History Nuggets

8 Things To Gloss Over When Writing An Historical Novel: Pongs, Pests & Products and People & Practises

Historical Pests

Part Two Pests (and animals) & Products

Whilst a big fan of historical accuracy and realism, some things are unequivocally better dealt with today than they were in the past. How did people cope without our modern methods and solutions? I know that in most instances people wouldn’t have known any different but when writing an historical novel, particularly a romance, they do need to be considered for fear of eternally offending and/or disgusting your modern reader. A fantasy can cease to become a fantasy if we dwell on any of the below in too much detail in a novel. Which leads to perhaps presenting the issue in a slightly more appealing or generous light, if not downright glossing over it altogether…

So here’s my second blog on this theme concerning pests and animals (read the first on Pongs here).

  1. Proliferation of vermin – how often do we see rats in public these days? A few mice on the tube in London certainly but rats? The only time I’ve seen one (other than when the cat’s presented us with his daring and skill) is when I sat very quietly on a bench (for once dog-less) overlooking a Dorset valley and the rats made a beeline for the bin. But that’s the only occasion I can recall in 30+ years and I live semi-rurally. 100+ years ago though? They were everywhere. With people discarding rubbish and sewage in an unhygienic manner it was like a rat’s smorgasbord. Castles and wealthy households kept cats specifically to keep the rat and mouse population under control. During those insanely complicated wig fashions of the eighteenth century, it was not uncommon for nests of mice to set up residence in women’s wigs. Rat catching was a valued profession and ferrets and terriers were bred specifically for this and highly prized; the Pied Piper of Hamlin didn’t spring from nowhere (a good look at this in novel form during Victorian era London is Judith Ivory’s ‘The Proposition’). Unless a central plot arc like in ‘The Proposition’, in terms of describing your hero/heroine’s household – definitely gloss over the vermin (shudder).
Not so cute when they’re in your food or carrying the Black Death


  1. Proliferation of lice and other nasty bugs – whilst allegedly on the rise again in modern society (I’m really not going to dwell on that for my own sanity), with no washing machines and boil wash setting or disinfectant, bugs were everywhere. Beds, hair, clothing, animals etc. I find this is often mentioned in HEAs when describing an unwelcoming inn on travels but rarely in the hero or heroine’s own home. Lice were especially prevalent where masses of people congregated (as discovered in WW1 trenches) but the possibility of your hero having lice, especially if he’s been to war, is something you can probably get away with but only if he’s de-liced immediately upon returning home. A heroine having lice in her beautiful flowing locks on the other hand? Just no.


  1. Worms – living in such close proximity to so many animals, plenty of people suffered with worms, tapeworms, ringworm etc. Certainly something I’ve never come across in a historical HEA, it definitely makes intimacy with the hero so much less appealing if we know he’s got worms, so a prime contender for the gloss over.


  1. Animals in towns and cities – It wouldn’t have been an unusual sight for animals we now associate with farmyards and fields to be kept in the centre of towns and big cities. It’s still law in England that a freeman can take sheep across Tower Bridge without paying a toll and drive geese down Cheapside (not sure what time-pressed commuters would have to say about that though). And Londoners are not allowed to keep an obvious pigsty in the front of their homes (every city home-owners’ dream). With this wide and varied dispersal of animals, there would also be the associated pongs, sewerage, disposal and feed to contend with. Apart from horses, I can’t recall a HEA that mentions other animals being present in towns or cities for anything other than a market. This could be a useful tool in realistic historical world-building that probably wouldn’t offend the modern reader if done right.


Historical Pests


  1. Stray dogs – this is something we don’t often see in the west now but visit Eastern Europe or South America, particularly Argentina and Chile, and stray dogs in varying degrees of health are everywhere (I speak from experience. I had to promise not to go near the one with mange so bad that it only had the tip of its nose and tail fur left). As above, whilst the hero and/or heroine often have dogs, particularly working dogs, stray dogs often aren’t usually mentioned in HEAs. Unless writing with a plot arc on animal welfare, I think mentioning stray dogs in good health would add a nice realistic component to the novel. I would definitely gloss over the one with mange though, especially without an effective treatment.
Historical Pests
Here’s me and one of the friendlier (and inconspicuously diseased) stray dogs in Chile


