Mind your language

Why you might not want corridors in your historical novel

C.J. Sansom and the battle with anachronism

1 November 2014

9:00 AM

1 November 2014

9:00 AM

I read C.J. Sansom’s novel Dissolution on the train recently with pleasure. For an historical novel narrated in the 1530s, what was the author to do about language? He eschewed godwottery (which Fowler, in a dated term, called Wardour Street, after the old furniture once sold there). But I did gulp at page 273: ‘I got up, waving my arms and stamping my feet to restore the circulation.’ The what?

The word circulatioun is first recorded from 1535 in the sense ‘movement in a circle’. It wasn’t till 1630 that James Primrose published a commentary, De Motu Cordis et Circulatione Sanguinis, on the theories of William Harvey. Elsewhere in his novel, Mr Sansom makes the narrator refer to the Galenic humours, so presumably he would have attributed pins-and-needles to some blockage of humours. Does this matter?


Try another case. Dissolution has more than one reference to corridors in the monastery. Now corridor, in the sense of ‘a passage off which rooms open’, was, surprisingly, not used until Byron’s time. For ‘a covered walkway between buildings’, it had been used since the early 17th century, borrowed from the Italian. It’s partly a question of architecture, since houses had one room opening into another, with no passageway past them. Mr Sansom uses passage elsewhere in the book, and the choice of using it all the time would depend on whether most readers would mind or even notice.

One word he uses that was thoroughly familiar at the time is stew (‘fish pond’), from the French estuier, ‘to shut up’. Another, in ‘the great stew of London’, meaning a stench, is of obscure but unconnected origin. Or perhaps here stew might mean ‘a brothel’, coming from a vulgar Latin word tufus ‘vapour’, which also gives us meat stew. This sweaty meaning must be intended in a phrase early in the novel: ‘stewed in the corruption of a decadent church’. In a non-sexual sense, the narrator also lets his sidekick ‘stew a little’. I am not sure whether the use of these different senses of stew is deliberate or a creative accident. In any case, it exemplifies an historical novelist avoiding the dilemma of dull pedantry and jarring anachronism.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10


Show comments
  • plumpleton

    Does anyone know where the picture was taken?

    • balance_and_reason

      I believe it is the approach from the east to Loughton, in Essex.

    • Kaine

      It’s Tatev Monastery in Armenia.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Try “Google Images” where the bone-idle MSM harvest most of their pictures.

  • Mrs.JosephineHydeHartley

    I wonder if this “stew” thing was a way to describe persons who by dint of their position or demeanour were kept, or shut out of the established, going concerns of the day, for whatever reason.eg the sick, the poor and others who were generally out cast.

Close