23 May, 2012

Ten Commandments For Writing About History And Discussing It Online

Some things I need to get off my chest, based on reading about and discussing history on various online forums and Facebook groups, and certain articles and books.

1) You shall remember that people who lived hundreds of years ago were complex human beings every bit as complex and human as we are, who had families, and feelings, and human dignity, and that therefore you should write about them with respect, in the same way that you would wish writers to treat the memory of you and your loved ones with respect decades or centuries hence.  You will not laugh or sneer or gloat at their painful deaths and suffering, or claim that they deserved everything they got, or express a wish that they'd suffered even more, or call them vile names.  If you wouldn't want someone in the future to make light of tragic events which have befallen you and your loved ones, or to depict your beloved father as a callously neglectful parent or not in fact your biological father thanks to your mother's cheating on him, or your kind and wonderful husband as a spineless snivelling coward who frequently beat you up and forced himself on you, or your daughter as a cold-blooded child killer - and if it would make you angry and upset if anyone wrote things like this about your favourite historical person - then you should think twice about inventing such calumnies about other people merely because you don't like them or because they were an enemy of your favourite historical person.

2) You shall remember that accusing someone of a horrible crime such as murder, rape, child abuse, violent assault or torture is a serious allegation which should not be made without real, actual evidence.  This is no less true merely because the person you are accusing lived 500 or 700 years ago, and lame so-called justifications such as "s/he was an unpleasant person who might have done such a thing" or "s/he had a motive to commit the crime, in my opinion" or meaningless rhetorical questions and mealy-mouthed statements such as "it is not beyond the bounds of possibility" that s/he committed the crime are insufficient.  A motive, or what you with the benefit of more than half a millennium's hindsight perceive to be a motive, does not in itself constitute evidence.  A wish to point the finger at your favourite historical person's enemies rather than him/her does not in itself constitute evidence.  A wish to portray your favourite historical person as a long-suffering victim to arouse your audience's sympathies for him/her does not in itself constitute evidence.

3) You shall remember that complaining about your favourite historical person being unfairly maligned by history, while enthusiastically maligning his/her enemies for all you're worth, looks hypocritical.

(I have been wondering whether I myself am somewhat guilty of this one, as I do sometimes jokingly refer to Roger Mortimer as 'Le Manly Wodge' or similar, which is pretty snide of me.  Having said that though, my aim is to take the mickey out of bizarre modern statements about his sexuality such as Alison Weir's, and the assumption that his 'unequivocal heterosexuality' made him stronger, more virile, more manly, generally just better than Edward II not because of his abilities but simply by virtue of who he was sexually and romantically attracted to.  My intention is to point up bigotry and stereotypes, and I do not in any way mean to be cruel or mocking about Roger himself - just about the way some people in the twenty-first century choose to depict him.  I don't dislike Roger at all; he was an extremely able and courageous man and I find much to like and admire about him.  Same with Robert Bruce, or Isabella for that matter, and I really don't see why I need to dislike and spit venom at people who were in some way Edward II's enemies.  For sure I'd never make up the kind of hateful, hurtful slurs about them which certain Isabella fans have invented to throw at Edward.)

4) You shall remember that your favourite historical person's enemies were complex, multi-dimensional human beings too and deserve to be acknowledged as such, rather than as cardboard cut-out evil villains devoid of any humanity.  Depicting them as cruel to animals, or attracted to little boys, or sadistic rapists, is a ridiculously unsubtle and obvious way to make them unsympathetic to your readers.  You shall also remember that however much you like your favourite historical person, s/he was a human being and thus had character flaws and made mistakes like every other human being who has ever lived, and that depicting him/her as impossibly saintly and perfect looks kind of silly.  And also strips them of their humanity. 

 5) Unless you're twelve, you shall remember that there is no need to divide historical people into 'teams' or 'sides' and hurl abuse at the other 'team' or people who like them.

6) If you're discussing history online and make a surprising or implausible statement, such as claiming that it was treason to refuse to have sex with the king of England in the sixteenth century, you shall remember that it is entirely reasonable to be asked for a primary source to back up your statement.  This is not a reason to accuse people of rudeness and bullying and to get all huffy and offended.

