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Monday, 10 February 2014

Historical accuracy in novels - rabbits and getting your facts right

I'm in the final edits of my latest historical romance, set in Anglo-Saxon England (The Deepening Night) - and part of that process is doubling checking my historical facts.

I write historical romance that's set in a sketchy period of British history: 7th century Anglo-Saxon Britain. Many of the details we have about this period were actually recorded a few centuries (mostly by monks) after the events actually took place. The Viking raids on the eastern coast of England destroyed what few written records there were, and so historians have had a tricky job of pasting it all together.

This misty historical period can be both a blessing and a curse! It's a blessing in that, since I write historical romance, I can 'play' a little with history - shift one or two dates, and adapt historical figures and events to suit the purposes of my story. However, it can be a curse because checking details such as weaponry, food, habits, clothing and building materials can send an author round in circles. Everything is open to interpretation.

Take, for example, the issue of rabbits.

Now, I took it for granted that there were ALWAYS rabbits in the British isles. Rabbits play a huge role in my books set in the 7th century. Chicken wasn't part of the Anglo-Saxon diet, and foods such as potatoes, tomatoes, wheat and sugar would not enter Britain until much later. I mention rabbits as a major meat source, especially for the poor. Yet I also write about clothing and wall hangings made from rabbit skin. It was a fact I felt pretty sure on - but then I read something that made me break out into a cold sweat...

Some historians believe that the rabbit was not introduced to England until the Norman conquest.

Arggh! This meant that my references to bunnies - in all three of my books - was wrong!

Panicking, I dug a little deeper, before realizing - with enormous relief - that not all historians believe rabbits arrived after 1066. Instead, many insist that rabbits came with the Romans, who kept them fenced off in warrens and harvested them for meat and fur.

Here's an interesting article from the Telegraph, explaining the archaeological evidence that proves that rabbits - or 'conies' as they once known, arrived with the Romans.

Massive sigh of relief - I had not been putting my readers after all!

This might not seem a big deal but getting historical details right is important, both for authors and readers. Don't be fooled into thinking readers of historical romance don't know their history - they do! However, for writers of historical fiction, it can be easy to get your facts wrong - especially when dealing with everyday details, facts that we take for granted.

Hence, I will never look at the humble bunny in the same way again!


  1. Hi, even though romans brought rebits to England, soon after they left rabbit remains seem to have disappeared from the archeological record until the Normans re-introduced from Spain.
    Paul Craddock

    1. Ah - that explains the confusion. Looks like my novels are factually wrong after all... oh dear - thanks for commenting though Jayne