What we do not have...

Alright, so it may be presumptuous for me, who is not a fiction writer to give advice and tips to those who are, but I beg my readers a boon.

As someone from 'the other side', that is a British person who reads a genre dominated by Americans and Canadians I credit myself with having something of a different perspective and noticing things that might pass by others.
One such observation is the references to flora and fauna not indigenous to the British Isles in books set in the land of my provenance.
Now I don't profess to be a botanist, or a gardener, I can't even tell most kinds of flowers apart, but I do know the basics.
So, when I notice references to Medieval English folk consuming turkey or potatoes, using wood from hickory trees to fuel their fires, the alarm bells of anachronism ring.

Some years ago I got on my soapbox in a review to criticise the references to 14th century English peasants eating potatoes, remarking that a simple Google search would have been enough to reveal that they would not have done so for the reason to outlined below.
Admittedly I was a little- forthright (but not rude)- in the review, and later edited it, and the author explained the error. Yet my objection was grounded.

Although potatoes might to associated with the 'Old World' by my American readers, those delightful and versatile little brown tubers we call potatoes, consumed by their millions by Britons today originally hail from across the pond. As do turkeys and tomatoes- so Medieval people didn't avoid these because they believed them poisonous- they didn't have them at all.
Consequently, none of these plants or their resultant foodstuffs were present in Britain until the 16th century.

Hence, for Brits (at least those like me) having Medieval Peasants eating potatoes is a glaring error that really should not be made by any historical fiction author who wishes their work to be even broadly accurate. To my mind its equivalent to having a novel in which George Washington satiates his hunger on a MacDonald's cheeseburger and medium fries.
My (and perhaps your) medieval European forbears didn't eat spuds, we didn't know what they smelled like, or how much a sack of them weighed. Period.

How about animals? Well that can be something of a grey area, as a number of species have become extinct
as 'recently' as that last few centuries. At one point Beavers, Wolves, Lynx and even Bears (to my surprise) were present in the forests, lakes or mountain fastnesses of Britain. Yet it would be anachronistic to include these beasts in some periods.
Wolves are reckoned to have been hunted to extinction in England by the 1300s, but held on in Scotland for another two centuries. So a novel set in 17th century England really shouldn't have them, and they may never have been especially numerous.

Bears from Caledonia (probably of the European Brown species) were apparently exported to the continent by the Romans for the arena 'games' but were gone from Britain by the tenth century, and probably much earlier, by the time the Saxons came in the 400s.
So a 12th century knight having boasted of killing a bear in the English countryside would likely not have been believed.
However, the skunk and racoons present in the London and the surrounding countryside in Disney's 101 Dalmatians were a decidedly foreign aberration. If the little critters were to be seen in such places, they would in all probability have escaped from captivity.

So, no matter how much a writer might want to wreak a smelly punishment upon the villain of their tale, set in the shores of this isle, a skunk is not the best instrument to use. If you're in need of a black and white creature with stripes on its back- maybe stick with a badger.

This is not so say Britain is lacking in interesting and beautiful wildlife, or nutritious plants, but the earth has much 'fullness' and variation of such things. Perhaps its best not to assume that because we're used to seeing or eating the flora and fauna of our own country, that the people of centuries past in another were too...


  1. This was very interesting. I didn't know most of these things!

    - Grace

    1. Glad you found it interesting, and hopefully useful too!

  2. Another favourite lulu is tomatoes. And be careful of Italians eating spaghetti, macaroni or anything similar in Italy before the 19th century, and in Sicily before the 12th.

    1. Yes, I think I have heard of that was. Hasn't it been made out that Medieval people were afraid of them because they thought them poisonous, when they actually didn't have them at all?

      In the novel I recently finished there was also mention of table forks, which were not introduced to Britain until quite late. With this, there seem to be two ideas, one that table utensils were set out and used as they are today, and the other that people didn't use them at all- and just picked up chicken legs with their hands. I can sort of understand where that idea comes from, as the museum where I sometimes volunteer has a 15th century House, with a table set according to the time, and I believe visitors are sometimes surprised by the lack of knife and fork.

      The reality is I think somewhere in between, people ate with knives which they practically everyone wore on their belts. It would have been too expensive for host to provide one for everyone, but they didn't really have to anyway. However, I think picking something like a chicken drumstick whole to eat would have been considered quote bad manners. Medieval people were actually quote strict on table manners!

  3. No rabbits in prehistoric England. Hares, yes.

    1. True. I don't know about the 'prehistoric' era, but I have heard rabbits were introduced by the Normans.....


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