7) You shall remember that modern historical novels, however well-researched, well-written and enjoyable, do not count as primary sources.  Responding to a request to provide a source for a statement you've made about a historical person with "Historical Novelist X depicted him this way" does not actually answer the question.  You should also bear in mind that merely because something has appeared in print in a historical novel does not automatically mean that it has a basis in fact, and you should check before repeating it as though it certainly does.  This is how historical myths get started, and once established, they're damn hard to shake.

8) You shall remember that familial, societal and marital norms of the Middle Ages were different to ours, and refrain from referring to women as "helpless pawns" when their marriages are arranged by their (cruel, heartless, callous, uncaring...) fathers.  You shall remember that having your royal or noble heroine wail "But I don't love him!" when informed of her impending marriage to a king or nobleman is by now a tedious cliché. You will not assume that a medieval king must have been an uncaring neglectful father because he didn't live in a nuclear family arrangement with his children.  You will remember that, contrary to what you might assume, depicting Isabella of France as being willing to take a lover at the age of sixteen and foist a child of non-royal blood onto the English throne is an insult to her, not a compliment.

9) You shall remember that depicting women as all of a sudden no longer possessing their own agency, becoming the proverbial "helpless pawns" and coming under the total control of nasty unscrupulous men whenever they do things you don't approve of, when two pages earlier you were applauding their independence of action and thought as they did noble and good things, is as patronising and paternalistic as the 'sexual prejudices' of previous centuries you're decrying.  Repeat to yourself until it sinks in: Adult women are responsible for their own actions, good or bad, just as much as men are.

10) If you wouldn't refer to Roger Mortimer as Isabella of France's 'straight lover', to Alice Perrers as Edward III's 'female lover', or to John of Gaunt's 'heterosexual relationship' with Katherine Swynford - and of course you wouldn't - then you shall remember that there is no reason to call Piers Gaveston or Hugh Despenser Edward II's 'gay lover' or to talk about their 'homosexual relationship'.  Merely 'lover' and 'relationship' or 'sexual relationship' will suffice; it will be readily apparent to your reader that Edward, Piers and Hugh were all men and that their relationships were therefore evidently same-sex.  Furthermore, you shall remember that making lame statements such as "It's different when men love women" in an attempt to justify why you think Edward's (presumed) adultery with men is nasty and icky while his grandson John of Gaunt's adultery with Katherine Swynford is fabulously romantic, looks bigoted.  There are ways that we can discuss prejudices of other eras without making it look as though we share them and expect our readers to do so too.

EDITED TO ADD: My friend at the wonderful A Nevill Feast blog has written a great post about women in historical fiction.  Please read it! 

71 comments:

Susan Higginbotham said...

Well said!

Ragged Staff said...

Well said! I do hope this is read and fully processed by those who need it most.

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Susan!

Rowan Lewgalon said...

Thanbks, thanks, thanks, THANKS for that, Kathryn!
Brilliantly put!

Kathryn Warner said...

Thank you, Ragged Staff and Rowan! So glad you liked it - and I also hope it's taken on board by certain people!

bluffkinghal said...

Hear, hear! Love these points, and love you for putting them down.

I do want to put one thing across about point 9 from my observance. There are two sides to the issue. Women in such repressed societies also have a sense of status, and hence will not want to roll in the hay with the first handsome chap that comes along, and will wait to be wedded to a man similar in status, aristocratically and financially.

A second thing is that independent women worked within the system to get what they wanted or they paid a huge penalty. In that sense, they maintain status quo as well, so they can actually be held responsible for their actions.

A third thing to be taken into consideration here is that the past was not an individualist society, which means that those who keep banging on about women's status must also realize that while men do have it much better, they are also subject to many, many restrictions.

Sorry for the long comment, but I felt this was relevant since recently I have been headdesking at some ultra-feminist perspectives to some historical characters.

Kathryn Warner said...

Thank you for the fantastic insight, BHK! Great thoughts.

paulalofting said...

