Posts Tagged ‘historiaster’

History and the movies

Monday, October 19th, 2009

A recent post on has reminded me about a topic I have been meaning to address for quite a while: history and the movies.

What role do movies play in the formation of our understanding of the past? Can movies be useful learning tools?

My personal belief is that the only way to approach historical film is as entertainment. When they are well done, they can certainly help give an impressionistic overview of a time and place, but to rely too heavily on them for ‘fact’ is an extremely bad idea.

My favourite example of this is Braveheart. It is a good movie, great entertainment, but absolutely horrible ‘history’.

It begins with a title reading: “1280 A.D.” and the narrator’s voice: “The king of Scotland has died without a son and the king of England, a cruel pagan known as Edward longshanks claimed the throne of Scotland for himself.”

  • The scenery resembles the western highlands of Scotland – an area that had really nothing to do with Wallace nor with the uprisings against English rule
    • This is like starting a film about a Manitoba wheat field with a panoramic shot of the Newfoundland coast
  • In 1280 not only was the Scottish king (Alexander III) very much alive, so were his sons and daughter
  • King Edward I of England never claimed the throne for himself and while he was many things, he most certainly was NOT a pagan
  • In the 13th century no Scots wore the kilts that everyone seems to favour in the film
  • The Scottish nobility was culturally very much like their English counterparts
    • they had common backgrounds
    • they were drawn largely from the same families
    • they spoke the same languages, read the same kinds of literature, and often held lands on both sides of the border
  • At no time did Edward invite the nobles to talks “no weapons, one page only” where he summarily executed the lot of them
  • And even if he had, he certainly would not have invited them to a place that looks suspiciously like Glen Nevis in the north-west highlands
    • Again, Manitoba/Newfoundland
  • Wallace’s father was no mere peasant farmer – he was a knight who held lands
    • Incidentally, his  father was killed in 1291 by which time William Wallace would have been around 20 years old
    • yet again, the setting for the Wallace farm itself is also completely wrong – gently rolling lowland country vs. Glen Nevis
  • The children of knights did not dress in rags
  • Even poor people knew how to look after their clothes – they had to after all as they couldn’t afford to let them disintegrate into rags through neglect
  • there is no evidence to sugget that 13th century men favoured mullets
    • but they did use combs!

These are some of the errors that appear in the first three minutes of the film! Sadly, it goes steadily downhill from there.

Here is a small sample of some of the historical lowlights of this film:

  • Marriage of Edward II and Isabella – much too early
    • in 1303 England and France secured a non-aggression pact. Part of this agreement was that Prince Edward and Princess Isabella would wed. The wedding took place in 1308.  Edward was born in 1284, Isabella ca. 1295. You can do the math re their portrayal in the film
  • Edward I: “Scotland – my land” – never really saw it as such
    • he wanted to control scotland, not become its king
  • “Prima Nocta”: thankfully this is a complete myth
  • Isabella and her lady in waiting spoke in French, apparently to keep secrets from the English
    • This is ridiculous as Anglo-Norman French was the first language of the English nobility.
  • The mad Irish guy didn’t exist
  • The battle of Sitling Bridge is all wrong
    • the topography is wrong wrong
    • the battle itself didn’t happen like that: where is the bridge??
  • Woad, the blue stuff on their faces, had probably not been used since 6th century
  • “Beg forgiveness for 100 years of theft, rape and murder”
    • I hate to break it to the nationalists on both sides of the border, but prior to the “Great Cause”, Anglo-Scottish relations were really very good.
    • they were close political and economic partners, and their rulers were often the closest of friends
  • English archers going into battle with 3-4 arrows each
    • archers were capable of having more than this number of arrows in the air at one time
    • sending archers into battle with such a small number of arrows would have been a complete waste as entire units of archers would have  been rendered useless in seconds
  • York: Wallace did not sack York. Ever. He probably would have liked to, but he didn’t.
  • Edward I didn’t throw Gaveston or Despenser from window – who is this “Phillip” guy anyway?
  • Isabella as diplomat and all that followed – this simply did not happen
    • see comment re. age above, not to mention the fact that sending her to meet his greatest enemy would have been a colossally stupid thing for Edward I to do. He was not a stupid man!
  • Wallace did not go on rampage assassinating members of scotting nobility. Again, at times he may well have wanted to, but he didn’t.
  • Bannockburn – as with Stirling Bridge, the setting is all wrong

In short, the physical setting is wrong, the political situation in the film is laughable, the personal relationships in the film are equally ridiculous. Characters are invented (mad Irish guy, ‘Phillip”), while others (where is Andrew Moray?) are omitted. Battles are wrong, clothing is wrong, knowledge of Anglo-Scottish culture is almost completely absent.

