The perils of historical realism


Member and remember
Mar 25, 2013
This one concerns counting.

I belong to one of the oldest discussion lists on the Internet: mediev-l. I know, it's kind of odd that medievalists should have been so early to the Net, and the story of how that happened is a curiosity that I shall leave aside for now. But I read something in the discussion today that I thought worth sharing.

The discussion concerned the length of pregnancy and whether Roman men (and medieval men) were ignorant of this. Lots of worthwhile discussion, but the key point is this: someone said that the Romans counted a pregnancy as lasting ten months. So obviously they didn't really understand about women's issues, patriarchy, all that.

Someone pointed out that Romans used the lunar month, so 270 days (or so) really was closer to ten months.

Then someone else pointed out the key point: Romans counted the starting number. For instance, today is Wednesday. How many days to Saturday? We would say three, but Romans would say four: Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday.

And that's what brought me to historical realism. If I'm writing a novel set in Rome or pseudo-Rome, I do not want to count the way the Romans did. Sure it would be "realistic" but it would also be confusing, and any explanation would just be tedious.

This is a tiny example, sure, but it points to a larger theme: historical realism is not necessarily the goal for the writer of historical fiction (fantasy or SF). Historical verisimilitude is. We aim to evoke Rome, not to reproduce it. That verisimilitude word is perfect: we want similarity to truth, not truth's image.

I'd love to hear other examples of being "too true" for realism. And naturally, to hear opposing views.

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