I recently had cause to research how to address the Holy Roman Emperor (in my period, there are actually two of them!) and came across this post on the Edward II blog. I am a fan of this blog, and I admire the author’s stringent approach to historical fiction. If you want the skinny on how to refer to royals during the Middle Ages, this article is a great start.
It also serves to chastise me in advance for some of the choices I’m making as I write my historical fantasy series. I try to avoid giving myself too much leeway merely because I’m writing fantasy–I think that’s a cop-out to dodge the hard work of writing well. However, I have no doubt that Kathryn Warner, the author of the Edward II blog will accuse me of copping out in any case. I am here to take the blame, lest it fall upon my excellent editors (the folks with their own copy of the OED), who, in fact, have already had this conversation with me.
Herewith, I confess my crimes. I have created a duke a little early for my period. I have referred to the king as “Your Majesty” and to his sons as princes. I have refered to well-born women as “Lady so-and-so”. I hope I have done all of these things with a fiendish consistency: if I am going to err, I shall endeavor to do so thoroughly, and (here’s the key) with clear intention.
See, if I were going to refer to the king and most of his nobles properly, I would have dialogs in which four or five different characters are addressed as “my lord”. I have enough trouble when the archbishop and the duke are in the same scene referred to as “your Grace.” So I have given my characters specific forms of address that will differentiate them for the sake of my reader. These forms are generally drawn from history, and help the reader remember the relative positions and power relationships of my characters. (I have more trouble, actually, with tradesmen and peasants–can’t just say, “Hey, Mister!”) Perhaps I can beg Ms. Warner’s indulgence based upon her own caveat that we don’t know how these people were referred to in direct address, but only in writing.
Again, for the readers, I have adopted the convention of referring to the sons of kings as princes. It makes it a heck of a lot easier on us both. Yep–I’m taking the easy way out. Mainly so that I can use the term “prince” and everyone will know quickly to whom it refers, whereas the name and location title might not do the job. Readers have known about princes since they picked up Prince Caspian, or even before–when Prince Charming made his debut.
The reader, especially the fantasy reader, has certain expectations established over years of use. I plan to foil some of those expectations with a judicious application of the truth or with the use of period elements that I expect will startle the jaded reader (like the use of gunpowder weapons) While I admire historical accuracy, and even aspire to it in most cases, when it comes to defying the conventions of my genre, I choose to do so in meaningful arenas. Guns in battle are interesting, cool, plot-useful, and fun to research. Titles and forms of address are, well, not. They are handles to refer to characters. Making the handles deliberate and easy to apply for both the writer and the reader lets us focus instead on the sparkly bits.