From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think fantasy authors should have on their shelves. Some may be new and still in print, some may be difficult to find, but all will be, at least in my humble opinion, essential texts for the fantasy author, so worth looking for.
Medieval Wordbook by Madeline Pelner Cosman, was published in 1996 by Facts on File. It’s one part dictionary, one part encyclopedia, and sheds some light on the meanings of words used in medieval Europe. Since most traditional fantasy settings are fictionalized versions of medieval Europe or England, doing a little research on the period can lend an air of authenticity to any pseudo-medieval setting. This easy to use, handy-dandy book can make doing a little research pay off big.
The alphabetical listings start with:
“The rhinoceros, sometimes thought to be the female UNICORN, the horn of which, in powdered form, was renowned as an APHRODISIAC and antidote to poison. Like the NARWHAL, the abada was avidly hunted during the fifteenth century and later.”
and ends with:
“(German, gold between glass) A gold decoration or painting sandwiched between two pieces of glass; a glass vessel whose exterior is decorated with gold and then encased in a sheath of glass. Comparable in effect to VERRE ÉGLOMISÉ.”
See, don’t you feel smarter already? I know I do.
But though the alphabetical entries on their own are fascinating, what I love about this book is its robust Subject Index. Headings include Christian mysticism, gift, nonsense, and virginity. This section will help you find twenty-two different kinds of jars, eighteen metalwork techniques, or five different words having to do with backwards movement, like:
“In a backwards, unusual, or “perverse” order. The wrong way. Narrative techniques and pictorial and CALLIGRAPHY styles required reading from right to left across a page and from back to front of a book. Christians considered Hebrew books written widdershins; WITCHes’ sabbaths (described in the HAMMER OF WITCHES) prescribed backwards prayers; reverse ROGATION PROCESSIONs signified death.”
Now, don’t take this as a recommendation that you seek out all the most obscure and archaic words and phrases and replace your plain language with stuff like crespinettes, lac virginis, or suckenies. If one of your characters is wearing a suckenie, you’d better make sure you describe exactly what that looks like, since only a very small fraction of a percent of your readers will have any idea that it’s a “thirteenth-century German COTELETTE, an un-belted long, sleeveless, side-slit overdress, usually with a drawstring at the neck.” Making your readers feel stupid by confusing them on purpose, is not a sign of intelligence on your part. It’ll just make people hate you and not buy your next book.
Medieval Wordbook is a resource to be used lovingly, sparingly, with respect and caution. Some of it, like many of the Christian rites and foreign words might not be appropriate if your fantasy world doesn’t include the Catholic Church, or, say, Germans. But a little color here and there makes for a colorful book, and if you’re describing a society with medieval technology and mores, give it a little substance, a nod to the history, and your readers will appreciate the effort.
Madeline Pelner Cosman passed away in 2006, but left us with at least this must-have text for any author of fantasy, medieval historical fiction, or anything that might reference the rich culture the medieval world left us.
Get a copy, flip through it, and just shop for ideas.