters are supposedly in.

    otoh, in such cases, if the writer hasn’t thought through the world very deeply, I often find that the writer also hasn’t thought through the characterization and plot very deeply either.

    But that’s really a different subject (although an excellent one).

    I think the main thing in terms of reading, for me (as I’ve said elsewhere) is that I don’t want to be bored. I can accept a lot, as long as I’m not bored.

  12. 12. Kate Elliott

    btw, I love the phrase “the video-game approach to armament”

  13. 13. Judith Tarr

    The writer’s job is to get it right. That means getting the facts straight AND telling a good story. The casual and pleasure reader should enjoy it, but so should the picky reader.

    I’m a picky reader. I also like to enjoy what I read. But if the author is getting major things dead wrong and building the plot around them with no sense of irony or gonzo, I’m outta there. Life’s too short.

    Oh, and yeah. I get Erroneous Common Knowledge “corrections,” too. It’s a good thing to set the reader straight, kindly and with respect, because the reader -cares.- A reader who cares is well worth cultivating.

  14. 14. Elias McClellan

    Laura, that’s just the point we/I’m trying to make. There is nothing wrong with a reader, reading for enjoyment. But as a reader (and aspiring writer) I’m sick to death of tropes, which to me is just pretty word for cliche and robes me of the enjoyment. You like your kings and queens, swords and sorcery, great, I’m happy for you.

    There are guys who love their John Norman books. (I can’t imagine a woman reading this tripe.) But I prefer a female character that is more than a set-piece. Lord of the Rings, great, but I’d rather read something a little more reflective of other cultures/beliefs. The issue is in the details.

    There are no original stories but there are original ideas; these are the dreams, inspirations, and germs of creativity. A trope, cliche, stereo-type, or generalization kills that and turns it into a happy-meal book. I think the point is to craft the best possible story for the hard-earned-jack the reader is passing over the counter, if not for your own self-worth as a story teller.

  15. 15. Farah

    Norming to the 1950s. About anything.

  16. 16. Hayley E. Lavik

    I’ll chime in with a non-fantasy one that always gets me: pretty much any portrayal of police. I don’t read or watch much in the way of crime shows, but so much of what I see just defies plain common sense. Wandering through crime scenes touching everything, tasting unidentified substances to confirm that they’re blood or drugs (so brilliant).

    If it’s not that, people often seem to use them as objects for the plot, and forget they should actually be real people…making them do stupid things or setting them up just so they can get shot by the guy they’ve pulled over (Fargo is a good example of that) when plain old common sense (and, you know, all that training they go through) would prevent such a situation. They become a means of making things happen in the plot, and that’s not a form of good characterization for anyone.

  17. 17. heteromeles

    Laura,

    You do make a good point, and there are a number of books (series even) that I’m willing to read even though the writer has a serious case of the lazies.

    That said, I’ll use a real-world weapons example to show you what Kate (and I) are talking about.

    There’s a type of knife called a kukri that’s used by people in Nepal and northern India. If you don’t know it, it’s shaped a bit like a boomerang. Most teenage boys learn about them through knife magazines, RPGs (the game, not the grenade) and so forth. Now, kukris are used by the Gurkhas, who fight for the UK (OT: there’s a great picture of Prince Harry carrying a kukri in Afghanistan), and most boys learn the famous story of the British officer who was following behind a Gurkha charge, where they’d drawn their kukris and charged a German position. He found a dead german soldier, head split to the chin by a kukri that had gone right through his helmet and lodged in his jaw. The gurkha couldn’t pry his weapon loose, so he went charging on armed with who knows what.

    Anyway, that is what most people know about kukris, that they are capable of massive chops. Through helmets even.

