The Knights of Yesteryears

This week I got sidetracked—again—thanks to the arrival of Sarah L. Johnson’s Historical Fiction, A Guide to the Genre, vol. I and II, no less. These volumes are aimed as references to the genre for professional librarians, but also contain a wealth of information for the reader, and writer. The first volume was purged from the reference shelves of the Wood Library, Canandaigua, NY. Thank you guys. I taped up the volume and will give it a happy home. Ms. Johnson has an informative blog .

In the first volume, she has listed 3,800 historical novels published between 1995 and mid-2004; the second, some 2,700 additional works, and she reports on the health of historical fiction in all its permutations—and there are many. Amazing!

That popularity is reflected in the recent releases with the pre-Tudors, Tudors and the fictionally immortal Eleanor of Aquitaine leading the way.

Johnson states that the appeal of historical novels to the readers is multi-facetted, including “…historical frame (which) must be presented as authentically as possible so as not to shatter the illusion, but accuracy in historical fact isn’t nearly enough to satisfy readers.”  Readers want to “learn first hand about the hopes of and dreams of people who lived long ago, marveling at how different their experiences are from those of people today…historical fiction makes the unfamiliar seem familiar.” She concludes, “At their best, historical novels bring the past to life, through emotionally involving stories and well-developed sympathetic characters that reflect their time.”

That got me thinking about the “historical.” Whether presenting a historical context, or characters in a historical context, one cannot escape that it’s after all the “historical” not the “fictional” that shapes the stories. So how well are the historical parts faring in these stories? The primary focus of reviewers when discussing popular historical fiction seems to be on the “accuracy” of historical details—emphasis on the “details.”

One of the funniest comments on some readers’ obsessions with what they consider historical “accuracy” in the period of the Middle Ages appeared in a blog entitled appropriately, “Booking the Middle Ages” by Nan Hawthorne. She (or rather her husband did?) has coined the term “rivet counters.”

I am aware of the “historical accuracy” issue, but in my case that does not involve trawling through the text to spot the usual culprits: buttons, pockets, and potatoes, or other anachronistic tangibles. (The kinds of things such as those horse collars in the recent Robin Hood movie, as well as Sir  Robin’s muscle t-shirt, but I digress).

Nor am I particularly concerned with the other variation of the “rivet counters” on the question of whether or not a certain word would have been used during a certain historical period. Chances are, none of them were and to be “historically” accurate, one would have to write and read historical books in Greek, or Latin, or medieval French or Chaucer’s English.

This is not to disparage (a medieval term here) these dedicated readers; many are clearly very knowledgeable about the minutia of their favorite period and subject, while others think they are. What I would argue is that those who are attracted to popular historical fiction are not in fact seeking out those books because they make the unfamiliar familiar—on the contrary.

In his wonderful analysis of the Middle Ages as depicted in the movies, Knight at the Movies, Medieval History on Film, John Aberth makes this point about modern and medieval history, which I argue is equally applicable to readers of historical novels. “…how we chose to remember the past reveals much about how we live in the present.”

Which of courses raises, and answers, the question of why vampires, werewolves, and sundry blood-sucking things are so popular. But I digress.

Much like “popular” movies, the vast majority of popular historical fiction set in the Middle Ages does not present the landscape and people of that period, and therefore cannot make the “unfamiliar” familiar. That setting goes beyond buttons, pockets, and potatoes, or even political struggle involving the sundry raunchy royals. It is the very “historical frame” that is missing, and by necessity. To depict that frame would leave the realm of historical fiction, and make it history.

Thse are my recent musings on the subject, not in particular order. 

1) in a novel set in the Middle Ages, one of several by a very popular and prolific author (who shall remain nameless, but it’s not him/her, I assure you), the author offers for the reader an admittedly quick primer on the social structure of the Middle Ages.

Alas, this very popular author got the entire social structure wrong. Having gotten it wrong, he/she then hung the rest of the novel on it. As far as I know, no reviewer or reader has pointed out the fact that this author has his/hers entire novel built on an “unhistorical” foundation. It is a very rousing and “page-turning” sort of a novel which readers love. In fact, one can argue that the author is popular not because he/she knows his/her stuff—but precisely because he/she either does not, or chooses not to depict it—raising no danger of challenging readers’ expectations.

2) Sex in history. Sex has, and especially had, consequences. In the period of the Middle Ages and beyond, most females between puberty and menopause would be pregnant. Chances were many would also die during their first childbirth, or after multiple pregnancies and miscarriages.

3)  The world was brutal and violent: armed young men trained to fight were the cause. Protection of the weak was an ideal. As one historian put it succinctly, “The worst fault of a medieval knight probably lay in his inability to show kindness or mercy to those outside of his own class.”

Most popular historical novels filter out these aspects which were the sine qua non of the historical period. As a result, I would argue that when popular historical novels depict  “sympathetic characters,” these reflect far more of our time, rather than theirs.

About Hana Samek Norton

I am a historian who writes 'history with a story' in off-duty hours.
This entry was posted in history notes, random thoughts and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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