A Rose By Any Other Name: When Modernity Intrudes

Here’s a thorny problem that every historical novelist eventually confronts: What to do when a person, place, or event has been tagged with a well-known name or description not used during the time of your story.

I struggled with this conundrum in The Fire and the Light, my novel about the medieval Cathars of southern France. The most recognized designation applied to these alleged heretics (“Cathar” was derived from the Greek katharos, meaning “pure” or “clean”) wasn’t uniformly adopted until a few years after my characters lived. In fact, there was never just one, commonly-accepted term for the Cathars during the early part of the 13th century. Some called them cloggers (after the shoes they wore) or Bon Hommes (the Good Men, but that appellation wrongly excluded women). Many if not most of their contemporaries simply referred to them as heretics and, with the exception of the ecclesiastics, did not distinguish them from the Waldensians, Paulists, and the other condemned sects.

To avoid confusion, I decided to judiciously use the term “Cathar” along with the other descriptions and beg the understanding of those more expert in the era than the average reader.

Another option is to insert a footnote into the story. Here’s an example from Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels:

“The General says to tell you that the Yankees are moving troops upon on the high Rocky Hill,* the one to the right. And there’s a signal team up there.”
. . . . .
* The Confederates did not know that the local name for that hill was “Little Round Top.” During the battle their most common name for it was simply “The Rocky Hill.”

The footnote works fine in a novel about the Civil War. The period is still relatively fresh to American readers, many of whom will have heard of Little Round Top. The fragile illusion of time turned back is not destroyed. But in my novel, set as it is in the Middle Ages and presented in a book designed to imitate an ancient tome, a footnote would have been jolting.

Another solution is to explain such variances in an author’s note at the beginning or end of the novel. This is often the preferable choice if more than a couple of language nuances and differences arise. But in Shaara’s case, to have mentioned this lone name change in his author’s note would have been using a hammer to swat at a flea that had long since flitted away.

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