Today’s History Lesson Brought to You by Nora Roberts (or Not)

The slog through Nora Roberts’ Morrigan’s Cross continues. The incomplete sentences are an epidemic and she switches POVs faster than Imelda Marcos switches pairs of shoes.

And does the woman know anything about the middle ages? I mean, did she even pick up A Writer’s Guide to the Middle Ages?

A Knotty Mess

A tatted doily in progress, with tatting shuttles

First off, the MC’s mother is tatting lace. While I am no expert on lacemaking, I did know that tatting was a very late-developed lace and did not exist in the middle ages. (Okay, I’ll admit: I have a friend who is something of an expert on lace. I’ve learned a lot from her.)

I looked up the origins of tatting. Less than three minutes online (on dial-up, no less!) and I found the origin of tatting: the 1800’s. Nora Robert’s story is set in 1128.

Lace, as we think of it today, was not a clothing embellishment in the 12th century. Lace trim, made on bobbins, really didn’t become popular until the late 15th century and afterwards. However, things like hairnets are considered a type of lace (anything that involves working a thread in an open pattern is a lace under the broadest definition), and they did have hairnets in the 12th century.

Rather than tatting, MC’s mother should have been making a knotted lace (which does involve a shuttle, but not a tatting shuttle). But, actually, that probably wasn’t something every woman knew how to do. A more common pastime for a gentle woman would have been sewing or embroidery.

A Viking warp-weighted loom

In the early middle ages, spinning and even weaving would have been done by rich women, but that largely fell out of use as the middle ages progressed and people fell in love with fine cloths and brocades. Brocades are too complicated to produce on a simple home loom (which were often upright, not horizontal like today’s looms) and if you want really nice fabric, it really needs to be produced by someone who does it for a living. Hobby spinners and weavers can make very nice things, but don’t often come up to the standards of the production line (then as now).

Architectural Collapse

Next, we have a room with a parlor. The word “parlor” wasn’t invented until nearly 100 years after the story takes place and was originally a business room in a monastery.

It wasn’t until the 1300’s-1400’s that middle class people even had a room just for sitting, making conversation, and doing small handicrafts, and even then the term most commonly used was “solar.” In fact, the term “parlor,” seems to have replaced “solar” in the 17th century.

A comfortable medieval house for the well-to-do middle class. The large window on the second story is probably where the solar was located.

Nora’s not very descriptive about the house (a good trick if you have no idea what it looks like) or the family’s status, so it’s unclear if they are middle class or nobility. (This is, in itself, something of a mistake, as people in the middle ages were very conscious of social status and it would have come up on a daily basis, because how you interact with everyone depends on who they are relative to who you are.) But one thing this house has is a room in a tower.

An actual Irish castle. It is 15th century, but the style goes back further. This would have been typical for a minor nobleman.

Say what? A house with a tower? This sounds like the place where Snow White lived with the seven dwarves. Medieval houses did not have towers or turrets or anything like that. And small castles and fortified manor houses didn’t have bedrooms in their towers (if they had towers at all); that’s just not the way the architecture was laid out.

Random Fun Fact: “Solar” did not get its name from the fact that it was the sunniest room in the house and was where everyone sat to do tasks that required light, like sewing and reading. The word actually seems to come from the French “sole” which means to be alone (as in “solitary”).

In the very early middle ages, there was no real concept of privacy. If you read Beowulf, you’ll notice that everyone slept in the main hall. Even the lord and lady (or king and queen) often slept in the main hall with all their retinue, retainers, and servants. They may have only had cloth hangings around their bed to give some small amount of privacy.

A bedroom for the master of the place (hence “master bedroom”) came first, followed by other bedrooms and the solar, which was a room specifically for the private use of the family. Thus, it was a place where they could go to be alone as a family—away from the servants and hangers-on.

Answer Hazy

It is remarked in the book that they have “real glass” in the windows. Glass windows did exist in 1128, although if this family is middle class, they would not have had glass windows. They were insanely expensive at this time, and so rather rare. Not even all the windows in castles were glass at this point in history.

My own historic romance is set in 1389, and even my knight, Jakub, (who has land of his own, but is considered poor by nobility standards) doesn’t have glass in all the windows of his house. He has some in the solar and the bedrooms, but the hall and the kitchen just have open windows. In the winter, frames covered in greased parchment are set in the holes, and they let in a small amount of dim light.

(This is why the windows on the medieval house above are so small; if you had glass, it was expensive and if you didn’t, that hole in the wall just made you that much colder in the winter.)

Random Fun Fact: Medieval shutters were always on the inside of the windows. Before glass, the shutters could be closed to keep out the rain and cold. But even after glass was installed, shutters remained on the inside so that they could control the amount of light coming in (i.e. they worked like blinds/shades) and also to help stop cold drafts.

