The Past is a blob

The past. From my (admittedly not very extensive) experience of reading historicals and watching historical movies, I get the impression that for many people the past is conveniently grouped into four or five basic blobs which serve as settings for the majority of historical fiction:

You’ve got ‘prehistoric’, inhabited by cavemen who may or may not hunt dinosaurs, live in caves, wear furs and go ‘ug’.

Then – passing over most of the Bronze Age – you have ‘the Romans’. The Romans generally have an Emperor, wear togas and/or armour and wear red-crested helmets. Often they fall in love with slaves/native princes from far flung corners of the empire such as Britannia.

‘Arthurian times’ come somewhere between the Romans and the Medievals. But where exactly – whether it’s one extreme or the other or somewhere in the middle – is up to the writer. This movable era also tends to house most of the ‘Celtic’ period and – passing over the Saxons and early Normans – segues gently into ‘medieval times’.

We can tell when something is set in medieval times because it has downtrodden peasants, evil barons in castles, maidens forced into marriage despite their chastity belts, trailing sleeves, pointy shoes and possibly noble outlaws based on Robin Hood. If a ‘medieval’ story deals with ‘Highlanders’ they will naturally wear kilts and possibly woad too. (‘Braveheart’, I’m looking at you.)

After medieval times comes ‘the Regency’ or possibly ‘the 18th Century’ – these terms are often taken to be synonymous. During the Regency everyone was aristocratic, lived in big houses, dressed like Mr.Darcy, were obsessed with manners and the marriage market and had no visible means of support. Politics were unimportant and the rest of the world (outside Britain) did not exist.

There are also specialized little space/time bubbles for things like ‘the Caribbean pirates’, ‘the Arabian nights’ etc, each of which comes with its variety of things which are ‘known’ to happen in that setting.

To a certain extent this is all a convenient shorthand, and in a reader it does no harm if you have no idea which year the Pope banned shoes with extravagant toes, or which half of the century Catholics were burning Protestants rather than the other way around. But I can’t help feeling that writers should be held to a higher standard.

Why do I feel that? Am I just an anal killjoy who can’t get into the spirit of things? Well… maybe. Maybe it doesn’t matter if your Scotsmen have stolen the Picts’ woad and are wearing kilts that won’t be invented for another two hundred years. Maybe it doesn’t matter that your heroes are blithely saying and thinking things that their society would suppose to be unthinkable. Maybe it doesn’t even matter if their society itself is unaccountably modern in its attitudes. But where does it stop? When the account of the fall of Rome features Visigoths in tanks and Napoleonic horsemen with rocket launchers? When they’re all thwarted because the Romans send out a cute little puppy and they realize that they can’t bear the cruelty of war any more and they want to go grow Afalfa in the Pyrenees?

Actually I might quite like that, particularly when the Saxons turn up in their helicopters, only to be thwarted when the platoon of highly trained attack dinosaurs rally to the defence of the Parthenon. At least it wouldn’t be fooling anyone that it was supposed to be true, like the majority of pseudo-historicals out there.

What we tend to find when we look into the past is that our original picture of, say ‘the 18th Century’ proves to be sometimes accurate in part, for certain circumstances, for certain years and for characters of certain backgrounds. But within this big picture there are innumerable exceptions, changes and details which you didn’t see at first, but which tie you down to a specific date.

Are you before the French revolution – in which case the clothing fashions will be x and not y, your characters will probably believe in the divine right of kings, society will be certain about what can be expected from different classes of men – and therefore relatively relaxed about it? Are you just after the French revolution – in which case fashions will be y and not x, all the young folk and the workers will be filled with a feeling that liberty and a brave new world are just round the corner – and the government will be clamping down hard to stop the same thing happening in Britain? Are you pre or post American Independence – with all the psychological and cultural changes that that entails? Are you early in the century, when boozing, fighting and whoring were seen as normal, healthy activities for gentlemen, or late in the century when people were looking back on their parents’ unrestrained behaviour with moral horror?

Attitudes, clothes and technology can change from year to year, whatever time period you’re writing. Some Romans for example didn’t have an emperor at all – some had the Senate, some had a military dictator, some had a triumvirate and some had an Emperor, and all that change occurred within one lifetime!

So it’s worthwhile for a writer to pick the year first and then research the society in that year rather than saying ‘oh it’s Georgian’ and throwing in facts from the reigns of all three Georges. Not only does it narrow down your research, but it also has the benefit of making your ‘Regency’ (or whatever) that much more real, authentic and therefore unique.

And you can still bring out the Saxons in helicopters for that Fantasy novel you were planning!

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