De-glorifying History

31 Mar

By Biljana Likic



I don’t know how to start this, so I’ll just dive right in.

Basically, history has a way of conceptualizing its eras and stereotyping the people that lived in them until all somebody thinks about when a person says “Victorian” is corsets and top hats.

Today, I’m going to try to break that.

The most important thing I’ve learned from studying history is that people are people no matter what time period they lived in. Sensibilities were different, and rights fluctuated between just and unjust by today’s standards, but when it comes down to it, the fundamental aspects of human nature (an admittedly moot term) stayed the same. You can see this in any candid primary source that still exists from hundreds of years ago; private letters, diaries, and most importantly, the works of shit-disturbing writers, the kind that wanted to shock the niceties out of people by writing inflammatory pamphlets and books. What always strikes me is that many, including myself, are often delighted when they read sarcastic or silly commentaries written by supposedly rigid diplomats of times past. Not everything was stuffy; people had a sense of humour then, too. It’s easy to forget that, since so much of history is focussed on war and drama.

But that is neither here nor there. The argument that I’m having so much trouble trying to put into words is mainly for the benefit of those who are interested in writing period novels.

This is pretty much the gist of it:

Don’t let humanity play second fiddle to plot and history. Never let the preconceived notions of a time period restrain and shackle your personalities to the ground. Always break the mould. The most intriguing period novels are the ones where the characters sound like they could be alive today. When those kinds of books crop up, people are impressed by how realistic the characters are, “even though it doesn’t take place in the present day.”

But why should that be impressive? That should always be the case. You can go on and on about etiquette and details, but if you don’t show how these affected the layman of the time, who cares? It’ll just read like a book on etiquette and details. You can find those separate of fiction, written by historians who have dedicated their lives to accuracy. Your job is not to list the details, but apply them to your story. Get into the skin of your character and imagine what it would be like to live in a time when having a fashionable silhouette included not being able to breathe properly.

The next point is this: If a time period seems mysterious to you, it’s probably because you haven’t done your research. It’s like a magic trick; it seems amazing until you figure out how it’s done. And then the time period becomes fascinating because you’ve suddenly realized that all the people that lived in the 12th century are the same people living today. There’s nothing particularly special about them. They just lived in a different manner. So you start imagining what it would be like to live with no electricity, or no cheap books, or no fridges. It becomes an exercise of the imagination, limited by their appliances and technologies, but broad in the opportunities of exploration. You suddenly find yourself having to come up with solutions. Say you have no water. What do you do? You go to the well. Where is it? Who do you meet on the way? What if the water’s poisoned? What if you fall in? Get stabbed? Are murdered? How are they going to find the killer when there’s no such thing as dusting for fingerprints? Will you ever get your revenge? Because now that you don’t live in 2011 anymore, revenge for murder by murder is normal and perhaps expected. But can you live with that? Killing is never easy.

My last attempt at driving this home is to have you consider the range of human emotion. Everything, hate, love, doubt, fear, happiness, rage, and especially the need to fit in, existed then as much as now. Don’t bury it under random facts just to show off how much you know about the history. Be flexible with your portrayal of personalities and never forget that the only difference between people then and people now is time and access to knowledge.

And lastly, never let it be said that people back then didn’t have a sense of humour.

“Wishing to teach his donkey not to eat, a pedant did not offer him any food. When the donkey died of hunger, he said: ‘I’ve had a great loss. Just when he had learned not to eat, he died.’” (Philogelos 9)



Biljana Likic is an aspiring author, currently revising her first novel, TIME IS A FUNNY THING. She is in her first year of university, where she can’t wait till she’s out so she’ll finally have all the time in the world to write. You can visit her blog here and follow her on Twitter here.


13 Responses to “De-glorifying History”

  1. Liz March 31, 2011 at 7:27 AM #

    Excellent post! I can’t recommend highly enough getting collections of primary source documents (letters, newspaper articles, etc) from the library to supplement whatever historical research you’ve done. Also, don’t forget that history and what historians see as the prevailing “theme” of an era has been written with hindsight and shaped by the feelings of the people who prevailed in that era. What seems important to us might not have been to the people of that day.

    What it boils down to is: no matter how patriotic, enlightened, or groundbreaking the era, the common person still just wanted to eat, have a home, not be killed in a war, be paid enough to survive, etc. The humanity tends to get painted out when we try to paint it all with some grand historical theme. That’s why primary sources are important to see what everyday people cared about.

