We history buffs are a rare breed. Happy are the hours we spend poring through pages of dusty old books, wandering through museums full of armor and tapestries, and deciphering forgotten languages in primary sources. Those who have never been bitten by the history bug find it hard to understand what attracts us -- until they are bitten themselves.
There are many different ways history lovers have been drawn into the fascinating world of the past, but perhaps the most common is through a good story. The moment we begin viewing history as stories about real human beings with human motivations instead of mere dates, places and statistics, history can take on a whole new luster. Period literature can help bring the past alive with an epic tale, and so can modern historical fiction.
If you are a history buff hoping to get a friend to share your passion for the past, or if you are new to history as a hobby and are trying to understand what others see in it, the best introduction may very well be a historical novel or film. Entertainment has ways of opening the mind to ideas that even the friendliest or most erudite of straight historical texts can never hope to achieve. It helps, of course, when the book is well-written or the film well-directed, and unfortunately historical fiction, just like any other genre, has many more mediocre examples than it does splendid ones. Yet once you find a truly excellent piece of historical fiction, the results can be highly rewarding.
However, the trouble with getting your history from fiction is that it's, well, fiction. This may seem excruciatingly obvious, but it's surprising how many intelligent, educated, well-read individuals take what they read in a historical novel or see in a period film as fact.
The Trouble with Fiction
When done really well, fiction leaves its audience thinking they know what the medieval world was really like. If the work is accurate, that's wonderful; but alas, novels and films have been known to present a skewed version of events and to perpetuate common misconceptions about the Middle Ages.
Of course, most readers realize that much of the dialogue and the private moments of real historical figures that are captured in text or on film are only speculation. They may be aware on some level that events are open to interpretation, and that what they read or see is just one of many versions of "what might have happened." Yet even readers who are acutely aware of these facets of historical fiction often ignore any question of accuracy concerning general historical background, settings and costumes, and the details of daily life, accepting as given that this much, at any rate, is authentic. This may be the most dangerous pitfall of using fiction as a doorway to the past.
In order to enjoy the experience of fiction, we can (and should) suspend disbelief, and suspend as well any analysis of its veracity as history -- while reading the story or watching the film. But once you close the book or leave the theater, it's time to think again.
Even the most carefully-researched historical novel can contain errors of fact, and the sad truth is that many such novels aren't carefully researched to begin with. Unlike a historian writing a scholarly treatise, novelists don't have to support every assertion with documentary, archaeological or even secondary evidence in order to get their work published;* they just have to write a good story. And films are so notorious for lacking accuracy that some moviegoers take particular delight in counting the mistakes.
Furthermore, scholarly views of the medieval world are constantly evolving; what was considered a fairly accurate picture of the Middle Ages in, for example, the 1970's may be rendered much less authentic by the research and new evidence uncovered in the last few decades. You will sometimes find authors standing on the shoulders of earlier writers and passing along the erroneous or outdated details of their predecessors, with very few readers ever the wiser.
Fortunately, historical fiction doesn't always misrepresent the past. There is excellent fiction available, works that bring the Middle Ages to life in a wealth of accurate detail (and tell a good story, too). And more and more, modern historical novelists are making serious efforts to provide an accurate version of medieval times. But how do you know how much of what's presented in fiction is true to life? Do you take the word of the blurb on the back cover? Can film reviewers really tell you when a picture of the past is realistic?
There's only one way to know for sure: find out for yourself. Pick up a factual history book, visit some websites, go to a museum, join a discussion list, and start your journey into the fascinating world of historical discovery. If fiction is the trigger that launches you into the past, its value cannot be denied.
Review a Medieval Novel
Share your thoughts on a medieval-set historical novel -- good or bad -- at this review page.
*Unfortunately, the same could be said of much popular history that gets published, as well.
Guide Note: This feature was originally posted in May of 2000, and was updated in August of 2010.