Friday, June 15, 2007

A Good Example of a Word

An Essay
by Carter Jefferson

Writing historical novels, or stories set in the past, is no cinch -- it takes serious research. Given the slightest hint of an anachronism, hard-core readers of this kind of thing will throw the book across the room.

Nan Hawthorne, an IWW member, has been getting flak for calling the place her protagonist runs a "tavern." Her critics say that word didn't exist in Anglo-Saxon Britain, the setting for her novel. They're right -- it didn't. She's not writing in Anglo-Saxon, however, but in modern English. So the question really is whether an inn that sold wine and beer, which is what Nan's character runs, could exist back then.

An alehouse sells ale, but not wine. A tavern sells wine as well. The distinction came only later, however. Since there's an Anglo-Saxon word for alehouse (ealu-clýfe), I think it's safe to presume such things existed in the Anglo-Saxon era. Wine also existed, and some of it was produced in England, from English vineyards, during Roman times there, though some was imported. Inns also existed, and one claims to have sold liquor in 580 AD.

It's very difficult to prove something did not exist, so I think Nan is safe in having her bartender sell wine as well as ale. Though the term tavern came later, I doubt that anybody can prove that alehouses never sold wine or housed guests in Anglo-Saxon times. Where there was alcohol and coinage, people sold alcoholic beverages, you can bet on that.

Here are some sites where you can find various hints of these things:

  • - etymology of tavern
  • - A-S dictionary

It took only a few minutes to find those sites, but the question Nan was asked is only one of the many historical novel writers face. They must steep themselves in the era they portray, and let the reader live there just as the characters did. Anachronisms are anathema.

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