    Now, contrast that with a company that has sold me a bunch of kukris in the last few years (Google on khukuri if you want to find them, I’m not advertising here). The “khuks” are the standard utility knife of the central Himalayas. They use them for everything from cutting wood to peeling potatoes to even plowing really steep fields (there’s a great you-tube video of an American chef deboning and filleting an entire salmon with a large khukuri, which is an educaiton in blade handling. But I digress). Khuks aren’t that expensive, but Nepal is a poor country, and as a result, many people only own a single knife, a khukuri, with which they cut everything. Those blades usually last 40-50 years under everyday use, and they’re normally passed from parents to offspring. The company I buy from has a deal with a small khukuri forge in a Nepalese village. They pay the smiths a living wage to make traditional khukuris, and they sell them in the US and elsewhere. These blades are made out of recycled metal, using more-or-less sustainable technology (e.g. a third world traditional forge), and they’re designed and warrantied to last 50 years of everyday use. It’s a great little company that’s helping a lot of people in Nepal and in the US, and I’m glad to buy knives from them.

    Laura, that’s the difference we’re talking about. In a cheap generic war novel, a writer will use the kukri as an exotic, heavy metal chopper for some slanty-eyed warrior to cut off people’s heads. Or you can use the same blade to talk about how people deal with the poverty and harsh conditions of the mountains by making these utility blades that are tough enough for people to count on them, and how people use these blades to set up compassionate networks to help low-caste blacksmiths send their children to medical school so that a remote village can have a doctor (true story, incidentally).

    Depends on which story you want to tell.

  18. 18. Madeleine Robins

    Many years ago, when a copy editor went over my first book, set in England in 1810, she flagged for revision my assertion that the cows on the village green were being milked on a Sunday. “But…blue laws! Day of rest! Not supposed to do anything on Sunday except go to church.”

    Blue Laws, I told her, were a New World invention.

    Cows, I reminded her, don’t get a day of rest. If they’re producing milk they must be milked.

    But the copy editor knew that no one should be working on Sunday. Except she didn’t have any problem with servants preparing and serving food to the main character and her family. Somehow that wasn’t work.

    The tricky thing is when something popular knowledge says didn’t happen really did. There are words I cannot use when writing about the past, not because they didn’t use them, but because they did but no one would believe it. If I characterized someone as a dude in England in 1830, visions of Keanu Reeves would swim through readers’ heads–despite the fact that it is historically accurate. In the same way, after Point of Honour and Petty Treason came out I had a reader complain about the fact that Royal Dukes were sometimes referred to as “Wales” or “Cambridge” or “York.” That was disrespectful, and no one would do it. Except that letters from that era show that the upper classes did, at least in written communication, refer to them just that way.

    So, Kate: did you set the reader straight about medieval armies, or just let him go on with his misconceptions?

  19. 19. zornhau

    Gah! hard to know where to beging. Military details mostly, especially relatign to sword fighting, since that is what I teach. There’s no excuse! Most eras are covered by an Osprey book, and there are historical combat manuals online.

    Beyond that, anything where faith and on-the-spot ingenuity magically succeed over the collective wisdom of a military establishment, or an established technology. Rolling carts at a phalanx doesn’t work. Throwing dust in the eye of a swordsman is harder than it looks (and more cliche). And so on… (rants on my blog)

  20. 20. Felila

    The current belief that corsets were evil instruments of torture, inflicted on suffering womankind.

    I don’t own a corset, but I have heard from several SCAdians and historical reenactors that if they are well-fitted and not tight-laced, they can be comfortable. One well-endowed woman said that she found a corset more comfortable than a bra, because the weight of her breasts was supported from below, not suspended from her shoulders.

    Late nineteenth century fashionistas did tightlace, which provoked an anti-corset backlash, the effects of which are still felt today. Most people *know* that corsets are bad. Historical romances allude to the evils of corsets. The first Pirates of the Caribbean movie has a scene in which the heroine faints after donning a corset. Corset bad!

  21. 21. --E

    SC Butler: Along with the Gladiator charge in the woods (hey, it’s a clearing! Sort of…), I love contrasting how in Braveheart the Scots use long spears to shatter the English knights’ charge, but somehow in both The Two Towers and The Return of the King, the Rhohirrim are immune to that same tactic as used by the orcs.

