Ancient or modern? Language in historical fiction

Last Thursday, I joined a panel of published writers at a Portsmouth Writers Hub event held at the University of Portsmouth, before an audience of fellow writers and readers. The agenda was to discuss the dark themes in our writing, as well as our research and writing processes. One of the questions asked of me was how I dealt with language, given that my novel, Fortune’s Wheel, is set in the fourteenth century, a time when people didn’t speak English as we know it, but spoke either Middle English, a form of French, or Latin, depending on their social status and education.

It’s a question that has exercised me – and many other writers of historical fiction – a good deal. The question I have asked myself has been, basically, whether I should attempt to give my characters “authentic” sounding voices, or put modern language in their mouths. I knew what I wanted to do but, in my PhD, I actually gave a little thought to the matter, to weigh up the alternatives and assess the pros and cons of each.

What follows is taken from that period of reflection…

If historical novelists choose to have their characters speak in modern English, might that give the impression that they also have modern mindsets? Conversely, if characters are given dialogue that purports, or even contrives, to sound like, say, fourteenth-century English, does that somehow give the impression that they also have authentic fourteenth-century mindsets? I do not believe that either case is necessarily true. From all my reading of historical novels, I have realised that by far the majority are written in straightforward modern English, though whether the mindsets that the words convey are authentic often depends on other factors.

When Henry James complained that historical novelists couldn’t imagine the inner lives of people who lived in earlier periods (see my earlier blog The problem with historical fiction I), it was “mindset” he was talking about – people’s ideas, values and beliefs. Of course there’s no such thing as “a” mindset for a period: people in past times didn’t hold a single set of values and beliefs, any more than they do now, but there is undoubtedly a generalised difference between the inner lives of fourteenth-century people and ours. It’s this difference that James considered impossible to bridge, but from my reading of historical fiction I’ve deduced that most writers in fact give the impression of bridging the gap pretty well.

Several years ago, in a blog for historical novelists, Clio’s Children, the writer raised this matter of language in historical fiction thus: ‘…to what degree can we legitimately – or even intelligibly – use language or literary forms authentic to a given period?’ [my italics].1 The writer, John Yeoman, said that readers expect writers to have done their historical homework, and if they believe the language used is wrong, their illusion will be shattered, regardless of whether their belief has any foundation. Perhaps the shattering of illusion applies particularly when the language is deemed too “modern”? Yet, said Yeoman, ‘how else can an historical writer communicate with a modern reader, except in a modern idiom?’, although this view is not universally held. (I think the blog is well worth a read, by the way.)

Of course, Yeoman is only one of many to have addressed this problem.

Hilary Mantel has said that ‘[historical novelists] don’t want to misrepresent our ancestors, but we don’t want to make the reader impatient.’ Too much period flavour, she said, slows the story and may even make readers laugh. When we have little idea how people actually spoke in the distant past – because we have no audio or even written records – we must simply imagine it. Mantel recommended ‘a plain style that you can adapt…not just to [your characters’] ages and personalities and intelligence level, but to their place in  life.’2

The late Barry Unsworth said much the same: ‘You can’t make your characters speak in the language and idiom of their own time if the language of the period would seem archaic. It would put too much strain on the understanding and would seem false in any case.’3  Unsworth, too, recommended using straightforward English, though he advised also ‘a certain kind of tactful formality’ and an avoidance of contracted forms (isn’t, don’t etc.), advice which I have to confess I don’t follow.4  I tend to use contracted forms, rightly or wrongly, to help distinguish between social classes. I feel it works for me…

None of these writers has advised the use of “authentic-sounding” period language, perhaps because it is difficult to make such language sound right, and also to keep readers engaged with what might be a difficult read. As I have already said, my reading has shown me that most writers do not attempt to present voices in anything other than more-or-less modern English, although there are certainly exceptions, which I will discuss in another blog post.

But I have concluded that, in most of the historical novels I’ve read that were set in the “Middle Ages”, the characters’ thought-worlds did seem acceptably mediaeval, what they spoke about reflected the social context of the time, and that held true regardless of the modernity or otherwise of the language used.

However, certain aspects of language can detract from the seeming authenticity of the characters’ words, and these include both archaic or “difficult” language, and anachronistic language or ideas, both of which, in their different ways, can throw the reader out of the illusion the novelist is trying to convey. The matter of anachronisms is central to John Yeoman’s blog post on “authentic” language referred to above, and I will illustrate my thoughts on it in my next blog post.

(Note: I discuss this and other aspects of writing historical fiction in my PhD thesis, Authenticity and alterity: Evoking the fourteenth century in fiction, University of Southampton, Faculty of Humanities, 2015 <>)


1. John Yeoman, ‘Can the language of historical fiction ever be “authentic”?’, Clio’s Children (24th June 2010) <> [accessed 19th March 2014].

2.  Quoted in Brayfield and Sprott, p.135. Adapted from Hilary Mantel’s article ‘The Elusive Art of Making the Dead Speak’, Wall Street Journal, April 27th 2012.

3. Arlo Haskell, ‘Intensity of Illusion: a conversation with Barry Unsworth’, Key West Literary Seminar, Littoral (28th June 2008) <>, para.8 [accessed 25th March 2014].

4.  Arlo Haskell, ‘Barry Unsworth: The Economy of Truth’, Key West Literary Seminar, Audio Archives (7th October 2009) <> [accessed 25th March 2014].

3 thoughts on “Ancient or modern? Language in historical fiction

  1. Great, relevant post. I had a slightly different problem with my Richard III time travel trilogy as I had settings in both modern and mediaeval times (as well as the future). I felt I had to differentiate a little between them to emphasise the contrast, so I had Richard using some ‘mediaeval’ word forms at first (such as thee and thou, ’tis, etc and using ‘mediaeval’ curse words such as ‘Gods blood!”). However, knowing that this would soon get tedious for my readers, he had to learn modern English modes of speech pretty quickly! I still had him fall back into ‘mediaeval’ occasionally, in stress situations, etc. Then,when my heroine had to visit his time, I had her speaking normally (explained by the ploy that she was a foreigner), while the mediaeval people spoke more formally, without any contractions. I think modern expressions jar and detract from being absorbed in the story, but it is a fine balancing act. As for the ‘future’ part, I invented some new slang terms and technology!


    1. Thank you for posting your comment! And for reblogging. Intriguing, your language “problem” – a bit different from mine, but it does need careful thought to get it “right”, doesn’t it? I’ll follow your blog with interest…


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