So should students of history watch Braveheart? Of course. What they should never, ever, do is assume that what appears on screen bears any resemblance to historical reality.

This is a pretty extreme example, and I use it partly for that reason and partly because it falls into an historical time and place with which I am well acquainted. Not all historical films are this wildly inaccurate. But the same advice applies: caveat spector. Watcher beware.

Cicero and the laws of History

Friday, April 3rd, 2009

Nam quis nescit, primum esse historiae legem, ne quid falsi dicere audeat? Deinde ne quid veri non audeat? Ne qua suspicio gratiae sit in scribendo? Ne qua simultatis?

These words were written by the Roman statesman, orator and writer Marcus Tullius Cicero, better know to us simply as “Cicero”. This passage was taken from his work de Oratore which he wrapped up in the middle of the first century BCE. Although he invoked historians and their craft, Cicero was really writing about orators and how they should adopt some habits of good historians in order to improve their own oratory. However, his advice is as sound today as it was over 2000 years ago, and historians should give it the attention it deserves:

For who does not know history’s first law to be that an author must not dare to tell anything but the truth? An its second that he must make bold to tell the whole truth? That there be no suggestion of partiality anywhere in his writings? Nor of malice?*

Cicero touched on several aspects of historical writing in this short passage, so let’s look at each of them in turn.

1. “…an author must not dare to tell anything but the truth”

This really should go without saying, but it does bear repeating. Be honest in your research, your analysis and your writing. Seek the truth. One of the wonderful things about historical research is that it can dramatically change and inform the way you see the world. But this is only possible if you approach historical research and writing with an open mind.

Don’t set out to ‘prove a point’. Let your research guide you. Let your analysis inform you. Let your writing enlighten both you and others.

If you find evidence that your previously-held opinions are incorrect or ill-informed, don’t reject the evidence simply because it does not fit with your preconceptions. Consider the evidence. Consider your own opinions. Can they co-exist? Do you need to reconsider your opinions? What does the other evidence suggest?

It is only through an open mind that the historian can arrive at anything approaching truth.

For example, before starting my Ph.D., I blindly accepted the notion that the far north of medieval England was a wild, lawless place that was run by a nobility that craved nothing more than chaos, unrest, and war. But through my research I came to understand that this was far from the truth. The North had a long-established system of border law that strove to quell disagreements before they precipitated cross-border reprisals or even war, and the most powerful man in the region during the late 14th century sought consistently and loyally to preserve the peace, not to profit from unrest. (his 1 1/2 rebellions notwithstanding…)

This research fundamentally altered my understanding of the region. It changed my perceptions, allowed me to achieve a greater understanding of that society, and has provided the basis of an historical novel that I am now writing.

The point here is that I obeyed Cicero’s command to seek the truth, and I emerged a better historian for it.

2. “[the historian] must make bold to tell the whole truth”

When writing history, you will encounter contradictory evidence. This is unavoidable, and it is best to realize and accept this fact early on. There are too many reasons for this to get into here, so just know for now that you will come across evidence that disagrees with your analysis and conclusions.

But what should you do when this happens? Should you ignore the problematic evidence, pretend that it doesn’t exist, and work only with evidence that agrees with your conclusions? No. To do that is disingenuous. It is dishonest. It is also lazy: it is much easier to pretend that something does not exist than to explain why you disagree with it. Being disingenuous, dishonest, and lazy is no way to approach any kind of research, and history is no different.

Remember the reason why we study history in the first place. We are trying to understand past human society. Because human society is made up of a lot of individual human beings, it is inherently contradictory. People disagree. They have different perceptions. They have different biases. They have different physical, intellectual, and mental abilities. If five people witness the same crime, do you think they will remember it in exactly the same way? Probably not. This is one of the reasons why eyewitness testimony can be so unreliable in criminal investigations.