Really great post Kathryn. Well said. Would it be okay to say that as William the conqueror is probably the historical person that i particularly detest most, However i do bow to the fact that he achieved an incredible feat in successfully invading England, and that he was a remakable man. I also maintain the fact that he was avaricious and oppressive and probably this was a result of his upbringing which was fraught with danger. I hate what he did to the English people however i wouldnt portray him as a child molester or an uncaring father or an uncouth pig just because he ruled with a tyrannical attitude at times. He was in someways a 'good' man and devoted to MAthilda his wife and as far as we know faithful to her. He could also be generous but not so nice at times but i wouldnt make him do anything nasty there was no evidence for. Nor would i obviously make him a saint. He was what he was a man of his time and he wasnt going to take dislyalty lightly. What do you think Kathryn?

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Paula! So glad you liked the post. I have to admit I dislike W the C too - I feel exactly the same way as you, I think - I admire what he achieved but dislike him. I think it's perfectly reasonable to criticise him for what we know he did, like the Harrying of the North, executions, brutality, and so forth. It wouldn't be fair at all to make out he was (say) a child molester with no evidence at all, but I certainly don't mean that historical people should be beyond criticism.

Satima Flavell said...

Brilliant post, Kathryn, and as with all Brilliant Posts, it raises further questions.

I love historical novels but I always have a guilty feeling when I read them because these people are, after all, our ancestors. I would be upset if someone fictionalised my mother's life, going into detail about my parents' lovemaking and making assumptions about their emotions and attitudes. So why should it be OK to fictionalise the lives of our more distant forebears?

It's one of the reasons I write fantasy. By means of a spot of name-changing, I can borrow from the lives of historical characters and invent all the stories I like about their feelings and attitudes and even their actions, without feeling I'm defaming them or taking advantage of the mists of time to re-invent their lives.

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks so much, Satima! I'm really honoured you think so! Love your comment too, and agree. Writing historical fantasy is a great idea.

Ragged Staff said...

The gratuitous changing of women's history particularly irritates me, and not just sexual slander. For reasons I don't quite understand, some writers feel the need to weaken every female character but their Plucky Heroine. So here's maybe another commandment:

11. If you come across a female character who was a strong political player, someone who backed her husband and sons, someone who was prepared to risk attainder for treason in order to support them, respect that. Don't make her so weak that you have to give those actions (and the consequences) to a woman who didn't risk treason. Don't make her so utterly weak that she falls into a swoon when things get tough. Don't write her out of the story early because she's inconvenient and takes the spotlight off your Plucky Heroine. Write your female characters as they were, doing the things they did, rather than making up nonsense. Neither make them weaker nor stronger, more or less important than they actually were.

Kathryn Warner said...

That's a great addition, Ragged Staff, thank you. So darn irritating.

Undine said...

Good for you, Kathryn. You made many points that generally go unsaid, or even unthought. The comments to your post were quite interesting, as well.

I suppose any of us with an interest in history or genealogy unavoidably becomes something of a voyeur, and I do thank you for reminding us that we have a certain responsibility to everyone we study. When you become "attached" to a particular historical figure or era, it's sometimes hard to stay objective, (I know that only too well,) but we owe it to everyone in the past--whether we approve of them or not--to treat them with as much honesty as possible.

As Ragged Staff said, let's hope this is read by those who need it most.

Kathryn Warner said...

Thank you, Undine! This has been stewing away in my head for a while, and all came pouring out...:-) Yes, some great comments too.

Yes, absolutely. I do sometimes find it hard to stay objective about Edward when people are slagging him off, but whitewashing him isn't helpful or honest either, so I do try to find the right balance. :)

David said...

What about - for instance - if there is a gap in the surviving information, and you have to fill it for the purposes of your narrative?

For example, a man named Edward the Exile died in very mysterious circumstances shortly after Edward the Confessor invited him to England in 1057. As the childless Confessor's half-brother, he would have been next in line to succeed to the English throne, but he kicked the bucket very suddenly.

It is reckoned (by some, and I'm only going on his Wikipedia entry here) that Edward the Exile was an inconvenient bar to Harold Godwinson's own claim to the throne, and so Harold had a hand in his death. There is no proof of this, but it seemed a reasonable enough suggestion for me to include it in a story I'm writing - or is that not reasonable?