  1. Animal Welfare – the UK was the first country to pass animal welfare legislation back in 1822 with The Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act and the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) followed shortly after in 1824. However, it took time to change peoples’ attitudes to animals (scanning recent prosecutions, some people clearly haven’t caught up) and it would have been normal for people to beat their animals publically or kick stray dogs, for example. Exotic animals would also have been brought to towns and cities for entertainment, such as dancing bears (I witnessed one in St. Petersburg, Russia as recently as 2001). Cock fighting was extremely popular amongst all classes of society and was only banned in England, Wales and overseas territories in 1835 but not in Scotland until 1895. I have read of bears and cock fighting before in HEAs but it’s always been handled very sensitively as the modern reader is often an animal lover and the heroine is usually portrayed as one too, with varying degrees of success. I’ve only read of animal abuse in one HEA novel, Lisa Kleypas’ Prince of Dreams. People did have different attitudes towards animal welfare but having the hero or heroine hitting an animal? Multitudes of no.


  1. Eating the entirety of the animal –  vegetarians and vegans aside (a living-memory modern lifestyle choice), we’re picky these days – says the girl who only really wants to eat chicken breast and cuts all the fat off her meat before eating it (dinner plate disection as it’s known in our house). Historically, people ate every bit of the pig but the oink – a sentiment applicable to almost every animal. Nothing was wasted, especially by the poor who often didn’t get regular meat. Fancy a pig trotter anyone? No, me neither; I still shudder at the memory of Kevin Costner ‘eating’ raw buffalo trotter in Dances With Wolves, let alone watching it again. Definitely something to gloss over.


Historical Pests


  1. Fur clothes and bedspreads – Although useful to keep down the vermin population, cats weren’t widely regarded as pets until the 18th century in Europe. The National Trust’s Speke Hall in Cheshire has recently removed a surviving patchwork cat fur bedspread from display to accommodate modern sensibilities. Legally, cats are still classed as vermin in the UK (because you can’t control where they go) but they now have legal protection under Animal Welfare laws. I definitely think it wise to gloss over any cat fur soft furnishings, though the further back in history you go, the more acceptable wearing fur becomes to the modern reader (although there’s no way we’d countenance it now). Of course, other animal’s fur was used for clothing and bedding too but I feel considerably less squeamish about a grey squirrel fur than I do a cat…


Anything else I haven’t thought of? Let me know 🙂


© This blog is an original rambling of Eleanor Small

Photo credits:

Stray dog © Eleanor Small

Rat food © http://www.chaffinworks.com/services/vermin-control

Rat pair © http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20150514-rats-save-mates-from-drowning

Pig © http://animal-dream.com/pig.html

Comments (4)

  • Brilliant post. “Historically, people ate every bit of the pig but the oink” had me giggling. How completely true, though. And what I don’t mind in a historical novel or medieval murder mystery – graphic descriptions of what life was like at the time of the novel – I really don’t want in a historical romance. I look for a different level of escapism when I’m reading romance, so I’m with you on glossing over the grittier details of life in “olden times”!

    • Why, thank you kindly! Have to confess I stole “every bit of the pig but the oink” off my mum though 😉 I really like the point you made about you accepting realism more in thrillers but less in romance – something I hadn’t thought too much about so thank you for that.

  • I’ve seen loads of rats in the city where I live, but it still doesn’t occur to me to put them in my novels. I wonder how noticeable they were to people in the past. When I see a rat I think about it and talk about it, but I don’t think about it if I see a cat or a dog.

    Although I’m a vegetarian, I don’t have any problem writing about medieval food or cooking, because that’s what people ate then. I also don’t avoid mentioning that they wore and slept on or under furs (if they had the money). I’ve never mentioned cat fur, though, but that’s because I haven’t done enough research to know how common it was or what class of people used it.

    I do think about the lice and fleas and disease, as well as other hygiene issues, but I don’t particularly want to write about my hero picking up lice while he’s on a pilgrimage and if he loses weight, I’d prefer it to be because he’s pining for the heroine, not because he’s got tapeworm.

    • Hi April, thank you for your comments, apologies for the delay in replying, have been running around like a headless chicken this week! (so much for NaNoWriMo!). Couldn’t agree more on the pining for love rather than a tapeworm!! Although, now I want to know how they treated tapeworm… *wanders off into google black hole*


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