Exterior shutters came about to protect the expensive glass. As bad weather started to come in, you just raised the window, leaned out, flipped down the latch holding the shutters in place (known as a “dog leg”) and pulled them in and fastened them.

I’m no expert on the history of shutters, but exterior shutters seem to have either been an American invention, or at least an idea borrowed from somewhere else and put to full effect here. Of all the British and Irish houses I’ve seen, almost none of them have exterior shutters, while in America we became so attached to our exterior shutters, we put false (non-functioning) shutters on all our windows.

Of course, America tends to have much more destructive weather than Britain, so this may be why exterior shutters are much more common here.

When a Carriage is not a Car

Next up: a carriage. Apparently the carriage Nora Roberts had in mind has glass windows, because the MC (quite improbably) not only sees his brother leave in a woman’s carriage, but he sees the two of them having sex, then he sees the woman bite his brother, then give him her blood. (How one can see all of this happening in a moving vehicle, I’ll never know.)

A 15th century covered wagon (and the earliest depiction of blinders on horses that I’ve ever seen). In this case, we do see that the woman can flip up the covering so she can see out.

In 1128, the mode of transportation most common after walking was riding a horse. After that was riding in a wagon. Covered wagons—which looked a lot like the covered wagons of the American West—did exist in the middle ages, but they were never referred to as a “carriage.” And they had very limited use before the 14th or 15th centuries because the roads were so bad. A total lack of suspension (not developed until the 14th century) also made them a horrible form of transportation. In most cases, wagons were used to transport goods while men, women, and children rode on horseback.

The carriage, as we think of it today—a vehicle for transporting groups of people—seems to have not been invented until the late 1400’s.

Oddly enough, you could get away with calling a medieval wagon a “car,” as that word is rather old. (It seems to be a shortened form of “cart.”) “Carriage” was a later evolution in both the word and form of transportation.

Potato, Pahtahtoe

Nora Roberts has had not one, but two references to potatoes in her book. While the time has jumped into the future, the 12th century Irishman is never going to think that someone looks like a sack of potatoes. Nor is he wont to be fond of vodka because of its connection to potatoes.

Why is that, boys and girls? Well, if you paid attention to history class in elementary school, you will no doubt know that potatoes are a New World food—specifically South American. Potatoes didn’t become popular in Europe—and Ireland, in particular—until people were starting to tat lace (i.e. the 19th century).

The Smithsonian had a great article on the history of the potato several months ago.

Random (Not So) Fun Fact: When people think of the Irish Potato Famine, and all the starving people, they tend to think that Ireland must have been laid waste by some drought or too much rain.

In actuality, Ireland exported grain during the years of the Potato Famine.

What gives?

The English. (Sorry to my British friends, but we all have to admit our horrible pasts sometimes.)

Irish people of the 19th century were pretty much still stuck in a feudal system, where they rented their farms (and even their houses) from a landlord. (Most landlords were English, but a few were Irish… although nationality was no guarantee of bastardliness. The Anglo-Irish Butlers of Ormond were good landlords; some Irish landlords were horrible.)

Grain was the cash crop of Ireland, and everywhere you could, you had to plant grain to make enough money to keep your house and land for another year. (In many places, life was actually worse than it had been in the middle ages, when rents and taxes were not typically high enough to keep people in abject and perpetual poverty; enterprising and lucky medieval peasants not infrequently worked themselves or their children up to the middle class.)

Potatoes were a miracle food because they produced a lot of starch (important for the manual laborer) in a small amount of space. So a kitchen garden full of potatoes fed the family while all the rest of the land kept a roof over their head.

Then the blight came and struck all the potato plants, causing them to rot in the ground. That left two options: starve, but pay the rent and taxes with the grain, or eat the grain while you’ve got it, then get kicked off your land and then starve.

Many landless people ended up coming to America to find employment (and, if they went West, land). Many older children also came to America so they could work and send money home to the family who were still toughing it out on the farm.

Many people died during the Famine because it lasted for several years, but not all of Ireland experienced it. The potatoes all failed, but in places where the rents weren’t so high, people could afford to grow other food to feed themselves. In some places, Irish people actually owned their own land, so they could do whatever they wanted. And some landlords actually cared for the people, so they reduced or suspended rents, allowing people to eat from their grain supply. The hardest-hit areas were in the west country, while parts of the east didn’t have any deaths from starvation.

One last thing: the Smithsonian article pointed out that our common potatoes today are all grown from the eyes (roots) of other potatoes, thus making them, genetically, clones. This is how one blight could wipe out an entire island’s potato population. Potatoes, however, come in many varieties naturally, and native peoples have been breeding them (via seeds) into even more varieties for a very long time. If there had been another variety of potato available in Ireland at the time, the Famine could have been avoided simply by switching potatoes.

