December 18th 2009
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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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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