Discussion: Trope Talk: The most annoying historical inaccuracies in book


historical and factual inaccuracies in books: the bad, the worse, the ones that make us tear our hair out

So you want to write a book. Great! Many of us get to this step and just go wild with the details. Unfortunately, one really wrong fact can pull a reader right out of a story and make them distrust--or laugh at--you. Whitley and I put together a list of the ones that make us grind our teeth the most. - C.J.

c.j.'s hills to die upon 

mechanical super horses 

This isn't purely a historical gripe, but it shows up a lot in historical and fantasy books. Say it with me: Horses. Are. Not. Cars. Horses can't gallop for hours at a time. After a few miles, they  need a break. On a long journey, most of that journey is going to be walking or trotting, especially through rough terrain where the horse is in danger of turning an ankle at higher speeds. About 40 miles is a good day for a horse in traveling shape (20-30 miles is more typical). Horses trained for endurance could do more. Mounted soldiers could ride 40-60 miles. Arabians or similar breeds trained for long distance racing can do 100 miles in one day, but that's the upper limit. And remember: the more weight a horse is carrying, the older it is, the fewer miles it can sustain. If you're going to have your horse covering 200 miles in a day, it better be magical and you'd better explain it, or you're gonna get side-eyed by a lot of riders. 

monochrome metropolises 

The most common offenders for this are all-white cities, but it applies everywhere. Unless your book takes place in a tiny remote village, there are going to be foreigners there. That means people with different languages and different skin colors. Look at any major city in the olden days and you'll find it was inhabited by loads of different people, pretty much no matter how far back you go. Rome? Super diverse. Athens? Super diverse. London? Super diverse. There were black people in the far north and white people in the far south. The more important a city was, the more trade routes it was on, the more likely you were going to have large pockets of expats. And, in many cases, they all got along well enough until the ruling class needed a scapegoat. If you think the great empires of old were all white people, go read a f*cking history book.  

whitley's hills to die upon

downtrodden peasantry

Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying that life as a middle-ages peasant was a walk in the park, but summarizing it as "nasty, brutish, and short" is missing a lot of marks. I'm still learning all the ways we imagine the peasantry wrong, but some things that have stood out the most to me: they could read (at least well enough to keep a few records, or search registries for their own name), they had A F-K TON of holidays just for an excuse to have a village-wide party once a week, they bathed (less than us, but we bathe too much, it's all marketing's fault! that's a different rant), and often times they even self-governed with a fair amount of leeway.

And on similiar notes, peasant (or middle class) women...okay, again, I'm not saying it was great, but they had a better lot than we give credit for a lot of times. They did the same work as their male family members -- in fields or in businesses -- could be accomplished artisans, dominated the brewing industry, could own businesses... Granted, 'middle ages' covers a lot of timeline so various rights waxed and waned at various times, but it wasn't uniformly the "stay in the kitchen until your husband takes ownership of you and also shut up" that we're so often presented with.


Look, people died a lot before modern medicine. They died young. (Although the whole "life expectancy of 30" thing is also misleading, again that's another rant.) And when you're young and your partner dies, you don't really want to stay single forever and ever after that. What I'm getting at is: step-families existed and were hella complicated. (Also a reason while infertile women were not necessarily 'doomed' to be single and childless; maybe a widower wants someone to take care of his four offspring and not risk her dying in childbirth.)

Also the notion that people married super young back in ye olden times. For the vast majority of people, the average age of marriage wasn't significantly different than it is now. Infamous cases of marriages to underage brides were...super gross and totally happened, but still not considered 'the norm.'


I got nothing besides that, I just wanted you to know. Someone needs to find a way to work windmill lawsuits into their story somehow please I find this hilarious.

technological advances

Speaking of windmills, oh yeah, those were invented in the middle ages. Along with a TON of other types of inventions and social changes. People call it 'the dark ages' and bemoan the loss of scientific advances, but that's a crock of bull. Advances in agriculture led to a population boom, advances in travel to greater trade, all sorts of art and music and architecture was invented, society went through massive changes with....ah, varying degrees of success. Basically, the only difference between the 'dark ages' and the 'renaissance' is by Renaissance times there were enough rich layabouts to spend all their days writing tomes waxing poetic about the state of society. (No lie, a lot of what we don't know about the middle ages is because 18th century fancies wanted to make their own time period look better and straight made up a bunch of 'stupid people in the dark ages' history. Then it got accepted as text book by later generations.)

Long story short, the Middle Ages ro-- okay, well, they sucked, but they didn't suck as much as you assumed! Yeah!

Your turn!  What factual inaccuracies make you want to throw your books across the room?  


  1. This is a fairly recent thing for me, but... traditional archery. I ended up doing a lot of research over the last year since.. well, I love archery and wanted to feature it in my book, and nowadays I can't stand Hollywood archery. If there's no magic involved, a traditional bow requires maintenance, doesn't last for generations, and can't be left strung at all times. There are so many different types of bows, arrows, and styles of archery, too... you can't expect someone to be able to use a warbow with the same proficiency as the small recurve they're used to, or something.
    I agree with all of your gripes, too. Especially the technology one. It's also been a wide array of subjects I've researched plenty for my own writing. Constructing realistic reasoning why my setting does NOT have guns readily available (yet) has been pretty fun. Determining what the ratio of realism vs quirks of the setting is some of the most fun I have writing, and sometimes it makes me a bit sad that a lot of authors don't seem to want to make the effort (or perhaps don't think to do so).

  2. That people in the Middle Ages never traveled and lived in their home towns birth to death. There were actually a ton load of pilgrimages back then, along with travel for trade, business, military, etc.