Glass Sass

Nora Robert’s medieval Irishman seems quite astounded by “clear tankards and cups.” First, she had glass windows where they really shouldn’t have been, and now she has someone surprised by glass cups. She just can’t guess correctly.

A Roman "cage" glass.

A Roman “cage” glass. The glass was blown with a very thick wall, then the delicate latticework was carved out of it.

The Romans drank out of glass cups. Medieval people (of wealth, obviously) also had glass drinking vessels. If you were rich enough to afford glass windows (which are much harder to make), then you could have certainly afforded a glass cup or three for your cup-board.

And even if you couldn’t afford a glass glass, you had, no doubt, heard about them. Ireland—especially the east coast—was lousy with Vikings early on, and they seem to have been quite fond of glasses, as they were often buried with them.

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6 comments on “Today’s History Lesson Brought to You by Nora Roberts (or Not)

  1. Hahaha I’m amazed you’re still reading this book. It sounds terrible. Still, I bet you’re getting a kick out of finding all the historical inaccuracies. That’s why I love watching movies about Greek mythology. It’s like they’ve never picked up Ovid’s Metamorphoses in their entire lives …

    • Keri Peardon says:

      I finally finished it yesterday. It was awful. I only continued to read it to see how awful it could really get.

      Nora Roberts is obviously a woman who knows nothing about writing a historical book or a fantasy book (there were poorly-done fantasy aspects as well). She needs to stick to contemporary romance. And she needs to stick to full sentences. The incomplete sentences were maddening.

  2. Wallace says:

    I’ve not read anything by Nora Roberts, mostly because I don’t read romances. I did look her up on Wikipedia and found that she’s published 209 books since her first book was published in 1981. So that works out to almost 7 books a year just being published, or a new novel less than every two months. Can’t you write, edit, and publish a novel that fast? I can’t even type that fast.

    When you said you were reading an historical novel by Nora Roberts, I thought you meant Norah Lofts. My Mother used to read a lot of historical novels and her favorite was always Norah Lofts. If you want an accurate historical novel, you might try one of hers. I don’t know how well they stand up to strict historical accuracy, but they were very popular and well received in their time.

    • Keri Peardon says:

      You know, I’ve been writing as hard as I can write the past week or two–we’re talking full-time hours.

      At my current rate of speed, it will take me a month to write an entire book. That does NOT include the time it takes to do any initial plotting or research. (It does, however, include research as I go along.)

      I will take at least one more month to read through it and do my edits. Then I will get a printed copy made and give it to my beta readers for their comments (mind you, I’ve already done this once; their comments lead to me breaking the one book into two). It will probably take a month for the two of them to read through it (although I can be working on something else while they do that, so that’s not, on the whole, lost time).

      But then I will have to make changes and corrections based on their comments. That might take me upwards of another month, depending on how many they have and how many times I have to rewrite something to get it right (this is likely to happen with my fight sequences, as Stuart will insist on perfection). I will make some of my own tweaks, too, plus probably do some double-checking of facts.

      Then, once those edits are done, I will begin reading it through to cut down on the word count and tighten up my sentences. There’s 2-4 weeks, easy.

      That’s a bare minimum of work for me, as a writer. (As a self-published author, there are several more months to go with designing a cover, a trailer, multiple proofreading sweeps, then formatting.)

      I’m not the type to do a lot of plotting or planning beforehand, so maybe a week there to do initial research, a month to write it, a month to clean it up, a month to edit it after comments, then 2-4 weeks to thin it out and give its final shape.

      So I could absolutely not write a book in less than 4 months. And that’s a romance novel; I will admit that I haven’t spent as much time writing “Flames” as I did “Acceptance.” Fantasy takes much longer because you have to create a world and a back story and you have to make sure all of your elements make sense and there aren’t any contradictions. Even historical fiction is easier to write because the world already exists; you just have to read about it.

  3. […] I can take those same dollar bills to the grocery story and get a pizza, a Redbox movie, and an unintentionally-hilarious Nora Robert novel. But if I was afraid that by the time I got to the grocery store, my paycheck wouldn’t even rent […]

  4. dave dale says:

    Pretty ritzy DIVE. I am a typical American and like the comfortable midievil house for the well to do, but I would do a gorgeous remodel.
    I would replace the leded windows with vinyl, the siding with a miricle polymer (i.e. plastic) synthetic that you never have to paint (but that gets water underneath and rots from the inside out) and put a (frankly hideous) composition roof which is basically tar paper sold to us by greedy developers who make huge profit because the laborers dont need any skill.
    I would also put stainless steel appliances and granite countertops, and an outragously priced gas range that belongs in a resturant but that I never use. The house will then not be “dated”, it may look like shit, but it will not be DATED, DAMN IT , IT WILL BE MODERN AND UPDATED.

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