Author Topic: Historical accuracy in popular media  (Read 56 times)


  • Megadux
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Historical accuracy in popular media
« on: July 07, 2017, 08:22:15 PM »
So this was an interesting discussion in one of the sessions at the International Medieval Congress, which I've been at all week - what does historical accuracy in games/films/etc mean, what's the point in it if any, and so on?

The curious thing about this seems to be that there's often a striving for technical accuracy - does the armour look right, what sort of swords did people use - even in fantasy settings. However, there's often no discussion or attempt at sociocultural or political accuracy (how did rulers rule, how violent was society, how did ethnicity, culture and religion work, etc). Too much media thus ends up offering a world that has a strong medieval "feel" but is actually giving really inaccurate narratives about how we can or should imagine the pre-modern world. Historical fiction works and pseudo-historical worlds often go for a hyper-violent, autocrat-driven political setting with an ethnically monotone and extremely socially conservative society to the point of ludicrousness. Religion is often sidelined or barely mentioned despite being a key organisational, not merely cultural, part of the medieval world; monasteries were huge landowners, Bishops were politicians and bureaucrats who sewed countries together, yet these figures are so often absent from modern medieval and pseudomedieval settings.

I do wonder if we've got this the wrong way round - it probably matters less whether a sword is the right specific size and matters a lot more whether we keep repeating historically incorrect ideas of a very socially restricted past that can then be used by some people to argue that a socially restricted present is "normal" and advocate for a "pure" past that never actually existed. The oddest thing for me as a historian is that so many people DO justify the way such media is in the misguided name of accuracy - see also "there were no X people in medieval Europe", a phrase that is usually wrong whatever is normally substituted for X. I'm not suggesting that escapism is a bad thing, goodness knows half my life is dedicated to escapist games and literature, but I'd like to see ideas about "historical accuracy" used more consistently and realistically and get away from the idea that "gritty realism" is an actual thing. People are welcome to write grimdark armadilloty worlds or even weirdly socially cleansed ones, but they shouldn't be defended in the name of accuracy and it would be nice if readers realised that these really show a premodern dystopia rather than the "natural order" in premodern societies.

I guess the thing that most interests me, and why I think this is an interesting conversation to have here, is to know how best to move between my historian-hat and academic-hat on these things. How, game devs, would you best take advice from academics working in the fields you're portraying? What are the best systems we can set up to get those dialogues happening between academic and creative worlds? And gamers/consumers of media, what are your feelings on all this & how you'd react to it?
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Re: Historical accuracy in popular media
« Reply #1 on: July 19, 2017, 04:16:29 PM »

Could you give any examples of popular (or less popular) media where you feel this has been handled well?

The grimdark thing is rather getting on my tits a bit, more so in general theme rather than in regards to historical accuracy. Still, it is annoying that most shows in a medieval setting feature poor lighting and always miserable weather. Pretty sure the sun still existed in pre-modern times.


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Re: Historical accuracy in popular media
« Reply #2 on: July 19, 2017, 05:36:30 PM »
"there were no cyborg people in medieval Europe"

Agree with what your saying though and since you asked for consumer opinion as well...

As someone whose interest in history is nearly all stemmed from media as opposed to the other way around. I watch a thing and google the interesting guys but am not disappointed when they have different personalities than portrayed however I do scratch my head at directing if historically they sorted something out in a small, logical step and the show/game/movie introduced unnecessary drama.
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