Writing Historical Fiction: Obscene Language

WARNING: This post is about the use of adult language in historical fiction and in actual history. You should stop reading if you find profanity offensive.

Naughty, Naughty

Writing historical fiction: profanityWrite the dialogue of drunken Medieval sailors in a seedy brothel and you will be hard pressed not to use salty language. You may be even harder pressed to write profanity that has the fug of historical authenticity. The cardinal rule in writing historical fiction is to bring the reader into the past so convincingly that they are absorbed in it. Incorrect details—especially when it comes to language—are the fastest way to eject someone from the narrative flow.

For instance, “Holy crap, Ivanhoe, that gash in your forehead looks hella deep!” would eject a reader with even a modestly developed parietal lobe. But the obscenities of yesteryear (where we know them) might make no sense at all to today’s reader. The obscenification (to coin a fantastic new word) of bodily functions is relatively recent, and who knows what the ancient Abyssinians thought was gutter talk; that kind of gibberish tends to be omitted from the inscriptions.

Much of what we consider crossing the line would be benignly puzzling to the people of yore. In fact, a Medieval text for seven-year-old children includes a list of useful phrases, such as, “I am almost beshitten.” The word “cunt” was used in medieval medical texts and many towns and cities had a Gropecunt Lane (where prostitution was centered). The F-bomb did not come into use until the 15th Century. Before that, the word was “Sard,” and people didn’t seem too reticent about using it. A 10th Century Lollard translation of the bible includes the phrase, “Don’t sard another man’s wife.”

This post was precipitated by a bit of language I read in Hillary Mantell’s Wolf Hall that made me laugh out loud. In one scene, a character (I think Norfolk) blurts out, “Oh, by the thrice beshitten shroud of Lazarus!” Historically speaking, the “beshitten” part of this is milquetoast; the big nasty is tying it to a biblical figure.

For more on the subject of obscene language throughout the ages, check out this video of Mellisa Mohr, author of Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing.

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