Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders by Susanne Alleyn


Going commando under skirts is not a new thing. In fact, women didn’t start wearing underpants until well into the 19th century. This is one of the facts I learned from MEDIEVAL UNDERPANTS AND OTHER BLUNDERS. I also learned about food, language, firearms, inherited titles, coinage, burial customs, and many other things, all while being entertained by Alleyn’s lively examples and gentle humor. Writers of historical fiction owe it to the reader to get their facts right. Alleyn shows them how.

MEDIEVAL UNDERPANTS AND OTHER BLUNDERS isn’t an exhaustive encyclopedia. It’s a jumping off point. Alleyn points out the most common errors she sees in historical fiction, and then shows writers how to fix them. Her focus is on European history, but the principles can be applied to any place or era. Alleyn gives common sense rules such as “never assume,” and “do not borrow your period details and information from other people’s historical novels and movies.” These rules seem like no-brainers, but we’ve all seen the results of writers breaking them, especially in Hollywood.

A writer could do a lot of quality research and still get facts wrong if she’s looking at history through a modern lens. Alleyn gives a very telling example of a 16th century fruit platter piled high with strawberries, peaches, and grapes. What’s wrong with that picture? Although those fruits were grown in Europe, they were not all available in the same season. Alleyn does a wonderful job of piercing through our assumptions (year-round fresh produce requires modern shipping and refrigeration) making the writer slow down and think before giving characters things they couldn’t possibly have.

MEDIEVAL UNDERPANTS AND OTHER BLUNDERS ends with a large bibliography as well as some tips for internet searches and some advice for research in general. A writer of historical fiction could spend many happy hours with Alleyn’s suggested titles. By following Alleyn’s guidelines (“look it up!”) a writer will give her readers many happy hours as well.

[Note: I bought MEDIEVAL UNDERPANTS AND OTHER BLUNDERS in ebook format, and I’m glad I did. It’s superbly formatted (rare for non-fiction ebooks) with everything properly hyperlinked, including the footnotes. It made the book even more of a pleasure to read, knowing I could always find what I’m looking for.]




Rating: 4 stars


This book is best for: beginning to intermediate writers


I recommend this book

12 thoughts on “Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders by Susanne Alleyn

  1. I have this book on my kindle. Can’t wait to read it. I had a fit one time because a writer of historical fiction had her characters eating fried chicken- on a picnic – in the 15th century. Not possible. In England in the 15th century people might have eaten roasted game hens or boiled chicken but NOT AMERICAN STYLE FRIED CHICKEN.
    I hate it when authors of historical fiction write from an unintentional modern perspective.

  2. Sold! I’ll add this one to my “editor’s toolkit.” If I can help my clients (and myself!) from making historical errors it’ll be worth many times the modest price.

  3. This sounds like a very useful book, and I wish there was a series of similar ones for different genres. The admonition to avoid anachronistic or cultural-perspective blunders applies everywhere, I think. Thanks for the review and the reminder.

    Also: for some reason, my mind keeps trying to turn this into “MEDICAL UNDERPANTS!” I’ve read the post, I know that’s wrong. And yet… silly brain!


    • As I was reading this book, I thought about anachronisms in the other direction. I write near-future science fiction and I have to constantly remind myself that terms like “paperwork” only apply when there’s actual paper. There are many cultural assumptions I make in 2014 that might not apply fifty years from now. So even though I don’t write historical fiction, I still learned a lot from this book.

      (And I’m pretty sure medical underpants are a whole ‘nother thing. 🙂 )

      • Yes, I think they are. Although I was interested to know what ‘medical underpants’ had to do with writing, it sounds like MEDIEVAL BLUNDERS is a useful read for all authors, regardless of genre. Thanks for seeking and reporting on such a wide variety of writing guides!

  4. Thank you for your helpful reviews, I always follow-up with your site prior to purchasing anything writing related!

    In your comments above, you make an interesting point about the term “paperwork” becoming an anachronism 50 years out when there is no paper. I don’t write near-future fiction, but the evolution of language is an interesting topic to ponder.

    I realize your point was probably an off the cuff example, but I actually could see the term paperwork still being used in a paperless world, albeit with a less literal meaning. I rarely do anything on actual paper now, but still use the term to refer to any type of drudgery associated with filling out forms, doing bills, etc. So the lifespan of “paperwork” probably depends on whether enough people use it in a modified form to keep it alive, even after “paper” is no longer actively used.

    One example of this is the term “record”. There was a time when all audio recordings were pressed to vinyl, and the term “record” was synonymous with “vinyl”. But nowadays I still hear musicians refer to “making a record”, even though their work will be distributed only via CD or mp3.

    A better and perhaps more appropriate example for a writer’s blog is the term “book”. 50 years from now, I strongly suspect that novelists will still be “writing books”, even though printing physical books will have become a thing of the past! The meaning of the term will change as part of the technology changes.

    All that to say, just thinking through this one example of “paperwork”, I better appreciate what a challenge dealing with the evolution of language must be for the writer of future fiction. Based on your future world, you have to invent corresponding changes in language in a way that seem natural and convincing. Some usages will become anachronisms and some will morph. You as author get to decide for your world which words live and which words die. Fun stuff!

    Thanks again,

    • So true, Jim. It’s given me many things to ponder.

      It’s funny how language can remain almost the same, but usage can still change. A medieval monk would say, “I’m making a copy” with reverence for his life’s work. My mom would say, “I’m making a copy” with resignation, as she made yet another trip to the xerox machine. My teenage neighbor would say, “I’m making a copy” with glee, as he pirated a movie. In each case, the word “copy” retains its meaning of making a duplicate, but the circumstances and methods make it a very different word in everyday speech.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment, and for reading my blog. Both are very much appreciated.

  5. I am delighted as I write and come up with questions that test the validity of my story. When I read about my character’s actual historical context (from reliable resources), my fingers won’t sit still as my head floods with possibilities. Reading is not a passive pastime for me; as my mind races, my pulse responds.

    Produce that is out of season, food preparation methods that weren’t used, anachronisms that have changed in meaning and familiarity over time: these are all serious considerations for writers who take pride in contributing to historical experiences.

    Hooray for this book from such an impeccable researcher!

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