Kathryn Warner said...

I've read a novel that has Duke William - or it might be Matilda actually, can't remember - having Edward the Exile assassinated before he can be declared heir to the throne, so that he won't displace William. (Or at least that's the plan, though I can't remember if their assassin actually goes through with it.) Edward did die very suddenly and perhaps suspiciously on arriving in England, and yes, I think it's legitimate to explore that in fiction. Ditto Edmund Ironside's sudden death in 1016 that benefited Cnut, for example. I don't think it's reasonable, though, for a *non-fiction* book about Richard III I read a couple of years ago to speculate at length that Edward IV was murdered and to go through a list of potential suspects (Richard himself is not considered as one of them), when there is no contemporary evidence whatsoever for it.

Elizabeth said...

Very good post, Kathryn. I think you brought up some excellent points, number one being the one I think we all need to remember when reading/research/writing. The things you have pointed out here should also be taken into account for historians doing their own research, much of it having to do with anachronistic tendencies we all surely face at some point. I think, personally, Edward I is a hard man to stomach and I begrudgingly admit that he did much for England's monarchy but his brutality against Wales and Scotland is something that makes me want to dislike him. I'll be keeping this post close at hand!

Kathryn Warner said...

Thank you for the kind words, Elizabeth! Funnily enough, Edward I popped into my head too when I was responding to Paula's comment about William the Conqueror, as an example of another historical person I know a lot of people dislike.

Susan Higginbotham said...

To answer David's question, I think there's responsible gap-filling and irresponsible gap-filling. For instance, it's beyond dispute that something happened to Richard III's nephews. A novelist writing about Richard is going to have to come up with some solution to the mystery (unless he or she chooses to leave it unsolved, which for me as a reader would be off-putting). Likewise, Anne Boleyn was charged with adultery and incest. A novelist will have to decide whether she believes she was guilty or not, and if not, to come up with a scenario to explain the accusations against her. Providing such a scenario is fair game for the novelist, who has a lot of room to work within as long as the known facts aren't distorted.

But there's irresponsible gap-filling--as in a novel I read where the author invents an episode where Lady Jane Grey is raped by her father, and then uses this supposed rape, which is not supported by a shred of historical evidence, to explain some of Jane's actions later in the novel. On the same lines, there's a novel where young Richard of Gloucester witnesses Lord Hastings drugging and raping a peasant girl (again, an episode for which there's no historical basis), and where he later recalls this episode when he executes Hastings years later. That type of gap-filling will put me off a novelist for life, and gives the entire genre a bad name.

Kathryn Warner said...

Absolutely agree, Susan. That Hastings invention made me angry - he was a real person who really lived and making up something so vile about him, just so that he'll be an unsympathetic character and the reader won't much care when Richard later has him beheaded without trial, is awful.

David said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joansz said...

I'm in wholehearted agreement with your commandments, Kathryn. I also agree with Satima Flavill, that if a novelist doesn't wish to stick to what is extant and fill in the gaps with what is plausible, but instead wishes to branch off--then make it fantasy or speculative fiction instead.

But as much as I object to novelists violating the dead, I find so-called historians doing that at least an order of magnitude more egregious--inexcusable.

Kathryn Warner said...

Another good example of what I was talking about in the post - Braveheart making out that Edward I did vile things he didn't actually do. Yuck. It is very interesting about the change in his reputation over the last few years, and I think a lot of what is written about him on FB pages these days is waaaay over the top. Have to disagree with you about Sharon Penman's novels though! :)

Kathryn Warner said...

Thank you, Joan - glad you liked the post! Absolutely agree that some of the things historians (or I should say 'historians') come out with about some people is inexcusable and it's worse in supposed non-fiction than in novels.

David said...

I know of one author who had Henry III viciously torturing Simon de Montfort, and depicted Henry's second son Edmund 'Crouchback' as literally having a massive Quasimodo-esque hump back.

Naming no names...;)

Kathryn Warner said...