So don’t pass over evidence that you disagree with. Try to understand it. Where was the author coming from? Why do you think he or she is out of step with your other evidence? What can it teach you about the person, place, thing, event that you are studying?

Sometimes these oddball sources can lead us to really unexpected and enlightening places. But they can only do this if they are taken seriously.

But this advice goes beyond simple disagreements between your sources. What happens if, for example, you are writing a biography of a truly great person who did wonderful things for her society, when you find evidence that she had secretly been an arsonist on weekends who was also mean to puppies and a supporter of Tottenham Hotspur. Do you suppress this new information? Do you use it to launch an iconoclastic attack on this undeserving “hero”?

Neither of these options is ideal. Suppressing the information would undermine your goal of telling the whole truth and would present a skewed picture of the subject of your research. At the same time, radically altering your approach to ignore all other evidence and launch a withering attack on this otherwise good person based only on this new evidence would be equally unbalanced.

The best thing would be to take this new evidence into account without allowing it to overwhelm your analysis. If you are writing a longer piece, add a section or a chapter to deal with it. If you are writing a short essay, you can always use a footnote to include this new evidence and a brief comment.

The truth can be an elusive thing, but do what you can to seek it with an open mind. And remember to seek the whole truth.

3. “[Ensure] that there be no suggestion of partiality anywhere in his writings? Nor of malice?”

Partiality is the enemy of good scholarship. Malice is the enemy of truth. Do what you can to keep them both as far away from your research and writing as possible.

If you embark upon a research project with your mind made up about your subject, your research and your writing will both suffer. Again, it bears repeating that your job here is to seek truth. You simply cannot seek truth if you believe that you already have the answers.

Take for example those who deny the truth of the holocaust. Such people often approach their scholarship with a terrible combination of both partiality and malice. In fact their partiality is based in malice, as their belief in hate-filled neo-Nazi nonsense has both skewed their perception and fueled their malice. Anyone coming from a mental standpoint such as this will be utterly unable to produce anything even approaching balanced, considered, unbiased, thoughtful, and credible scholarship.

This is an extreme example, but its lesson is an important one. Try to be aware of your own biases: we all have them! We all come from different ethnic, religious, national, regional, linguistic, educational and social backgrounds, and so we all bring with us a particular set of beliefs and biases. But this need not be fatal to your quest for truth! Be aware of your own biases and you will be able to prevent them from rendering your research unreliable. For example, did you spot the manifestation of one of my biases above? I do not really equate being a Spurs supporter with arson and puppy abuse: it is after all an affliction that deserves sympathy, not just condemnation.

Hopefully we are not all filled with malice in the same way that we are all subject to bias, but it is worth keeping your own feelings in check when writing history. As Historians, we often encounter difficult, disturbing, even enraging people, ideas, and events. If you encounter something that elicits a strong emotional response, be aware of it. But don’t let it drive your research ahead of the evidence.

Even if you are researching something as terrible as the killing fields of Cambodia, the massacre of innocents in Jerusalem during the first Crusade, the excesses of the European witch hunting craze, or the Holocaust itself, remember to seek truth, not historical retribution.

Good ideas, but…

…how do I put them into practice?

Stay tuned. My next blog post will give some concrete examples of how you can become a more honest, unbiased and effective research and writer!

*Both the Latin text and translation above are from Cicero, De Oratore. Trans E.W. Sutton. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1942. pp. 242-245. You can find an electronic version of this book here.

Save the Words Update

Wednesday, March 18th, 2009

I am extasiated to be able to tell you that the Save the Words site is once again active. It disappeared for a while there, rendering us all nequient in our quest to save perantique and interesting words from fading away. Now that this utible site was returned from its latibule, get out there and start saving those words!

