Friday, September 13, 2013

When Looks Aren't Everything

Medievalgirl is a British Medieval History graduate, book lover and blogger. Her site, Bookish Medievalist, is dedicated to Christian Historical Fiction and contains reviews, opinions and articles on reading, books, history and any other related subjects. Click this link to check out her blog. She's been kind enough to guest blog for me today. Enjoy reading!

When Looks Aren’t Everything…

Not so long ago this history Graduate learned of something known as ‘the Look of History’. What is it? Well it seems to be something popular with filmmakers and audience concerning historical authenticity. This likely means having the right period costumes, sets, buildings, armour or weapons so that the dramatic offering looks right for to the time period in question. 

Thus a movie set in Western Europe during the 1100s would probably feature knights wearing chain mail, covered with a surcoat, and bearing and impressive looking sword, perhaps throw in a dramatic and suitably imposing castle or two, some dimly lit rooms illumined only by fire or torchlight, and epic battle scenes with a suitable number of mounted warriors or the odd peasant rustic in the duller garb of his class tilling a field surrounded by wattle and daub huts.  

Historical movies may indeed include visually spectacular settings, and where non-visual media such as novels are concerned ‘The Look of History’ may also come down to period details, for which the appropriate terms or description could be used. Now I for one have no problem with period details and terms in and of themselves, but sometimes they are not of themselves enough to make for a convincing or (dare I use the term) accurate depiction of the past. 

As a fan of a Medieval Christian Fantasy series stated ‘I might call this period fiction, as there are castles and servants’. Are we indeed inclined to believe that a setting which ‘looks’ right is an accurate representation of the past? 

It would seem then that, as the old saying goes ‘appearances can be deceptive’ and historical details which make a setting appear authentic can be merely superficial if little or no attention is paid to the norms, mores, customs, attitudes, values, beliefs, sensibilities, expectations, and past societies and their people. In this case of the series above, for instance, it seemed that many of characters’ attitudes and values were more of our time than theirs , the secondary female protagonist appeared to more like an embodiment of militant feminist ideology than a real person, Medieval or otherwise, and the dialogue peppered with modern terms, phrases and Americanisms. Practically anyone it seems can research a particular period and learn about its fashion, food, and style of architecture, but it is I believe not so easy to actually gain an understanding of the deeper aspects of past epochs, especially if they are very different from what we are familiar with today. 

Take arranged marriage as another example. In the modern Western world we have something of an aversion to this practice but for our medieval aristocratic forbears it could be the norm. For us the notion of a young girl being made to marry a horrible man that she hates for his money, land or political convenience is one that seems abhorrent but how might it have seemed to people ‘back then’ in light of their social expectations, priorities, and notions of duty? 

Or how many modern movies set during the time of the Crusades feature a major character with religious doubts agonising over the notion of killing in the name of God, or at all, or espouses tolerant multiculturalism, and the baddies be intolerant ‘fanatics’? How often might the attitude towards religion of characters in movies set in the pre-modern era resemble those of modern secularists and sceptics? How many Medieval movies feature heavily made up women sporting loose flowing, shimmering locks (or styles which can only be created using modern products). One interesting look is wearing a circlet or headband, which may have been designed to keep a veil in place- on top of loose bare hair. It might look nice, but perhaps is not a reflection of reality as “Broadly speaking; only a woman of very poor breeding or a prostitute did nothing with her hair and even peasant women made an effort to appear modest and decent.”1

To use the term coined by British Historian and novelist Alison Weir many historical novels and movies seem to be populated by ‘modern people in fancy dress’ who look the part, but might be thoroughly of our time rather than their own where their worldview, attitudes, behaviour and outlook are concerned. Now don’t get me wrong, I sometimes do enjoy such movies, but the imposition of modern standards and ideals onto the past is generally one of my pet hates in fiction. 

Yet I am not a writer, at least not of fiction, and whilst the historian in me may rally against such as the above, or be left cringing at medieval people saying something like ‘I think it’s okay for you to go out with that cute guy’, writers may find it more difficult to strike a balance between the needs and expectations of their audience and historical accuracy, and even their own beliefs. 

Speaking of her Crusading period novel The Road from the West: Book One of the Chronicles of Tancred author Rosanne E Lortz said: 

While writing the Chronicles of Tancred, I try to write about religion as if I were an eleventh century Norman adhering to the rites and rule of the Church of Rome. In some ways the fact that I am a twenty-first century American Protestant helps me in that task; in other ways it hinders me.

But when a scruffy drunkard has a vision of St. Andrew informing the Crusaders where the Holy Lance is buried, it's not my place to make my protagonist distrust him simply because I, the author, am dubious of visions, don't embrace the Roman Catholic view of sainthood, and don't believe relics have special powers. Instead, I must put myself in Tancred's worn-out boots.

Some aspects of the past may indeed be unpopular, unpalatable, controversial or even downright offensive to modern sensibilities, or those of a certain cultural background or ideological position, but does this mean they should be ignored or replaced? Perhaps not, I for one believe that learning to appreciate or accept the differences in ideology and belief between ourselves and our medieval forbears, and perhaps trying to come to terms with why they believed the things they did may help to greatly enhance our understanding of this period. 

This is not to suggest that understanding the past on its terms means we have to agree with, condone or accept the beliefs held by our ancestors, but perhaps we should refrain from complaining or condemning those who held them because they do not line up with modern liberal Western ideals. Of course the, statues and requirements of God are absolute, eternal and unquestionable, transcending the bounds of time, fashion and human society so we have every right to judge the events and peoples of the past according to those, but some aspects of our society and worldview, even though we may hold that as sacrosanct are not absolute.

So dressing a modern European or American, complete with his modern liberal outlook in a cloak and tunic, putting him on a horse and giving him a sword does not make him ‘Medieval’, and whilst it may serve to make the past ‘relevant’ or present a sanitized version of it more in tune with modern sensibilities, does it truly teach us anything?  

Perhaps it would instead be a more valuable, rewarding, and enlightening or indeed challenging experience to lay aside those modern preconceptions which are subjective, step outside our comfort zones and explore the past as it was, not as we would have it. A past in which it may not have considered sexist and repressive, but perfectly reasonable for women to stay at home for much of their lives to raise children, or take economic and practical, instead of just romantic considerations in mind when choosing their spouse.

1 Rosalie Gilbert, ‘Medieval Hairstyles’, Rosalie’s Medieval Women, Accessed 2nd September 2013,

2 Rosanne E Lortz, ‘The Alien Past, The Difficulties of Writing about Religion’, Monday August 20 2012, Official Author Website: Rosanne E Lortz, Accessed 31st August 2013.

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