What price historical accuracy?

supperI recently watched an interesting show on Channel 4 (UK) called Time Crashers, where a group of people were filmed living for a few days as servants in a Tudor manor house. We saw them preparing and serving a banquet, washing clothes, eating and sleeping – all in character and in the costume of the period. The emphasis was on the reality of their situation – so the correct etiquette had to be learned and observed at all times (lots of bowing), as well as the correct methods for preparing foods (sewing half a chicken and a half a pig together) and washing clothes (use urine as a detergent). The programme showed that life for an Elizabethan servant was unremitting hard work and rule-bound – and there is no doubt the people involved were taken well out of their comfort zone.

But what really interested me was the claims made by the programme about the stratification of Elizabethan staff. According to the programme, only male servants were physically allowed in the great hall, and female servants were kept to the kitchen, which was dominated by a male cook. If this is true then it meant that the research I did for my own time-travel story was wrong – I have a female cook and I have women serving food at a banquet (both are integral to the plot).

Now, you might say that my book, The Witchfinder’s Well, is a fantasy anyway, so why should it matter that there may be historical inaccuracies? But I wanted to make the historical setting as realistic as possible – putting my heroine as much out of her comfort zone as the stars of Time Crashers.

Equally, I could challenge the makers of Time Crashers – to say that surely not every great house would have had such rigid stratification, and there must have been exceptions to the rules? I can’t believe that some houses would not have had a female cook? Or had women serving the dishes at a banquet? Who can possibly say that every single great house in the land conformed to the rules?

So I shall rest easy, and continue on the path to publishing The Witchfinder’s Well – in the happy knowledge that the house, cook and servants in my fantasy could just be the exception that proved the rule.

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