Historical Accuracy: ignorance vs taking liberties


More and more popular culture seems to derive (at least in part) from historical sources or influences, and from this I have seen many complaints about mistakes and oversights. Certainly it’s hard to demand great accuracy from Game of Thrones, considering it’s a fictional setting, yet any project which anchors itself in a real time period should be expected to convey the actual period. Historical anchoring can provide a valuable shorthand where many of the details need not be spelled out, or told in a more limited fashion, but far too often writers project too much modernity into their settings. The Scots in Braveheart sound more like 19th and 20th Century Latin American revolutionaries than medieval Europeans. Explaining this particular case in far greater detail here is one of my favorite video bloggers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYv9CHDc34w (sorry my site does not support videos).

I keep seeing concepts of a Marxian proletariat injected into antiquity when the societies depicted were not entirely organized around a top and a bottom. The classic Indo-European pattern was of a upper class which usually had some kind of religious duties (classically most churchmen came from upper class families who in turn funded the churches), then a class with a reasonable degree of property (and thus a vested interest in their society) who could also be called on for military service (the upper class also usually fought), and then the lower classes. A great mention of this came in an interview included at the end of one of Bernard Cornwell’s Archer’s Tale books where the interviewer asked about these ‘peasant’ units of longbow-men, and Cornwell quickly corrected him that the English militias of the period came from people with a reasonable degree of property. Soldiers often had to provide at least some of their own equipment and training, so the dirt poor could not be counted on. The important part is not so much displaying all the information, but having a rough understanding of the circumstances and not distorting them into something unrecognizable which does not fit the period.

Coming closer to my point I see some historical commentators complaining about mistakes particularly of things which do quite a bit of detail work, but then I might see them juxtaposing movies and shows which get even more wrong against what they’re wont to complain about. Particularly I’ve seen this in regards to Vikings which even with all the complaints ends up more and more the standard against which the other piece of work get judged.

Anyone who says the creators of that show know nothing at all about the period should make their statements in medieval Frankish as they claim to know more. There is much we do not know about different historical periods, so to make something properly textured many details need filling in. While I have some objections to many of the costumes used my the main characters (although the clothing of most of the minor characters is pretty accurate) details like the tattoos can get added in. Traditional depictions of the Medieval Scandinavians did not include those, or other forms of body modification or stylized clothing, and many objected to this but many of the historical accounts attest to them having many tattoos and wearing makeup. Other pagan Indo-European cultures also heavily used tattoos, so playing it safe and leaving them out would have been the wrong decision. The makers of the show assumed the art style followed the patterns of the surviving art from the period and moved on. Now people expect tattoos and inventive hair styles on vikings. I liked some comments about the show the Last Kingdom seeming a little too similar for comfort to Vikings, though if the main character looked less like a hippy maybe that would not have been such a problem.

The Last Hippie

One of the best historical works remains the HBO/BBC series Rome, and since the details of common life have not survived as well as the monuments the creators actually studied cities in India where much of the traditional economy survives. I’m sure this led to some inconsistencies, but they made the city far better textured and thus closer to the proper feel for the period:

Streets of Rome.jpg

So to make a period really work often liberties must be taken, but they work best when couched in the historical and archeological record. Getting details and the general feel is much more important than avoiding the possibility of mistakes.

Where liberties can go wrong is particularly when they generate tropes onto themselves and the audience expects unhistorical things as they have become conditioned to expect them. In my classic Hollywood movies the Roman’s stand in for totalitarianism, their only god is the secular god the the Empire, believing in coercion as the ultimate justification for any action. That created a huge surprise when Gladiator showed the traditional Roman virtues manifested through the pious and dutiful main character. Fortunately this managed to largely break the trope and since then the rituals of similar cultures get shown being taken seriously. One of my favorite examples again from Rome came from Octavian stating a private skepticism, but an outward piety while still respecting traditions. I ended up really loving the display of the culture still aware of their puritanical and patriotic ideals, but most people only paying them lip-service.

On the other side of the spectrum lies movies like the Patriot which apparently was too scared to show the real grit of the events that it sank into absurdity:


The main character was directly based on a realm man, only they projected too much 20th Century morality onto him. In that was the irregulars of both sides committed the vast majority of atrocities while the trained formations for the most part stayed above that. This pattern predates that war and has continued to this very day, thus trying to clean up the events made the film much less relevant to our world than if they had allowed themselves a flawed hero. Likewise with him owning no slaves. I had less of a problem with the depiction of the sadistic British villain than I had with the inflexibility shown by the redcoats, and especially at their incompetence in hand to hand combat (technically arm to arm since weapons were used). This war had some debacles early on by the British Army, yet they quickly learned from their mistakes and the war would never otherwise have ground on so long.


Lest I forget the importance of entertainment factor. Even a purist should still be able to turn his brain off for a couple hours to watch a spectacle, yet oftentimes the mistakes leave a lingering feeling. Were historical people really that stupid, or that impractical, when a better understanding might help with immersion even for a casual audience. I like to view works in terms of an axis of entertainment factor vs accuracy, I based this on Neil Patrick-Harris’s crazy/hot axis from How I Met Your Mother, so even when some details bug me I don’t let them ruin my enjoyment if the overall quality was great enough. On the other hand I can enjoy something for the sake of its painstaking accuracy and detail work (Stanley Kubrick labored for endless hours to film scenes in natural candle-light for Barry Lyndon), but of course many works don’t make any huge mistakes yet fail to entertain enough to really keep my interest.


So there is a difference between filmmakers choosing to take liberties, often pointless but sometimes they really pay off, and those who don’t understand a period or really just human behavior in general. Overall I tend to prefer the experimenters, and no one should take it personally when filmmakers who seem to know better decide to add things in which don’t really get in the way.


For those interested here is a much more detailed breakdown of the crazy/hot matrix: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hKWmFWRVLlU