    Madeleine Robins: I recently saw someone bemoaning the use of “reckon” as for counting (“reckoning numbers”) in a historical romance set in Regency England. A quick peek in the OED shows just how old that word is. Language that Americans consider “old West” American is quite close to British English of the same period–the languages have diverged over the last 200 years. How many generations do people think those frontiersmen were from the Old Country?

    ——

    I’m reading this and I’m thinking, “Crap, I don’t make use of axes and spears!” and then I’m recalling that that’s because I don’t do war scenes. I tend to write duels and back-alley ambushes.

    I need to make more use of improvised clubs.

    The bad combat tropes I hate in books (though it’s much more common/visible in movies) are two:

    1. Fights (between individuals) taking a long time as they both slowly get beaten up. I’m willing to forgive this a little for the sake of drama but I do hate the number of times characters get stabbed or clocked on the head and it doesn’t slow them down. Think how distracted (and momentarily disabled) you get simply by stubbing your toe.

    2. Fights where the combatants wait for each other. This is really obvious in badly-choreographed movies where the actors are (a) holding back the punch or sword-swing until the other actor is ready, and (b) visibly attacking the other guy’s weapon instead of his body.

  22. 22. heteromeles

    @20 –E: Not to worry. English town “policemen” used “tipstaves,” basically quarterstaffs with a sharp metal point on each end, and I once knew a girl whose last name was Catchpole (her ancestors were English constables–you can figure out the name). In Germany, people dueled with pikes and halberds. And then there were those morning stars used by the town militia… Anyway, you can easily use long weapons in a medieval town.

    It looks like the warning to fantasy writers is to do the weapons research early and often, early so that your fight scenes gel around what was possible, not how you want it to look, and often, because as Zornhau and others have noted, there is more medieval martial arts material coming on-line every year, and people are expecting more authenticity. This isn’t bad. As a comparison, from the 60s to the present, you can see some maturation of the treatment of Asian martial arts depictions in the US, as people became more used to what was and was not possible.

    On a non-warfare note, I do have a question for the real historians: Was there really a nightly brawl in your typical medieval tavern? It sure seems that way in fiction.

  23. 23. Tom Gallier

    Kate said: I think the main thing in terms of reading, for me (as I’ve said elsewhere) is that I don’t want to be bored. I can accept a lot, as long as I’m not bored.

    Well said. I agree wholeheartedly. Some of my very favorite stories/series had terrible problems, some of which threw me out of the story and made me go WTF? But they also entertained me immensely, so I’ve actually re-read them. Something I rarely do.

  24. 24. Alma Alexander

    I remember a novel (which SHALL remain nameless…) where the trope was the classic, you know, modern-day young man who gets yanked out of his own time and into pseudo-medieval where he is to fulfil some great and incomparable destiny… okay, we shall skate over how this modern dude now wanders about the place carting this HU-MUN-GOUS two-handed bastard sword (the kind that needs a scabbard worn across one’s back, because it’s too damned long and unwieldy and heavy to carry at one’s side…which needs a certain amount of skill just to DRAW OUT OF THE SCABBARD SAFELY without cutting your own neck or breaking your wrists – but okay – it’s magic – he wears it, he can use it, okay…)

    There’s a scene where our hero and his henchmen (a poor and pathetic lot, but hey, henchmen they were) are sailing along a fairly large and deep river on a boat. The boat gets boarded by the EEEVIL GUYS. The boat gets upset. EVERYONE’s in the drinkl.

    Our hero swims to shore.

    WITH THE BROADSWORD IN HIS HANDS.

    All I could do was sit there and sputter something about wondering if the author had ever laid EYES on a bastard sword, never mind tried to lift one adn GOD FORBID tried to wield one.

    Gah.

  25. 25. Dan Goodman

    “How many generations do people think those frontiersmen were from the Old Country?”

    But keep in mind that some of the frontiersmen came from areas where the local form of English was heavily influenced by Scots, Ulster Scots, German, Dutch, Irish English; or by some combination of several of these.

