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The Problem of the Hair-Shirt: Balancing Fact & Fiction

January 13, 2013

As discussed elsewhere, talking and writing about the past is similar to talking and writing about a foreign country. There were different modes of thought then, ways of believing, functioning, eating, talking, dressing, building, drinking, ruling etc etc.

One interesting conundrum I’ve been hitting when people review my thesis work (on Chapter 5 whoo hoo!) is them wanting me to explain certain aspects of early medieval life that I didn’t think required explaining. Let’s use the example of a hair-shirt. Do you know what a hair-shirt is? Honestly, I thought it was pretty common for anyone who was interested in medieval stuffins, who would be the main audience for my book, but I was wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time and it certainly won’t be the last. Then again, in my original thesis blog post I explained who King Alfred was and he’s pretty big for the Anglo-Saxons. I should have seen this pickle coming before its hit me in the head.

A hair-shirt was/is (I’m a bit fuzzy on if they’re still used today) a tunic made out of/covered with animal hair, usually from a horse, and it was specifically designed to be really uncomfortable. Devout Christians would wear hair-shirts against their bare skin, the constant itching, rubbing, and general unpleasantness meant to remind them of their religious devotion to God. It’s the same concept behind that really intense thigh-flesh-biter that Silas wears in The Da Vinci Code (you get a peek of it in the trailer). You would wear it for God and every time it hurt you would be reminded of Him. Hair-shirts had different intensities as well: you could have horse hair or, at its most intense, a shirt with whorls of scratchy metal.

So at a not-really-very-spoilery-point in my thesis, the monks wear (horse) hair-shirts. My thesis seminar, which is full of nice, intelligent people, didn’t know what I was talking about, so I (after being a bit flabbergasted) added in a little mini-explanation and moved on.

However, I was later reading this historical romance novel by Susan Wiggs, called At the King’s Command, which is the first book in her Tudor Rose Trilogy. She mentioned a hair-shirt and gave no explanation. Otherwise, it was pretty entertaining book: there’s a lost Russian princess and melancholic lord and a great exploration of humoral theory, asthma, and gypsy culture. But I was struck by the assumption that the audience knew about hair-shirts. It made me wonder how much facts about medieval life I should put in my own story.

To some extent, facts and explaining life-ways is a given: no one reading this is a medieval monk and I’ve had to explain the white martyrdom of exile to everyone who was interested in my thesis beyond “I’m writing about these Irish monks who float to Cornwall during Anglo-Saxon times and encounter King Alfred and Vikings oooo. *jazz hands*” On the other hand, having to explain every little thing slowsssss dooowwwnnnn the fictional plot and tension, because I have to stop and describe every 5 seconds. It just took me a whole paragraph to properly explain a hair-shirt.

So I have a conundrum: exactly how much do I assume my audience already knows?

If you stay in one general setting, I think this whole thing is less of a problem: a once described village is the same village ten pages later, perhaps insert some nature description if the seasons have changed. I have 4 chapters and a prologue in draft and they are twenty pages each because I keep adding all these little details and explanations. Then again, The Pillars of the Earth centered around Kingsbridge and it’s 935 pages.

But authors don’t want to readers to misunderstand the medieval mind. You can learn a lot from reading historical fiction, usually in an enjoyable manner to boot, and I want people to enjoy my story. If a detail isn’t explained they might get confused or gloss over it. I mean, sometimes my eyes glaze over when Follet explains architecture and how to build things (I’m currently reading the sequel to Pillars, called World Without End, and it’s pretty fantastic, fixes a lot of the stylistic problems in the first), but I appreciate it being in there for the sake of the spatially, engineer-minded. In the worst-case scenario, if you refuse to explain any medieval concepts, only medievalists will read your book and everyone else will, I don’t know, use it for kindling or something else equally awful. No one wants to run to Wikipedia every 5 seconds because the author didn’t stop every 5 seconds to explain what a hair-shirt or martyrdom is.

My current solution to this problem is to explain everything anybody wants to me explain in addition to what I think needs explaining. This, again, results in very long chapters, which I can cut down during the probably like 500 million drafts this story is going through.

But really, the question remains: how much do authors assume the audience already knows factually? How many factual explanations do I give versus fictional story plot on any given page, in any given chapter? Is this one of those questions each author has to answer for themselves?

I don’t know. What do you think?

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From → Thesis

2 Comments
  1. Andromachus permalink

    Mr. Ric. Adams’ ‘Watership Down’ is an excellent answer to this problem. Imitation of his style might initiate solution.

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