ANACHRONISM. A neglect or falsification, whether wilfully or otherwise, of strict chronological relation. Anachronisms may be committed in a great variety of ways, e.g., in painting, by representing members of the Holy Family in the costumes of the period at which the painter lived, as in many of the pictures of the old masters; on the stage, as in the last century when Alexander the Great appeared on the French stage in the costume of the time of Louis XIV. Anachronisms are sometimes deliberately introduced into historical novels and other similar works with a definite object, and this should always be taken into account in judging an author’s accuracy.*
I read to page 3 of the first volume of popular historical novelist Dorothy Dunnett’s Níccolò Rising series. Part of the story takes place on a dock in Bruges of 1460. Several characters begin unloading cargo from a sailing ship:
“On the other side of the boat, Julius helped throw up the ropes at the sea lock, and heaved up the statutory can of Bruges beer to the lock-keeper.”
Brewers did not sell beer in cans in 1460 Bruges!
I stopped reading right there. Then I donated the book to Goodwill.
Dorothy Dunnett is not alone in writing great stories larded with culinary inaccuracies. Many historical novelists play fast and loose with the facts. After all, “artistic license” gives writers a great deal of leeway. And that’s not always a bad thing. The celebrated British writer, Hilary Mantel, whose novel Wolf Hall enthralled readers and won the coveted Man Booker Prize, veers widely from received wisdom about her time period, Tudor England. She says,
“It’s not possible to lay down a rule or a standard of good practice, because there are so many types of historical fiction. Some have the feel of documentary, others are close to fantasy. Not every author concerns herself with real people and real events.”
“Artistic license” does indeed permit authors to stretch the truth, to commit sins of omission, and sins of commission, all in the name of storytelling and literature. However, sometimes discrepancies between truth and fiction result in obvious and cringeworthy anachronisms.
So how might you avoid food bloopers like Dorothy Dunnett’s in your historical novel?
To zero in on culinary accuracy:
- Remember the Columbian Exchange and the crucial date of 1492. Prior to the voyages of Christopher Columbus, many foods – including chocolate, pumpkins, potatoes, and tomatoes– were unknown outside New World cuisine. And several decades, if not centuries, passed before people accepted some of these foods in their daily diet.
- Consult Lynne Olver’s Food Timeline. It goes far beyond the idea of a timeline and provides details about period cooking, dietary beliefs, and culinary equipment and techniques.
- Access historic menu collections at the New York Public Library and the Los Angeles Public Library. Prior to the 18th century, written menus per se did not exist.
- Read cookbooks pertinent to your novel’s time period. You’ll find digitized versions of many cookbooks online. To benefit most from reading old cookbooks, follow culinary historian Barbara Ketchum Wheaton’s structured approach. Track down some essential bibliographies, mostly American and English works.
- Study material culture of the historical kitchen. Material culture signifies wealth, social class, and technological achievement. A good resource for this is The Encyclopedia of Kitchen History. Examine displays of glassware, serving dishes, and the like in museums and historic homes. Paintings, such as those by Dutch artist Pieter Aertsen, also provide visual clues that may be of use to you, depending upon your novel’s time period. Look at photographs, too. A caveat: artists and photographers often embellished their work at the request of their patrons, so take what you see with a grain of salt.
- Seek out historical maps. Several collections such as the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection exist online. Maps will give you a boost with placing markets and other culinary landmarks in the correct location and time period.
- Familiarize yourself with agricultural and food-processing practices common during your time period. ABC-Clio/Greenwood Press publishes a series worth looking at: Daily Life Through History (54 titles, ranging from daily life in ancient times to Native American life in the 20th century).
- Use Wikipedia with caution. Double check, double check, double check. Everything.
- Avoid using other contemporary historical novelists as sources. Chances are they’ve all read the same misinformation, passing on “fakelore.”
- Resist relying 100% on the Internet. Look for books such as Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveler’s Guide to trilogy, which concern Medieval, Elizabethan, and Restoration England.
And remember that no matter how much you research, you’re bound to get something a bit skewed. Think of Jane Austen’s Emma. In Chapter 42, Jane includes a passage where an apple tree blooms out of season:
“It was a sweet view — sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive…It might be safely viewed with all its appendages of prosperity and beauty, its rich pastures, spreading flocks, orchard in blossom, and light column of smoke ascending.”
Despite her brother Edward’s protestations that apple trees blossom in May, not June, Jane retained that text in subsequent editions, which now number in the dozens, if not more.
In the end, story matters most. But it still pays to verify the telling details, the facts.
*From Arnold James Cooley’s Cooley’s Cyclopædia of practical receipts and collateral information in the arts, manufactures, professions, and trades, including medicine, pharmacy, and domestic economy: designed as a comprehensive supplement to the pharmacopœia and general book of reference for the manufacturer, tradesman, amateur, and heads of families., J. & A. Churchill, 1892, p. 122.