In days of Olde,
when knights were bolde,
and laptops not invented,
well…only monks could read.
Or write anything down.
Okay, I know that doesn’t rhyme…but it’s true!
And so what we’ve got from that era is filtered through a narrow monkish perspective. Hence…no swearing. There simply are no records of what kinds of bad language folks used back then. Which makes it devilishly difficult to write about a bunch of hardened knights doing gruff manly things – which surely involved a goodly deal of cursing. (Imagine a bunch of marines doing what they do and not swearing… See what I mean?)
But what kind of swearing went on in medieval times? you ask.
In 1100 the F word did not exist. Like the laptop, it simply hadn’t been invented yet. In medieval England they said swiving. And it wasn’t really used as a curse. More just a benign description of the act.
Doesn’t have the same umpf anyway, if you ask me.
We’ve got some nice juicy cursing from Shakespeare’s time:
Thou gorbellied brazen-faced gudgeon!
Thou puking ill-breeding malcontent!
Thou infectious guts-griping hedge-pig!
Thou pribbling milk-livered haggard!
Ahhh…The Bard did have a way with words, didn’t he?
But that was five hundred years later than the century Sword of Mordrey is set in. Which would be like asking a pilgrim character to swear how we swear now.
What’s an historical writer to do?
I know I can use my imagination. That’s what writers do, right? But think about it. You who write modern day stuff don’t have to think up swearing. There’s an abundance of colorful descriptive nouns and adjectives all around you from which to choose.
One of my fellow writers, David Waid, is also working on an historical novel, and I received an email from him a while back that would make most of you laugh (it did me). Because it was a desperate call for medieval cursing. I must admit I had fun answering him. (Maybe too much.) I’ve had to imagine most of the cursing that goes on in my novel. Plus I’ve picked up some foul language from other medieval novels I’ve read over the years.
Things like: God’s blood, God’s teeth, By the Virgin, By Satan’s hairy arse or warty prick.
I imagine medieval cursers enjoyed comparing people they didn’t like or who behaved badly to animals, much as we do now. Pigs, or dogs (who let the dogs out? woof! woof!). Serpents and shrews. Being so religious, I bet many curses had to do with defaming the other person’s soul, or cursing them to Hell. And you could always defame their parentage. Especially mom. Saying something nasty about a person’s mother is and always will be offensive. Whore’s son is a perennial favorite of historical writers. And you can always add some descriptive before the insult to mom, like this: swag-bellied whore’s son. That’s got a kind of satisfying alliterative ring to it, don’t you think?
Then there were those jibs that just attacked the way a person looked, and or their intelligence, or possible lack thereof: Swag-bellied tosspot for a fat drunkard. Pimple-arsed lackwit. You could go after their profession, or imply a shameful one: Poxy-cheeked strumpet.
Well, clearly this is a challenge writers who set their novels in modern times don’t have to face. But it has been fun, hasn’t it?