Archaic terminology in historical fiction

When writing a story set in the distant past, how should the writer deal with archaic words that have gone out of use and are no longer in a modern dictionary? On the one hand, period terminology can evoke a sense of entering a different world. If one opens a novel and encounters men wearing chausses and braies, women wearing wimples and bliauts, dinner menus featuring manchet loaves and angel bread, reeves collecting feorm, a fyrdman carrying a seax or a musician playing a rebec, it’s immediately apparent that the story is set in a world that is not the same as the modern world, where people dress and act and perhaps think differently.

On the other hand, archaic terms can act as a barrier. Too many words that are too unfamiliar can create the impression that this world is not so much different as incomprehensible. I knew someone who loved historical fiction but who gave up on Jean Plaidy’s novels because she didn’t know what a Huguenot was and therefore thought she wouldn’t understand any of the story. (She gave me her Jean Plaidy collection, so I did quite well out of the deal.) I didn’t know what a Huguenot was either, but from the context I could work out that it was a sort of Protestant religious sect, which was enough to follow the novel. But my acquaintance liked to feel she had her feet on firm ground at all times, so for her the unfamiliar terminology barred her from reading the books.

In Wolf Girl, set in 7th-century Whitby, the author comes up with a compromise solution to the problem, by using some archaic terms and explaining them at first use, e.g. “.....the short sword they called a seax....”. Which worked well in this case as the novel only used a few such terms, but it would rapidly become tiresome in a novel that used a lot.

Colleen McCullough, in her Masters of Rome series, takes a different approach, making liberal use of Roman terminology and providing a comprehensive glossary at the back of each book. But this means the reader has to stop reading, flip to the back, read the glossary entry, and then get back into the story again.

I prefer to err on the side of accessibility, given a choice. As I have argued elsewhere in the context of place names, the terminology was familiar to the people who lived at the time. They didn’t need to stop and think when someone mentioned a bliaut or a seax, nor did they need it explained. For me, too many archaic terms have the effect of distancing me from the story. I like to ‘translate’ archaic terminology into a modern or near-modern equivalent whenever I can, in the hope that this makes it easier for a reader to conjure up the intended mental image. Some examples of 'translated' Old English terms:

Sometimes there doesn’t seem to be a satisfactory modern equivalent, so I stuck with the archaic term:

One term I found particularly difficult was scop, the poet or singer who was the composer and keeper of oral tradition. ‘Poet’ or ‘singer’ conjure up an image of an entertainer and lose the important role of the scop as the keeper of folk memory. ‘Minstrel’ sounds too tinselly. ‘Bard’ is the Welsh equivalent, but it carries clear connotations of Celtic culture and so doesn’t sound right in an Old English context - and besides, I need ‘bard’ for the same role in the Brittonic cultures of Britain. The literal translation of ‘scop’ is ‘shaper’ or ‘maker’, in the sense of one who shapes words, and Tolkien uses this sense when he refers to ‘a maker in Rohan’. But I thought ‘maker’ or ‘word-shaper’ sounded too obscure for my purposes. In the end I settled on ‘skald’, which is the Norse equivalent of ‘scop’. It’s an anachronism, as Norse words wouldn’t arrive in Britain for another two centuries, but at least ‘skald’ has the right meaning and is still in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, so it seemed the best of the alternatives.