interview with Lindsey Davis, the author of the Marcus Didius Falco series (some of my favorite books!). One of the questions Richard Lee asked was: "What do you find most alien about the past? Does it help or hinder your writing?"
Lindsey Davis' answer was quite concise. "Religion. I leave it out as much as possible."
I appreciate the honesty of this answer. And thinking back over the twenty books in the Falco series, I can see how Lindsey Davis does leave out the real heart of the Roman religion. Sure, she has Vestal Virgins as murder suspects and her protagonist being appointed the Procurator of the Sacred Geese, but throughout it all, Falco remains a dyed in the wool skeptic.
I think that many historical novelists choose to portray their protagonist as a skeptic is because they have a hard time relating to a true believer in religion. Like Lindsey Davis, they find the rituals and creeds of the past completely alien, and even more alien, the idea that such things could be taken seriously by someone. Religion is equated with superstition, something difficult for an educated modern to fathom, portray, or endorse.
But to correctly display a time period where religion was all-encompassing, would it not be the braver course to make the protagonist a believer rather than a skeptic?
A year and a half ago, I posted about some thoughts Sharon Kay Penman had on this subject. She listed religion as the number one way that the medieval world differed from ours. "All men--be they Christian, Jew, or Muslim--were convinced that theirs was the True Faith.... They can respect one another's courage, but neither side doubts that damnation awaits their foes." In her novels, Penman tries to make her characters, "acknowledge this bedrock belief, so alien to most of us today."
While writing the Chronicles of Tancred, I try to write about religion as if I were an eleventh century Norman adhering to the rites and rule of the Church of Rome. In some ways the fact that I am a twenty-first century American Protestant helps me in that task; in other ways it hinders me.
But when a scruffy drunkard has a vision of St. Andrew informing the Crusaders where the Holy Lance is buried, it's not my place to make my protagonist distrust him simply because I, the author, am dubious of visions, don't embrace the Roman Catholic view of sainthood, and don't believe relics have special powers. Instead, I must put myself in Tancred's worn-out boots. And though they might be more difficult to walk in, they make the journey more rewarding.