  26. 26. Ritu Chaudhry

    The Aryan Invasion Theory – Propounded by Mssrs. Wheeler and Muller, the theory served its purpose of convincing the Indians that the civilisation they take so much pride in was a result of an invasion from Europe. The theory has severly discredited over the last 2 decades but is still taught in schools and finds mention in books and it sets my teeth on the edge. Apologists for the theory will still drag out one line from this text, one from another and hold that it works. In face of contradictory genetic evidence and Chinese scrolls from the time which attribute a totally different reason for the migration.

    The confusion between ‘jati’ and ‘varna’ when the caste system is described.

    Weird claims about the nature of Indian society [and look, India is weird enough for a million novels].

    People writing about the prehistpric era and using 21st C reference points and descriptions.

  27. 27. London

    Okay, so, forgive me if this is not quite on topic, but you all seem like a knowledgeable bunch, and this has been bothering me for, well, yonks, I suppose. ;) Why do the Spartans in 300 have pseudo-English accents? Why the prevalence of English accents in so many imaginary worlds in general, to the point where it seems almost expected? Obviously if you have a made-up world based on say, an Asian culture, the lower middle class city-dwellers in that world would not say “nuffink.” Their nobility/aristocracy/upper class would not say “I daresay,” etc.
    Yet I’ve been critiqued for having characters who sound too informal (=American?) in my Ancient Mediterranean-inspired original world. I’m not sure it would be any more authentic if my characters had Greek or Latin tones to their speech, since it’s a fantasy world, and it would make the dialogue much harder to relate to or understand.
    What is the best way to deal with inflection/accents in original worlds, do you think?

  28. 28. Doug Hulick

    FWIW, halberds and other polearms were one of the standard weapons issued to city guards in the later medieval and Renaissance eras. They are wonderful crowd control, and a line of them across the street is not something you want to see. I’ve done a little work with them, and they’re darn impressive, even one on one.

    There are also Spanish manuals that detail the use of great swords for clearing streets, controlling a room, clearing a stairway, etc., all meant to be used by bodyguards. This is something I am definitely hoping to use in the next book. :)

  29. 29. Jaws

    As a combat-on-paper-trained military historian , I had to choke at the objection that Nameless Amazon Reviewer made. There’s a strong, historical correlation among army size, population size, and famine for preindustrial cultures (that is, those cultures for which agricultural work depends upon muscle power):

    If raised army size actually in the field and not on garrison duty (for a period greater than or equal to an entire growing season) exceeds 1% of the supporting population size, the probability of famine within twelve months following is 75% for non-snow-bound cultures and over 90% for snow-bound cultures.

    Keep in mind that the Roman Empire was primarily a non-snow-bound culture, at least as far as its food supply went. Those “thousands” in the legions? Compare them to the Empire’s population…

    Although dark/middle ages European rulers didn’t have either the data or the statistical tools that we have today, they weren’t entirely stupid, either; there was at least an intuitive understanding of this relationship. The neofeudal sixty-day levee period is, not coincidentally, less than one growing period…

    In short, context matters. The author was right and the Nameless Amazon Reviewer was wrong… and not just as a matter of taste, either.

    And, on the weapons front:

    There’s a huge difference between the weapons of code duello and the weapons of military circumstance (in which all those nasty strangers are trying to ensure that you don’t have a nice, clinically sterile one-on-one duel). One of the reasons that the sword became a “mystical weapon” is that it could not outreach a halberd/pike/staff… and that, therefore, the royal guard could keep a mere sword-wielder out of reach of the King. And the historical use of swords by the Roman legions is as much an indictment of joinery and wood-seasoning of that time as anything else, but also reflects that the legions were often not fighting against organized opposition with polearms.

    I think what I’m really trying to say here is that “context isn’t just important — it’s determinative.”

