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How did people talk 500 years ago?


Queen Marguerite of Navarre

Problem: my medieval characters, whether they are Barons or peasants, all sound pretty much the same.

Solution A: Time travel.

As I can’t beam myself back 500 years, Solution A is a fail.

Solution B: Study primary sources from the time and place.

OK, this sounds promising. I have to rely on primary sources to get even an inkling about how medieval people in the Pyrenees talked. Here is a snippet of dialogue from The Heptameron, French Queen Marguerite of Navarre’s collection of stories written in the early 1500s:

“Those who have read the Holy Scriptures,” said Hircan, “as I believe we have done, will confess, madam, that what you have said is true. But you must also consider that we are not yet so mortified but that we have need of some amusement and corporeal pastime. When we are at home we have the chase and hawking, which make us forget a thousand bad thoughts; the ladies have their household affairs, their needlework, and sometimes dancing, wherein they find laudable exercise. I propose then, on the part of the men, that you, as the eldest lady, read to us in the morning the history of the life of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of the great and wondrous things he has done for us. After dinner until vespers we must choose some pastime which may be agreeable to the body and not prejudicial to the soul. By this means we shall pass the day cheerfully.”

Marguerite, one of the few educated women in the entire kingdom, was a prolific writer whose stories still have a popular following in France today. This quote is from a story that describes the plight of a group of gentlemen and ladies who have a series of unfortunate adventures in the wild mountains of the Pyrenees, encountering shepherds, abbots, monks, peasants, and other locals. This is exactly the time and place and social milieu of my novel, The Girl From Oto.

Her words here were translated from French so we are already one degree removed from the primary source. I think it’s safe to say that this dialogue is as accurate a representation of the way people talked (taking into consideration that the author was a queen and probably did not do much talking with people who weren’t nobles and other mucky-mucks) as any other in the few primary sources that exist from this time and place.

That’s all well and good. But do I want my novel to be plagued by dialogue containing phrases such as “corporeal pastime” and “prejudicial to the soul”? I think not. I want my dialogue to crackle. It’s got to move things along at a good clip, bring my characters to life, and hopefully even be funny on occasion.

So here’s the rub. Why do critics and a lot of writers believe that there is some set of rules historical novelists must follow to be “authentic?” We have absolutely no idea what comprised authentic speech in the high-altitude villages of the medieval Pyrenees. Even if we did, I would break the rules.

Hilary Mantel did a masterful job of crafting great dialogue in her novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. Her characters lived in pre-Elizabethan England. There are many, many examples of writing and dialogue from that time and place. Does Hilary Mantel’s dialogue sound like those examples? No. She used vocabulary and cadences of speech that invoke the era, but her characters use short sentences and lots of contractions (“I’ve..” “Don’t…” “Let’s…”). King Henry VIII speaks the most formally of all the characters, and he even uses contractions. Does anyone in her books say “Thou…” or “Thee…”? Nope.

With all this said, I feel that Solution B is a partial solution. It’s important to study primary sources, but even more important to “translate” historical-speak into language that is appealing to modern readers. To that end…

Solution C:

Think more carefully about each character’s life situation and how they might talk given their circumstances. Use primary sources to find words and phrases and sayings that those characters might have used. Then be consistent about making sure each character stays in character!

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