    • Biljana March 31, 2011 at 1:50 PM #

      Exactly, everything that isn’t primary has some bias. Even the primary stuff is biased. If all you get are ecclesiastical documents, you’re gonna think everybody acted like priests. Variation matters as much as anything.

      And yep; even if you were a Mendicant monk, you’d have cared about enough food and a place to sleep, otherwise you wouldn’t have gone around begging so much.

      • Gabriela Da Silva April 1, 2011 at 12:34 PM #

        Touching a bit on primary vs. secondary sources, lemme say – go with a commenter. There are many history analysts that work with primary sources but not to build chronicles or narratives (which is what historians normally do) but to offer commentary and compare those sources with others.

        A good example is Marina Warner, in “Alone of All Her Sex”, which takes a veeery deep and interesting look at the figure of the Virgin Mary. She uses plenty of primary stuff, letters, old gospels, gospels that didn’t make the cut, compares them and then comments on the differences and gives her own thoughts.

        Her own thoughts RULE, btw.
        But yeah. Those kind of texts are specially helpful because, most of the time, they avoid bias.

  2. Rowenna March 31, 2011 at 9:02 AM #

    I agree totally that the humanity of a given time period should never fall to the back burner to let dates and drama take the forefront. People are always the driving force of a novel.

    At the same time–their worlds were very different. They dealt with issues we rarely touch today, they lived with societal norms that were completely different, their expectations for their lives were different. So though they had the same human emotions, I don’t think it’s right to assume that they expressed them or even reacted in the same ways we do today. This is a really specific example, but infant mortality was extremely high in the past. One study I read examined Russian noblemens’ diaries (yes, really specific!) and found that the emotional reaction to an infant dying was radically different from an older child–like a toddler. The researcher hypothesized that, with infant death so prevalent, these men simply didn’t get attached to babies. Today? That man would likely be consumed with grief. Then? Not so much.

    So…a really specific example that I think points to the bigger picture, and while I agree totally with you that the human element of history should be our focus as writers, we can’t make the mistake of putting modern people with modern mindsets in old clothes and calling it a historical. Their worlds shaped them. That doesn’t mean info dumping random knowledge on the reader–in fact, most of it is hidden and expressed through the characters.

    Finally–I have to be a nitpick about the corset thing. Most corsetted women of the past could breathe just fine–tight-lacing was not the norm. I geeked out on this on my blog a few months back: Sorry for the nerdfest!

    Love this post–so much to chew on!

    • Biljana March 31, 2011 at 1:58 PM #

      Lol I KNEW somebody would bring up the corset thing!! Originally I had it even worse, about breathing too deeply and breaking a rib into your lungs, but I felt like that wasn’t very generous :P. It was more said for the rhetoric. Which goes to show you that even an article about how history should be accurate about people is biased ;). Thanks for the link! And don’t be sorry, I live for nerdfests.

      And yes, I definitely agree that sensibilities were different then. People were used to death more so than now (at least in developed worlds). You’re right in saying their worlds were VERY different, and though I guess I didn’t touch on that too much, I am trying to get people to see exactly what you’ve said there, with that example. But even that tells you something about human adaptive qualities, doesn’t it? Just a hundred years ago a baby dying wouldn’t have been as big a deal. But I do still think it’s a big deal for the parents; they just learned that if you hold onto the grief too strongly, you won’t survive in that society. It’s a different way of dealing with grief, and you’re most definitely right when you say that this should be taken into account as well.

  3. Heather March 31, 2011 at 12:36 PM #

    Great post! I used to imagine historical figures as uptight emotionless robots with uncomfortable clothes. One of the things I loved about A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY was how real the characters were and how much I could relate to them even though we were more than a hundred years apart. They were still ordinary teenage girls, they just lived a very different life to the way we live now. It was an eye-opening read (and an epic book, but I’m not writing a review, haha), so I’ll be sure not to make the mistake of prejudging characters based on their time period ever again.

    • Biljana March 31, 2011 at 2:03 PM #

      Yep, I used to imagine them exactly the same! And then I read a treatise on canon laws for school written in the 12th century and it had a section about how wet dreams weren’t sin if they happened only while dreaming and you didn’t continue the thoughts after waking lol. It made me chuckle.