  30. 30. Calyx Ro

    Whenever I’m hit over the head with The Golden Age of Islam and given a lecture on how much more civilised the Islamic world was during the Middle Ages than Europe. This usually includes the following statements:
    1: That Europeans thought the world was flat until Columbus proved them wrong. In fact, Mediterranen navigators knew this even in ancient times, and it wasn’t forgotten by Columbus’ time.
    2: That the Islamic world kept knowledge of the Greek philosophers alive when Europe would have forgotten them. Considering that the Catholic Church based its geocentric world view partly on Aristotle’s ideas, and monks were busy copying the works of quite a few of the ancient greeks all through the Middle Ages, this theory is weak.
    3: That the golden age of science and philosophy in this period was a direct result of Islamic doctrine. Quite a few of the great mathematicians and philosophers of the time were not at all steeped in Islamic tradition, but rather representatives of conquered peoples which had their own scientific traditions. This includes quite a few Persians and Uzbeks who took Arab names, including al-Khw?rizm?, the great Persian mathematician. What the spread of Islam did was give them a common language, a great network and the freedom to work in a culture that was then quite a lot more open-minded than it is today.

    It bothers me when people use faulty arguments to engage in a cultural superiority contest, no matter which side they are on. Equally, the assumption that a culture is the same now as it was more than a thousand years ago – anywhere.

  31. 31. Elias McClellan

    Calyx Ro, you mean how Vlad the Impaler is depicted as turning back the superior-in-numbers, inferior-in-combat Ottomans? That’s one of my favorites. Especially when considering that until the late 17th century, the Ottomans only ever quit Europe when confronted by plague or onset of winter or some combination of the two.

    Yeah, we’re a little selective in our cultural biases/defense, aren’t we? Read K S Robinson’s ‘The Years of Rice and Salt.’ Talk about a cultural axe to grind. He continues his anti-Muslim rantings in the Mars Trilogy. I wonder if he was stung by a Muslim as a child?

  32. 32. heteromeles

    @31: Elias, I think you’re traveling backwards in time, because Robinson’s Mars Trilogy predates Years of Rice and Salt by six years for the third book, or ten years for the first. I didn’t see the Mars books as anti-Muslim, but then again, I definitely don’t have an axe to grind. I just noted that Robinson wasn’t Muslim and got on with it. I didn’t particularly like the Years of Rice and Salt, but I thought it was boring, not racist.

    By the way: note to people building on Mars or the asteroids: insulation to the freezing ground helps. Robinson forgot that little detail in his Mars books, which made me giggle.

  33. 33. Elias McClellan

    Heteromeles, I concede the point of order in book-release. I cited based on the order in which I read them. As to prejudices, in ‘Years,’ KSR refers to Islam, and I’m paraphrasing here, ‘as a dusty, desert religion born in the dusty minds of desert dwellers.’

    I know, I know, that’s his character’s words, but he doesn’t pause to refute or contest that with any other dialogue or comment. Nor does he note that Judeo-Christian faith was born in the same neighborhood.

    In ‘Mars’ he consistently stoops to generalizations in constructing a cycle of abuse in Islam and again, I paraphrase, ‘women abused by men, abuse their sons, who intern abuse their wives.’

    He doesn’t cite or construct any generalizations of the Catholic Church or the LDS folks, the Scientologists, or even the Moonies. Only the Muslims receive his special attention. This was something I noticed across four books; right along with what a tedious slog it was to read those four books.

  34. 34. Calyx Ro

    @31: Elias, yes, I guess that too although I don’t know so much about good old Vlad. What I do know about the history of the Balkans is that very often the reasons why something happened were extremely local and complex and can’t be reduced to a clash between civilisations/empires. I am trying to keep track of the ever-changing map of Serbia since the First Serbian Uprising and getting very confused. The interesting thing is when you talk to people and realise that everybody’s family is from somewhere else than where they live – they were all refugees from something at some point.

    I think the problem is not so much selectivity as basic ignorance about both one’s own culture and other cultures. After that, selectivity is a given. When you try to read about a particular culture and everything you find places that culture in one of two categories; savages or saints, you know you are being fooled. The traditional portrayal of Native Americans is a fantastic example of that.