Think I know who you mean, David...:-) The torture thing is absurd, then there's the whole paternity of Edward I thing as well. Gah.

David said...

That's the one!!

Kathleen Neal said...

Amen.

Elizabeth Fellows said...

Fantastic post, great points to remember. Your comments make a lot of sense and they are indeed absolutely true. Thank you.

Cherith said...

I appreciate that you distinguish between academic writing and historical fiction, Kathryn, because a little creativity is warranted for historical fiction. As previously noted, Shakespeare wasn't a great historian--but that didn't stop him from writing about history!

There are many people who don't care a lot about history, but who might be more interested if they read a fun historical fiction novel. A lot of times, writers can only write a good novel by unfairly portrays some people as villains and other people as perfect heroes/heroines. Not every writer has to fall back on that kind of simplification, but a lot do...

Kathryn Warner said...

Thank you, everyone! I'm really glad the post has gone down so well. Yes, absolutely, creativity is needed in histfict as there are so many gaps for a novelist to fill in - as long as a writer doesn't make up horrible things about a real person, it's fine with me! :)

Joansz said...

Actually, I'm going to disagree somewhat about speculation in non-fiction as long as it's labeled as such. IMO, non-fiction speculation that is offered as the author's speculation based on the author's research (and properly footnoted) is valuable because it potentially prods others to investigate.

As a fiction writer, I have found that having to vet my gap filling scenarios as plausible given what is known has made me a better writer (my opinion, of course).

Kathryn, I do agree with you about Penman.

paulalofting said...

I forgot to mention this in my post about the recent novel about Hereward written by James Wilde. It really irked me that is portrayal of Harold Godwinson had him murdering Edward the Confessor in a most vile way when the evidence actuallu clearly states that several people were present when Edward dies and witnessed his last moments. Wilde has Harold alone with him by his death bed suffocating him eith a pillow. Nice drama but some people might think that is how it really happened. And he didnt leave an authors note which i thought was inexcusable

Rachel said...

I can put up with a fair amount of liberties taken in fiction, IF they're plausible as part of the story, and they're disclosed at the end. That is surely the responsible thing for any author to do. Similarly with speculation in non-fiction as Joansz said. Lurid, sensationalistic elements (like making Character A a rapist so your protagonist can be more sympathetic) tend to detract from rather than enhance what usually (whatever period you're writing about) is already a fascinating story.

In relation to Cherith's comment, that's a fair point; hist-fic was how I became interested in history as a kid. Although I therefore can attest to how entrenched the depiction in your favourite novel or movie can become in your subconscious - it took years before I stopped instinctively thinking "but that's wrong!" when I read something in a biography that contradicted the way it was written in the novel that introduced me to the period.

These days I'm increasingly picky about what I read, and have less tolerance for things that I probably would have let pass even a few years ago, so I don't think I'd regard any novel that unfairly vilified a certain figure and made others impossibly virtuous as good writing, sadly. Good writers should be able to imbue their characters with layers, recognising that every human being has both good and bad qualities. I want to read about actual people with all their flaws and wonderfulness, not moral archetypes or cardboard cutouts.

Christopher said...

Some interesting comments - but ...

1. In an academic discussion forum moderators can enforce such standards in the general hubbub of the internet they just get lost.

2. When we consider the Early Modern then the discourse becomes exponentially divided and sectarian because there are significant ramifications for today's politics. Viz the Battle of the Boyne.

3. They way internet comment pages are used - for example during the investigation of Joanna Yates' murder - has little to do with evidence and a great deal to do with prejudice. This isn't unwelcome to the hosts because it generates controversy and therefore traffic.

4. When prejudice is challenged the response is almost always an appeal to the right to freedom of expression.

5. People seem to have a genuine problem separating fact and fiction. Actors in the soap genre whose characters commit particularly iniquitous crimes have been abused in the streets. This is quite interesting because the response has been less significant when some actors have been found guilty of iniquitous crimes.

5. The internet provides many opportunities for pseudohistory to become subsumed within popular notions of history.

All in all the same forces and use of social media which led to the Arab Spring are being applied - to a lesser but still powerful extent - to history. These are immediate and visceral and - cataclism excluded - beyond control where people have liberal access to the internet.

