Author Topic: Historical accuracy in popular media  (Read 2290 times)

Jubal

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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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Pentagathus

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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.

Clockwork

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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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Jubal

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Re: Historical accuracy in popular media
« Reply #3 on: July 25, 2017, 12:20:59 AM »
@Penty, Media where it's handled well - hard to say, especially as my knowledge is better on games than films. Mount & Blade I guess actually isn't bad on a comparative scale, depicts people from different walks of life & includes a solid range of fleshed out characters.

@Clockwork: Well played, though I'm now wondering if there are any characters in myths who you could argue classify as cyborgs... and agreed, I think it's inevitable that historical fiction changes things like personalities. Changing overall perceptions of the whole society is more at issue - especially as often the "source material" actually shows a more interesting or realistic society than the modern representation. Case in point, people objecting to having non-white characters in some modern versions of the King Arthur story as that's supposedly "inaccurate" for the medieval time period - which is rather silly, as the actual late medieval Arthurian romances actually did include several explicitly "moorish" or "saracen" knights. In terms of unnecessary drama, yes, agreed, doubly bizarre as I could give film makers like 5 or 6 good medieval stories (either medieval fiction or actual history) that haven't been done properly and are inherently about as dramatic as you can get. (Hint hint any media people - I am available for consultations!)
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Clockwork

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Re: Historical accuracy in popular media
« Reply #4 on: July 26, 2017, 03:25:36 PM »
Kingdom of Heaven? Ish.
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Jubal

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Re: Historical accuracy in popular media
« Reply #5 on: July 26, 2017, 05:38:36 PM »
I haven't watched it, I probably should do sometime but I feel like a probably-crappy modern rendering of Baldwin IV would really annoy me.
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Clockwork

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Re: Historical accuracy in popular media
« Reply #6 on: July 26, 2017, 08:54:09 PM »
He spends half the movie in bed with leprosy but also slaps a guy or something iirc.


Specifically I was referring to the very start of the movie where a party of returning crusaders are a mix of germanic/english/saracen/african/probably from the peoples later known as french.


Later on in Jerusalem all the different peoples are not always killing each other and the Saracens are portrayed not as savages.
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Jubal

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Re: Historical accuracy in popular media
« Reply #7 on: July 26, 2017, 09:19:17 PM »
Yes, that's definitely a good start :) (Though possibly also shows how low the bar is!)

Baldwin IV did have leprosy & died of it, but was also a pretty awesome ruler considering. Well into the progress of the disease he was still actually leading campaign armies & riding a horse, and he even learned from scratch how to fight left-handed after the function in his right arm became too poor to wield a sword.
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Clockwork

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Re: Historical accuracy in popular media
« Reply #8 on: July 26, 2017, 10:14:28 PM »
He's still leading the army iirc.


And the centaur dude did something on this as well...
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Jubal

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Re: Historical accuracy in popular media
« Reply #9 on: August 11, 2017, 11:27:14 PM »
Aye - maybe I should watch it sometime, I dunno...

Seen several grim stories recently of academics getting threat-mail for publishing work that contradicts certain people's views of the past (OK, mostly contradicting the views of white supremacists which reality generally does anyeay, but even so), which is a bit disconcerting.
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dubsartur

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Re: Historical accuracy in popular media
« Reply #10 on: July 13, 2019, 05:49:29 PM »
That was one thing I liked about the first season of HBO's Rome: they tried to portray Late Republican Romans, not rich kids from California or polite Late Imperial Brits.  They did it in a HBO way (lots of violence and skin) not the way an ancient historian would do it, but they at least tried to show Roman characters as best as they understood them.

A problem is the modern fashion that characters should be sympathetic ie. behave in the way that the reader's culture says people should behave (I say modern because I don't think that any of the characters in the Iliad is supposed to be 'good,' except for maybe Hector and Priam and Hecuba and we know what happened to them).  Pretty much anyone more than 50 years ago is going to say, think, and do all kinds of things which are offensive to modern sensibilities.  Genre conventions are another problem: if Brother Cadfael thought like a 12th century person, he would not act like the protagonist in an English detective story.

Ierne

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Re: Historical accuracy in popular media
« Reply #11 on: July 13, 2019, 06:27:39 PM »
One of the things I've found most interesting reading the Norse sagas is that the protagonist rarely behaves in a way that would be considered morally acceptable- either at the time the story is supposed to take place (usually the Viking Era), or when it was written down (often around the eleventh century). Murder, betrayal and treachery of various forms were the worst crimes of the Viking Era, because of the cowardice and lack of loyalty to one's comrades, but its completely normal for one of the 'heroes' of the sagas to commit them all.
Telling a Mediaeval story the way a Mediaeval storyteller would have done would certainly change the way we interact with historical/fantasy fiction - I get the general impression that rather than waiting for good to triumph (which won't necessarily happen), you're just supposed to sit back and enjoy watching the chaos and carnage unfold.

dubsartur

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Re: Historical accuracy in popular media
« Reply #12 on: July 13, 2019, 09:14:55 PM »
That is a good point!  Or American westerns ... from what I hear, the audience is supposed to have mixed sympathies between the settlers who will win in the end and the gunmen who are cool.

L. Sprague de Camp's solution in the 1950s was to make his viewpoint characters philosophically-minded, middle-to-upper-class Greeks who were not interested in boys.  Tolkien had his hobbits.  George Macdonald Frazer channeled his grandfather and his buddies from settler days in Africa and his own contrarianism. 

In a novel you have a little more space to get across "to my viewpoint character, disease is not bacteria, it is the hand of a god" than in a roleplaying game or a TV episode.

Jubal

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Re: Historical accuracy in popular media
« Reply #13 on: July 13, 2019, 09:59:08 PM »
I agree re TV episodes, but I think in games the problem is not space, it's point of view. You can't ask a player to actually inhabit a character who's expected to have really fundamentally different sympathies from themselves. You can, if you're a good game writer, develop NPCs who effectively and empathetically portray radically different viewpoints though, I think games are a potentially good medium for that if you can get over or circumvent the issues with the player character and their moral code.

As for the point that anyone more than 50 years ago is going to have issues for a modern audience, I sort of take the point, but I think it's also true of a big, big chunk of modern humans when it boils down to it, especially those in combat situations - a protagonist who was, say, a Taliban warlord, or a Chinese military officer, or a militiaman in the standoffs in Venezuela, would probably realistically do things that were not very palatable to modern European or American audiences. It's certainly the case that in many cultures you need a particular social strand or a contrarian to construct a sympathetic viewpoint character, though.

I really like that point/idea about story as unfolding chaos versus story where you root for the protagonist, I'll need to give that one some more thought.
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dubsartur

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Re: Historical accuracy in popular media
« Reply #14 on: July 14, 2019, 09:33:46 AM »
That is a very good point too!  Even within the city of Vancouver, there are people with very different values and worldviews.  A lot of people today don't really have a grasp on the diversity of human experience, even if they are very concerned about being fair to all races, genders, and disabilities :(

I don't like grimdark because it presents everyone as awful and cynical, whereas really people who do horrible things often have elaborate stories about why their actions were just, and they often exist alongside people who make great sacrifices to the demands of ethics.  I don't think Alexander the Great was an amoral, cynical person, and I think that societies where many people are amoral and cynical collapse into a mess rather than functioning efficiently and rationally as grimdark insists.