  4. Sarah March 31, 2011 at 12:50 PM #

    Wow, that was a really lovely and well-articulated post. I’m a fellow history-lover and really enjoyed reading it! 🙂

    • Biljana March 31, 2011 at 2:03 PM #

      Thanks, I’m glad! 🙂

  5. Gabriela Da Silva March 31, 2011 at 2:15 PM #

    YES, history. Let’s not forget, too,all what has been said by Foucalt, Walter Benjamin and my dreaded Ricoeur – we are used to seeing history as a tablet of stone that can’t be put into question, while in fact history is just a narrative, a series of happenings weaved together in certain order to accomodate the needs of a certain society in a certain period of time.

    The characters’ “truth” will emerge from their knowledge of past events and doctrine and current happenings, and this is where I play Devil’s advocate.

    You see, I *hate* anachronism. With passion. Nothing annoys me more than reading a medieval drama in which suddenly the princess decides she’s had enough with “men” and goes off to kill stuff by herself.

    I’m sorry, but that does not happen. Same goes for Tim Burton’s Alice, who in the end decides to OMG open her own company. Feminist as I am, I love history too much.

    The thing is, you don’t have to bring your own, 20/21th Century struggles exactly as they are to the 12th. In the same way, we shouldn’t try to answer those centuries-old struggles with modern solutions. Nowadays anyone could say “Screw marriage!” and go off to live in Bangladesh, but this was impossible to accomplish in the 12th Century: there were certain rules, religious doctrines and ideas about what it meant to be a woman. Women had to options: get married or become a nun, and if you were poor enough you could become a prostitute or die an old maid.

    There is some resistance, of course. Christine de Pizan, Heloise of Hildeberg, Julian of Norwich – they all defied the rules by writing. No need to grab a sword.
    Jane Austen, and Emily Dickinson, too, opposed their centuries’ ideas of womanhood without stepping out of bounds of society!

    So yes – as Biljana said, human drama should never take second place to period description. And yes, we do have some liberty to work around – but history still shackles the characters, and if we aim for quality, we need to play by its rules.

    • Biljana March 31, 2011 at 2:32 PM #

      Yes, well said! And I feel you on anachronisms, every single Greek myth has the woman dying of shame or grief or some shit. Even this was done intentionally; Ancient Greeks and Romans feared feminism and the thought of a woman in power. That’s why the Amazon’s were so barbaric and unnatural, or any woman who didn’t die after her lover left her was a witch or something, like Medeia.

      And your point about rules is extremely valuable, and I am kicking myself for leaving it out. I tried to focus on breaking out of the shell of “boring snobby people” because that’s one of the most common misconceptions. There were definitely boundaries, and I have to admit the more I think about it the more I’m reminded that when the boundaries are broken it annoys me as much as when the imaginary ones are followed too closely. Like your Alice example, women really couldn’t do much. And yeah there were people like Trotula of Salerno but they were rare, and believe it or not in her case, during the Renaissance there were some that refused to believe that she was ever a woman and was actually considered a man. And when you have people hundreds of years later denying that a woman could ever practice and teach medicine when in Medieval Salerno this was both possible and seen frequently, it impacts the entire female psyche, especially with those that are susceptible to society’s sometimes crippling demands.

      • Gabriela Da Silva April 1, 2011 at 12:30 PM #

        Yes, Greeks and Romans were sooo capable at making women one-dimensional, weepy characters.

        In fact, in most classical, “canon” literature, women are either saints or whores, and it’s still a stereotype society feeds – we may not use the same words, but we still have “good girls” and “sluts”, and sluts can be blamed for every wrong in the world, more or less.

        As writers, I do think we need to subvert those stereotypes… but it goes beyond making OMG!spunky characters, or “strong” girls who nevertheless have romance/men as their most important asset in life. We need to be able to write truly flawed, multi-dimensional, contradicting, independent chars… who can still have perfectly human emotions. And, as everyone here knows, it’s easier said than done.

        Anyway, done with the off-topic-ness 😛

        • Biljana April 2, 2011 at 6:12 PM #

          Yeah, the good girl/bad girl stereotypes get me. So do the overly spunky chicks in fiction. I’ve yet to meet somebody who’s so one-dimensional and when I do, they’d probably drive me nuts!

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