Kathryn Warner said...

Thank you for the great comments, everyone. I'm really glad that the post has stirred so much interest and that we've been able to talk about it in such a polite, friendly and respectful fashion!

I've had to turn word verif back on, unfortunately, as I've been getting shedloads of spam without it. :-(

paulalofting said...

Just to respond to David's comment about Harold killing Edward the Exile, I personally dont think its a reasonable assumption to believe that Harold had a hand in his death because there are no contemporary sources to validate that theory and I am sure that William would have grasped that one with two hands of there had been. Plus it was Harold who had gone to fetch him back from Hungary so I dont think he would have done. At that time I dont hink Harold had his eye on the throne then but thats my opinion. However I'm not against you writing this in your novel as long as you wirte an author's historical note to state that there is no evidence to state this. James Wilde portrays Harold as an evil bastard which there was no documented evidence to state this in fact his charcter is docemnted as being exactly the opposite, even in Norman sources they didnt really have much bad to say about him as far as I know. But thats just my opinion

Kristina said...

Not sure what inspired this blog, but thank you! I loved it...and, by the way, I really enjoy reading about Edward and his life via your blog!

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks so much, Kristina! It was a combination of a few books, articles and online articles, and has been stewing in me for a while, haha. :-) Thanks for your kind words about the blog!

Paula, that's a good point about authors' notes. It really irritates me too when novelists change history and don't acknowledge the fact (like Paul Doherty changing Edward III's date of birth to make Roger Mortimer his father and not mentioning this in his author's note).

Sharon Kay Penman said...

Kathryn, this is a brilliant post, one all historical novelists should be made to read. Laurel Corona articulated my own philosophy when she said, quite simply, "Do not defame the dead." You have taken this as your starting post and elaborated upon it wonderfully well. If it is okay, I'd like to post this link on my Facebook pages and blog.

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks so much, Sharon - I'm delighted you think so highly of the post! I'd be delighted if you share it, many thanks!

Michael said...

If you don't mind, I'll share this too, Kathryn. A really superb piece, and essential reading for a lot of historians and writers! Well done!

Kathryn Warner said...

Thank you, Michael! I'm really pleased you liked it, and would be delighted if you shared it!

Man of la Book said...

Great post. I do get a kick out of authors getting their information from unreliable sources and, as you mentioned, it's even more dangerous when the legend becomes history.

Stacy Schiff mentioned in her excellent biography of Cleopatra (my thoughts: http://manoflabook.com/wp/?p=1244) that many previous biographers used Shakespeare's play is a source.

Kathryn Warner said...

Thank you! Will read your post about Cleopatra and Ms Schiff's biography with interest - that's, ahem, rather amusing about Shakespeare.

Anerje said...

Such a brilliant post! I agree 100%. I always think that person was someone's mother/father/sister/brother etc. We can't possibly know what our favs thought, but we can try to empathise - similarly so with those who, erm, are not our favs. I 'recognised' many books in your 10 commandments:> The reference to treason for not having sex with the king made me LOLOLOL! Am fed-up with maybe/possibly being written in historical bios, and totally agree with Susan about responsible and iresponsible gap-filling.

Pen said...

Well....he was a Manly Wodge!

ravenclaw-eric said...

I could point out that, while there were all sorts of rumors, I don't know of any actual proof that Edward II's relationships with first, Piers Gaveston, and later, Despenser were necessarily sexual. Ed II did have a few illegitimate children, as well as legitimate ones by Isabella.

Kathryn Warner said...

Eric, I don't know of any actual proof either that Isabella's relationship with Roger Mortimer was necessarily sexual (except a statement by Jean Froissart many decades later that she was pregnant at the time of their downfall). Yet pretty well everyone calls Mortimer Isabella's 'lover'. But yes, Edward II certainly fathered a few children - that's not in dispute, and the claims of some people that he wasn't the father of Isabella's children irritate me beyond all measure.

Pen, true :)

Anerje, thanks so much! Really glad you liked it! :)

trish wilson said...