    Back to the original topic: When people underestimate the power of emotions and social patterns, and reduce your average ancient culture person to a sort of Homo Economicus, replete with Protestant work ethic and a scientific mind. If people were like that, nobody today would wear high heels. Similarly, Norse men who were so lucky as to own a sword, lugged it around to quite a few occasions where it wasn’t very practical, simply because of their deep emotional attachment to an object that was the symbol of their family pride.

  35. 35. heteromeles

    @31: Since I ditched my copy of YRS soon after I bought it, I won’t argue through quotes, except to note that, well, Christianity went extinct in the first chapter of YRS. The only Christianity I remember from the Mars books was one of the antagonists was a born-again Christian who attempted a faith healing that went horribly wrong (off-scene), and who was later killed through explosive decompression. I don’t remember an explicitly Jewish character in either. In the Mars trilogy, most of the protagonists were either agnostic scientists or some sort of pagan.

    It’s also interesting that KSR thought it was worth including not one, but two explicitly Muslim groups, a Bedouin group and a Sufi group, and he devoted a chapter to each. Conversely, there’s no Christian settlements or Jewish settlements. One could equally argue that he was populating Mars with marginal people from Earth, and that they all brought their issues with them.

    This is a great question about finding the author’s prejudice, versus reading in a prejudice based on an author’s choices of who to include and who not to include, and whether these characters are flawed or paragons.

    The one thing I’m quite sure of is that all of KSR’s books are slogs, and I don’t think it’s because of any religious prejudices.

  36. 36. Elias McClellan

    @35, The religious prejudices were just a bonus, NOT. Icing, if you will, on a very boring cake. I read ‘YRS’ as an introduction to alt-history and I read the ‘Mars’ trilogy as an intro to hard science. I haven’t touch another work in either genre.

    I would love to plead moral fortitude, to claim it was because of what I felt were KSR’s cultural biases. But in truth, the hard science over-flew my feeble little brain and the alt-history was a too tedious. I’m sure there are better examples of both but I’ve not had the courage to try.

    Side note. When you encounter resistence when pushing a book on a friend, please keep my little experience in mind. I may recomend but I no longer urge anyone to read a book anymore than I offer stock-tips or marital advice.

  37. 37. heteromeles

    @36: That I can sympathize with, Elias. Robinson’s books are ones I hesitate to push on even die-hard science fiction readers. Conversely, I do think his Mars trilogy is a high-water line for a terraforming series (on the science and politics side, not the religion side), but starting on hard science SF with the Mars trilogy is a little bit like learning rock climbing on El Capitan.

    Anyway, I do understand very well, because my wife’s more like you than like me in her reading preferences. The good news is that most SFF authors are easier to read than KSR, so you actually have a lot of choices if you ever want to try again.

  38. 38. Ariella

    @22 The level of violence in medieval taverns probably depended quite a lot on the year, the character of the neighbourhood and the clientele of the tavern itself. When records like the coroners’ rolls start to appear in England in the fourteenth century, taverns do show up quite regularly as the sites of homicides.

    I have quite a lot of peeves about popular portrayals of the Middle Ages, but probably the biggest one is the misconception that medieval kings were absolute rulers. Real medieval kings had to negotiate constantly with intransigent barons and navigate byzantine systems of customary law that they didn’t fully control. I think a lot of authors miss the opportunities for conflict and complexity that realistic medieval politics could provide.

  39. 39. Felila

    Ritu Chaudhry: no one doubts that Indo-Aryans invaded South Asia, save a few deluded Hindutvadis. I hope that you’re not one of them. The evidence for the spread of the language is undeniable. However, the spread of a language doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone speaking that language is a descendent of the original speakers. If that were true, then millions of contemporary Indians are descended from the British … which is, of course, absolutely false. Most scholars believe that Indo-Aryans invaded, conquered some territories, spread their language, intermarried, mingled cultures, and created a number of brilliant NEW hybrid cultures.

  40. 40. Kate Elliott

    I’ve been traveling and haven’t had time to get back to this conversation (and it’s late now and I just got home from a cousin’s wedding), but I want to thank you all for saying such interesting things.

