Sunday, 1 December 2013

How to Swear

I enjoy reading historical novels that have been well researched, but I quickly put aside those which show a complete disregard for historical validity. Whether it’s thirteenth century Scotsmen wearing kilts or Tudor English women wearing panties, I give up reading the novel.

My publishing editor has a PhD in history. She’s also an acknowledged expert in research and writes about research in a writing magazine. It works strongly in my favour. After one read-through of my manuscript she will compile a list of things she wants me to check for authenticity. The book has to be right before it is published. I really value that approach.

In my latest manuscript I had medieval knights exclaiming, “God’s teeth!” Check it out, my editor told me. “They were much more religious in those days.”

I duly checked it out with Melissa Mohr’s book, Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing. It’s a useful research work in which she talks about curse words from the ancient Romans to the modern day. Like with many aspects of medieval society, the way they swore in medieval times was different from the sort of thing we would say today. They had no compunction about using F and C words as an accepted part of everyday language. Such words were common enough to have no marked effect. Much more effective were swear words or phrases that referred to the Almighty. People believed if you swore by parts of God’s body you were actually affecting Him up in Heaven. That made the swearing really potent.

It turned out my use of that exclamation was authentic, but the fact of verifying it was a pleasing reassurance.


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