Kathryn

Commendations upon an excellent article. This should be required reading for all historians too. I only switched to historical research full-time three years ago yet there have been multiple times when I’ve either wanted to howl in disbelief or howl with laughter and it’s a wonder I’ve any hair left.

There are in my view six major failings, lack of impartiality often veering between spitefulness and adulation, lack of objectivity - time and time again it’s been what is the object of writing this book - lack of clarity - oh how I hate persiflage and waffle - lack of proper research – a little geographical, religious and legal knowledge has been helpful on occasion as well as research across the Channel – I’m multi-lingual, lack of logic which includes the failure to pick up on anomalies discrepancies and inconsistencies and investigate them and a lack of date-awareness that is picking up on events occurring at or around the same time and making a connection with some pretty-mind-blowing results.

All this is one of the reasons why my usual seat in the British Library is the one nearest the exit with the ladies’ rest room conveniently next door.

Historical fiction? Give me a break. It’s as much as I can do to cope with the ‘factual’.

Kathryn Warner said...

Trish, many thanks for the kind words! Totally agree with the major failings you identify. Hope your own research is going really well.

trish wilson said...

Thank you Kathryn in return

The research is going quite well, perhaps too well for certain historians.

Like a certain historian who should have done his geographical homework first before coming up with his contentious theory. A little map reading soon showed that the town he claimed was several days’ march from a major city is not only just 55 miles away but linked by an old Roman road which is now the basis of a national highway and almost as straight. Hardly a problem for a man or party of men on horseback one would have thought.

In respect of a certain well-known legal document the first time I read it, it struck me as being the sort of thing any shyster lawyer would do to sway a jury. Then I picked on what I would consider impingement in regard to two facets of Law, the tort of defamation and double jeopardy – the fact that nobody can be tried for a second time for a crime of which they have been acquitted unless there is compelling new evidence and this document didn’t even bother to provide the old.

It also contains that which would have any judge worthy of being a judge bristling with judicial fury at the amount of hearsay aka inadmissible evidence. I don’t know about you but I’m sure Sue would agree that neither of us could march into Court and say ‘M’lud/Madam/Your Honor. We do not have any substantial evidence to back our claims but we shall provide it if we need to’ and hope to get away with it.

I am not going to reveal the name of the lawyer. Suffice it to say that if he were around today I’d be shopping him for both unethical and unprofessional conduct.

Gabriele C. said...

Thou shalt not depict Wallace with a blue painted face or turn him into some undead zombie who had sex after his execution. Nor shalt thou put a Roman building that was finished at the end of the 1st century AD in a movie taking place in BC 60. ;)

Great post, as usual.

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Gabriele - and good addition! :)

trish wilson said...

Thou shall not adulterate history through the following;


Anachronistic names (including place names)

Anachronistic nicknames

Anachronistic or out of place dress

Anachronistic sayings/dialogue

Anachronistic behaviour

Anachronistic cuisine

Anachronistic homes/gardens

Misplaced patriotism

Championing a cause

Political correctness


It’s for nothing I need a gum shield as well as a hairnet these days

Kathryn Warner said...

Great points! :)

STAG said...

Wow. fifty seven comments!

I wonder if any of the commenters are squirming or if you are just preaching to the choir. I suspect the people you have aimed that rant to will not even read this blog.

I have to echo satima's comment, and add that its "ALL" fiction, and "ALL" interpretation. Its nice if it fits known facts, but as soon as you deviate from "known facts", it becomes "spin".
If I may split a hair though, I don't regard interpolation as fantasy though. My "blind king of Andalusia" (one of MY very real historical characters) sold his kingdom to a con artist, I preferred to have him fall in love with an ideal in a sort of chivalry-gone-wrong sort of way instead of the honey trap he actually fell into. Not really fantasy in the traditional sense...perhaps "romance" in the Victorian view.

IMHO fantasy would be a nutbar line like "The battle of Falkirk was almost lost when suddenly the dragon flew in at the last moment and toasted all the arrows out of the air with his fiery breath". Historical battle...fine. Dragon fine... Combining the two...well...it can be done, but with great caution. Fantasy, (again, in my very humble opinion) occurs the instant you bring in magic and elves, and not necessarily because you suppose an odd relationship between Lionheart and Louis.

