To set the scene: you’re reading a book that takes place in medieval times. It reads as well-researched, and though it might not be perfectly accurate, no detail in it so far has taken you out of the story. There hasn’t been any looking up from the pages to make skeptical eye contact with some imaginary camera, like a character in a tv show. So far, all is well, or at least, convincing.
As you’re reading, you come to, say, a banquet. There’s a famous lady in attendance, and you are going to meet her. She appears on the scene. And her name is . . .
Wait, what? No way there’s a Tiffany in this book! Not when there are other women running around with convincing names like Blanchefleur, Isolde, and Ermentrude. And not when we in our modern times have Tiffany & Co. Jewelry and the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s and a friend named Tiffany!
You, dear reader, have stumbled into what fantasy author Jo Walton coined as the Tiffany Problem. Tiffany is actually a medieval name that goes back to the 12th century! We even have an entry for it in the Dictionary here! Tiffany comes from Theophania, which itself is another name for the Christian holiday Epiphany. It was common for people in England to name their daughters Tiffany, or some variation, if they were born or christened near the holiday. But in our modern perception of the medieval world, Tiffany just doesn’t fit.
In other words, the Tiffany Problem describes the tension between historical fact and the average, everyday person’s idea of history. So even though authors may research carefully and want to include historically accurate information in their book—like a medieval character named Tiffany—a popular audience likely won’t buy it. And it’s not just limited to names, or books!
Take, for example: medieval people and bathing—did they do it? Many people would say, no, they did not.
However, the average medieval person was pretty into bathing! People who lived during the middle ages often had their own wooden baths, and if they didn’t, they would bathe in a nearby water source. They even used soap and would sometimes scent their bathwater with herbs! Medieval people also washed their hands before and after meals because they knew eating dirt and grime was bad. Not to mention what a big deal bathhouses were across Europe! Bathing was a leisure activity, a communal one, and usually a daily one. So yes, medieval people bathed !
Another example: If a book or TV show or movie takes place in old-timey Europe, all the characters would be white, right?
Wrong! There were people of color in Europe! Just because we tend to perceive the European past as white, doesn’t mean it actually was, à la Tiffany Problem. If you take a good look at the art produced throughout pre and early modern Europe, and if you dig deeper to find the unseen or hidden art that actually depicts black and POC individuals, you’ll find a significantly more diverse representation of life in Europe during these times. For a more in-depth look at people of color in European art, check out this blog!
And if you want more than just art to illustrate (get it?) this point, let’s skip to a little later in the timeline and talk about what the docks of 19th century England looked like. English sailors making the voyage to India had to go around the Cape of Good Hope—an extremely dangerous journey, during which many sailors died.
Undermanned, the surviving sailors needed to refill their crew for the return voyage, and who did they use to do it? Locals from the docks in South Asia. But it was a one-way trip for these green seafarers.
Once back in England, the European mariners would leave their inexperienced South Asian crewmembers on the docks to fend for themselves and hire experienced sailors for the next voyage (and repeat). So, there were lots of non-white people left on the docks who took up whatever work they could with their experience .
To conclude, here’s one last example! To set the scene (again), you’re reading a book set in Victorian England—a scandalous one. You come to a chapter that describes someone looking saucy and doing something a bit risqué. Are you picturing it?
Next question: are nipple piercings part of your picture? Probably not! But nipple piercings were having a moment in 1800s England (and France, too)! Women and men got themselves the piercings to be both trendy and titillating (pun intended). But you couldn’t really put that in a book that’s trying to be and be seen as historically accurate. . . could you ?
The next time you encounter TV, movies, or books set in pre-20th century Europe that has people of color present (or cleanliness standards), maybe think about the Tiffany Problem before brushing it off as inaccurate. Maybe it’s time we start to change our perceptions, and open up to accurate, if sometimes zany, historical facts and occurrences!