  41. 41. Adele

    Felila I had a corset made for under my wedding dress and love it. A friend who does victorian reenactment loves her very accurate victorian one too. They can be a little restrictive but I am full yin favour of them for when you really want to rock your figure. :)

    As for accuracy in novels. I think it makes sense for an author to strive for a reasonable level of accuracy, but unless they slap “historcally accurate” all over their publicity I am willing to forgive.
    My problem with Gladiator as a film is that a big fuss was made about the level of research and yet their were things that conflicted with even A level classics studies. I have never seen an epic fantasy with historical accuracy as a claim so it never bothers me.

  42. 42. glenda larke

    “Kids” in reference to children crops up in the 1600s in literature, which probably means that it was around in the vernacular for several hundred years prior to that. Try putting it in you Medieval fantasy, though, and you’ll have an outraged reader telling you it’s a modern Americanism.

    You the writer maybe right, but the problem remains – the word has jerked the reader out of the story, which is not good. Sigh.

  43. 43. Elias McClellan

    @37, yeah Heteromeles, I fell off that one. Any suggestions for a book of entry to the hard science?

  44. 44. heteromeles

    @37: I’ll open this up to everyone, because “what’s a good entry-level book for hard SF” is a good question.

    Here are three:

    Robert Forward’s Flight of the Dragonfly. The late Dr. Forward was a propulsion specialist, and the best thing in his stories are usually the spaceships. So expect mediocre plots and characters. The interesting thing here is the science, and in that way, it’s an introduction to the “Golden Age” hard sci-fi stories that were all about engineering and physics. If you like this, start digging for Asimov, E.E. Smith, and the others. This is classic “fiction of ideas” type stuff.

    Julie Czerneda’s Survival and its two sequels. The science here is more hand-waving, but it’s fun to read and fairly easy to find. Also, the science here is biology, not physics.

    If you’re into weird biology and horror, try Peter Ward’s Starfish. It’s available free online through a Creative Commons license at http://www.rifters.com (thanks Peter).

    Charlie Stross’s Halting State. Charlie’s got some of the more information dense books, in the sense that they’re full of ideas and in-jokes. They’re fun though. Halting State is not an easy read for the first few chapters, because it’s written in second person (i.e. you did this, you did that) with several points of view, and the characters are separated by their different voices and situations. Once you figure out who’s who (after the first few chapters) it’s easy to read. Halting State is a police procedural set 20 years from now, about a seemingly impossible crime that takes place in an on-line game (basically, a bunch of orcs rob the central bank of a World of Warcraft-like game). This one’s about as hard as the science gets, and someone actually pulled off a caper vaguely like what he described about six months after the book came out.

    See what you like.

  45. 45. Alma Alexander

    Calyx Ro, if you want to know anything about Serbia and its history, email me…

  46. 46. Nathan Long

    My favorite is the assumption that because the average age of death in the middle ages was 25ish, that people were aged and decrepit by 40.

    People didn’t age faster back then. The average was brought down by infant mortality, warfare, starvation and disease. People who avoided these things aged normally.

    Grrr.

  47. 47. Mary

    I still remember being thrown out of a book in which a king was addressed as Your Grace — before I learned that Your Majesty is a modern innovation and he would have been Your Grace.

    And my sister has never watched Pirate of the Caribbean. She’s a SCAdian and vintage dancer and can’t stand the corset scene.

    But — the things that really kill me are the philosophy. Political philosophy, religious philosophy, etc.

    No, people, it really is possible to believe democracy a terrible form of government and monarchy a good one. And believe in it a manner that will not be perturbed by someone mentioning that they believe the opposite.

    And those religions? You do know that people could _believe_ in them, right?

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Kate Elliott

Kate Elliott is the author of multiple fantasy and science fiction novels, including the Crown of Stars series and the Novels of the Jaran. She's currently working on Crossroads; the first novel, Spirit Gate, is already out, and Shadow Gate will be published in Spring 2008. Visit site.

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