Anyway, such hair splitting does not detract from any of your rant, nor any of the great comments I read here. Good on ya.

Kathryn Warner said...

I'm sure you're right, Stag, unfortunately, though it has been shared a lot on Facebook and Twitter and Sharon Penman has reposted it on her blog, so I really hope it reaches some of the people it's aimed at...:-)

Thank you for the very kind words and the very welcome hair-split! :-)

misshannah1980 said...

Superb post, Kathryn. I couldn't even highlight points; it's all relevant and each one as important to me as the next. This constant reduction of historical human beings to one dimensional cardboard cut outs is what puts me off hist fic. This need to sanctify or demonise, and the splitting off into "teams" are infuriating. It's especially bad with the 16th century "Tudor" era and Henry VIII's wives. The level of abuse between these "teams" is as frightening as it is perplexing.

I sincerely hope that the fanpoodles are reading this post, and that they recognise their slightly perverse behaviour. You never know, you might just have changed lives with this!!!

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks so much, Hannah! It's getting to the point where I almost can't read histfict any more (with the exception of Sharon Penman and maybe one or two others) because I just can't stand this demonisation of people who really lived and the one-dimensional, even childish, depictions of them.

I really hope so too! Thank you!

Trish Wilson said...

Wish me luck Kathryn. I’m about to bite the bullet and preparing to brave myself for the slings and arrows of outraged indignation. I started with one mystery and picked up on others besides one death due possibly to food poisoning, which may or not have been due to the food which as I realised would have been shared by others, none of whom suffered any ill effects themselves.

I’m not saying anything more except it turns out it’s not roast swan but roast cygnet which like geese are fattened up before being prepared for the table so any idea of going out with one’s crossbow and knocking off a pair for dinner is somewhat fallacious too. For the record not all swans in the UK are the property of Her Majesty.

Oh all these historical misconceptions not so much a bucketful as a barrel.

PS

I’m getting hooked on E2 too.

PPS

Have you seen those historical portraits by Mark Satchwill including those of E2 and his contemporaries, E2 minus beard and looking rather like a medieval Timothy Dalton of Bond fame?

Kathryn Warner said...

Best of luck, Trish! So glad to hear you're getting hooked on Edward II too. Yes, I know Mark Satchiwill's portrait of him - actually have it stuck to my laptop monitor. ;) :)

Trish Wilson said...

Betyou couldn't guess whose historical portrait led me to E2.

Yet another case of historical serendipity

Kathryn Warner said...

No, would certainly guess wrong...:) Glad it led you to him anyway!

Anonymous said...


I have just read all of this post and comments and have found it very educational. I agree with the need for historical accuracy (I'm a reenactor of the English civil War). An excellent blog and a joy to read informed debate and opinion.

Adam Humphreys

Kathryn Warner said...

Many thanks, Adam! So glad you enjoyed reading it.

Frank Parker said...

Hi Kathryn, just discovered your wonderful blog and this post in particular. I am attempting to write a novel about Strongbow's wife. I shall do my best not to fall into the many traps highlighted bith in your original post and the comments.
Can I add another potential trap for researchers: the fact that family forenames repeat down the generations. Make sure that when, for example, you refer to Roger Mortimer you are not confusing him with one of several ancestors with the same name!

Anonymous said...

I'm assuming people have been guilty of breaking commandment 5 on this website in the past? I do agree with you, though I must be honest and say I have enjoyed some books you have exposed as inaccurate as light reads. There is one lady "historian" who is too silly even for me, though.

Patricia O

Anonymous said...

Basically, I thought that I was the only one "crying out in the desert", concerning the attempts to plant on those individuals of the poast, our 20th or 21st century morals or society's does and do nots. It is a hard row to hoe, because a lot of people or feel that they both know and understand such history, really do not. You happen to be a breath of fresh air. I sincerely hope more pople read your posts and take your advice! Thanks once again!
Philip Rabito

Kathryn Warner said...

Thank you for the lovely comment, Philip!