Friday, September 19, 2014

Hitting the Books

I have spent my entire adult life studying Russian history and culture, especially that of the sixteenth century. My main published nonfiction work is a translation of sixteenth-century Russia’s one domestic conduct (that is, how to run your household) book, known as Domostroi. Yet as I prepare to refocus my novelistic energy from the imaginary planet Tarkei and the very real world of ballet to my recently completed outline for The Swan Princess (Legends of the Five Directions 3: North), I find myself astonished to discover yet again how many basic questions of everyday life remain largely unaddressed in the historical literature.

For example, my plan for this novel requires one of the series characters to suffer an ailment of the heart. (The exact ailment, although known to me, would not be clearly distinguished by characters at the time, no matter how many medical books Nasan consults.) It’s a relatively common ailment, with symptoms and medical treatments easily researched on the Internet and elsewhere, but I have yet to answer such basic questions for sixteenth-century Russia as:

  • How would a self-educated young Tatar woman think about heart problems? How do they fit into the “four humors/three essences” theory of medicine characteristic of European and Islamic medicine at the time?
  • What drugs or other remedies would be available? Which would be common knowledge and available from local healers? Which would be strange enough that they might cause conflict between Nasan and her patient?
  • Would any of these treatments be effective? If so, how do they work, and what would my budding doctor see?
Given the problems with medicine in this time and place, moreover, the most sensible and undoubtedly preferred course for this character would be a religious pilgrimage. That raises another host of questions:
  • Could a group of noblewomen accompanied by a suitable number of guards and servants expect to stay at the monastery that is their ultimate destination, or would they have to go to a convent?
  • If they stay in a guesthouse, what would it look like?
  • Could they attend services in the monastery chapel, or would they go to a church? Would they attend services at all, or just wait outside with the crowd for the monks to process by with the holy icons and bless them?
  • If they do attend services, would the patient be permitted to sit on account of her social station and her illness, or would she have to stand like everyone else—at least until she keeled over and had to be carried out?
  • If, as required by the mores of the time, the noblewomen travel with veils over their faces, under what circumstances would they remove the veils while on the monastery grounds?
  • If they remain veiled, would other characteristics—their own or those of their retinue—reveal their identities to the antagonist waiting in the wings?
And so it goes. Every tiny plot point (and this is just a rough outline!) reveals complex details that require elucidation. If the information does not exist, I can make it up; I’m working as a novelist here, not a historian. But ensuring that no one now knows the answers—that’s where the work comes in and where I inevitably make mistakes.

I don’t mind the search. I am, after all, a historian first. I love to research. But oh, what I wouldn’t give for The Time Traveler’s Guide to Ivan the Terrible’s Russia or What Anastasia Ate and Elena Glinskaya Wore or some other quick and dirty guide to the nitty-gritty specifics of early modern Russian life. 

Well, so long as it was accurate. Which I guess would bring me right back where I started....

Image: Konstantin Makovsky, Fortune Telling (before 1915), via Wikimedia Commons. This picture is in the public domain in the United States because of its age. 

The girls are studying a rooster, whose choice of grains they believe has predictive significance—probably as effective as much medieval medicine.

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