An article in the Stanford magazine this month talks about a new method of teaching history to high schoolers using primary source material, having the teens read several documents about an incident and draw their own conclusions based on the information people had or understood at the time, and building critical thinking skills. Good stuff! This turns out to be a very effective way to get students involved in history–and also helps to bring the people of the past to life.
Many authors of historical fiction, or historically-based fantasy don’t do this. They read some basic history texts, secondary sources of the kind where a historian or general non-fiction author has assimilated and rearranged some information and presented it in a pleasing and intelligible form. Those sources can be a great place to start. They give you a solid grounding in the place or time you’re interested in, and can direct your interest to areas where you’d like to learn more.
But the real gold for understanding history is in the primary sources. One author suggested reading the books your characters would be familiar with, and that opens up some interesting avenues. For me, it meant rereading the Bible. Most of my characters wouldn’t have read it (they were illiterate, or were not allowed direct access) but the stories the Bible contains inform every level of Medieval life, including the art they would see in the churches they attended, not to mention the attitudes formed about everything they experienced. That’s an obvious example, but there are many more where this came from.
How about reading legal records? Laws and their consequences give us a good idea of the real priorities of the society. Nobody makes a law stating that you can’t hold a tournament inside a church unless someone’s been doing so–much less has to re-issue that law over a period of years. Repeated prosecutions of individuals for the same crime, say, homosexual prostitution, suggests that punishment was light, and social stigma did not deter the criminal: pointing out areas where the high-minded morality of the culture–the literature or sermons–might say one thing, but on the street, matters were much more open.
For my own work, I also examined medical texts. Guy de Chauliac, surgeon to Pope Clement VI, wrote a compendium of surgical techniques–how and why surgeons did what they did, the kind of things my protagonist, Elisha Barber, likely knew how to do. All the way back to the infamous Galen, the first century Greek physician responsible for all kinds of strange notions that persisted in medicine for centuries. Yes, these sources are crammed with useful information, but they can also provide the details that spark a scene or deepen the experience of a critical moment. Galen, for instance, highly recommends that students should skin their own apes rather than allow an assistant to do so. Why? Because, in getting that close to the subject, the student can examine and understand the connections between the surface and the substance of the matter.
Primary sources can be harder to use. They are sometimes abstruse, sometimes hard to find, sometimes written in a language you don’t read (I still lament and suffer for the fact that I don’t know Latin). They often strike the modern reader as boring. But they also represent the direct experience and understanding of people in times and places different from our own. They may serve to craft the fabric of that character’s society, like the Bible, or give you an idea of the actual labor and techniques he might employ, like Guy de Chauliac, but they provide layers of insight that a mere gloss of history cannot.
And so, my advice to you, if you would write fiction inspired by history: don’t just watch the History Channel, roll up your sleeves and skin your own apes!