Historiaster how-to

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

Although I have adopted the word historiaster, I want to help you to avoid becoming an historiaster yourself. In this spirit, here are some things that historiasters do:

  • Plagiarize! There is no better way to be thought of as ‘a contemptible historian’ than to steal others’ words and ideas. Plagiarism is theft and there is simply no excuse for doing it. Take a look at your school’s course calendar. It probably has a section in the policies chapter that outlines your school’s policies and procedures regarding academic dishonesty, cheating, and plagiarism etc. Read this section. Then read it again. It is important, so make sure that you understand it fully. If you do not, talk to your prof about it.
    Schools, colleges and universities take these things very seriously, and they are right to do so. Penalties for plagiarism can range from a reduced mark on your assignment to a failing mark in your class, to suspension or expulsion from your school. I cannot stress this enough: do not plagiarize. If you do, you deserve whatever penalty is imposed by your school.
  • Be lazy! There are many ways to be lazy when writing an essay, and they will all hurt you in the long run. For example, you can simply use the first sources that come to mind without evaluating them or spending the time required to find good sources. The most obvious example of this is Wikipedia. These days, the first place that many people go for information is Wikipedia. Students are particularly prone to this kind of laziness! Wikipedia is in many ways a wonderful idea, and it is slowly getting to be more reliable. But the fact remains that anyone can edit Wikipedia entries. This means that you never really know what the source of the article’s information is, what the biases of the editors are, or whether the entry is entirely bunk. You may even find out the hard way that your prof has edited entries on your topic just to see if you use Wikipedia blindly. Trust me – I know that this has happened!
    But Wikipedia is not the only online culprit. One of my students made use of this page as a source for a medieval history essay. While it may well be an excellent source of information on “metaphysics” and “science” (and messages from other realms!), it is certainly not a reliable source for an essay on medieval Europe! This particular student Googled something to do with his topic, grabbed the first website that he found, made extensive use of the “information” contained on the site, and failed his essay. Incidentally, his essay also made reference to this game. While it is an outstanding game, it is completely unsuitable as a source for an essay! Here is a hint: unless you are writing an essay about video games, you should not make use of video games as historical sources!
    You can also be lazy by not taking the time to carefully edit or proofread your essay. If you want a professional to proofread and error check your essay, can help you. But at the very least, proofread your essay, pay attention to the language that you have used, and check your footnotes carefully. This all takes time, and it all takes effort. But like anything that requires hard work, the end result will be worth it.
  • Be sloppy! This is not unrelated to the point above re laziness. If your language is sloppy, your essay will be poor. If your arguments and analysis are sloppy, your essay will be poor. If you do not follow your prof’s instructions regarding formatting, font size, spacing, etc., your essay will be poor.
    Don’t simply trust the spell-checker in your word processor. For example, if you type “its” instead of “it’s” or “their” instead of “there”, it will not recognize the mistake.
    To cut down on spelling mistakes, and improper use of words (ie. “their” instead of “there”, “council” instead of “counsel” etc.) there is really no substitute for a couple of good reference books sitting within easy reach of your desk. Two to consider are:
    The Concise Oxford English Dictionary

    A Guide to English Usage
    You don’t need these specific volumes, but a good dictionary and a dictionary of usage are essential tools for anyone who values accuracy of language. Yes, there are online dictionaries available, but they do not offer the depth of information available ina  good printed edition and, even more importantly, they do not offer the possibility of browsing for the perfect word!
  • Be inconsistent! I have already touched on the importance of being consistent in your use of the past tense when writing history. There are other facets of language where consistency can be a problem. For example, what kind of English are you using? Canadian? British? American? Unless your prof says otherwise (and this is something worth checking with him or her), it usually does not matter which version of English spelling and usage you adopt. But it will look terrible if your spelling flips randomly between “color” and “colour”. The point here is that you should be consistent. Consistent in your use of tense. Consistent in your spelling. Consistent in your formatting, and so on.

So there you are. If you are intent on becoming an historiaster, then by all means plagiarize, be lazy, be sloppy and be inconsistent. If you aspire to being something other than contemptible, then do all that you can to avoid these things!

Don’t be an historiaster!

Saturday, January 31st, 2009 is the proud new daddy of a very old word. Today I welcomed “historiaster” to the family, adopting it as part of an Oxford University Press campaign to Save the Words.

Every year lexicographers (the folks who study words and who compile dictionaries) make decisions about what words to include in dictionaries and what words to drop from dictionaries. In part this is based upon use. If a word is in common use, it will remain in the dictionary. If it falls from use, it may be dropped. Once a word has been dropped form the dictionary, it will become even more obscure in daily use, and eventually it will effectively cease to be a part of our language at all.

This is a sad state of affairs as words matter. Every word brings with it its own capsule of meaning, context, and nuance. As we lose words, we lose these meanings, we are unable to perfectly fit vocabulary to context, and we are unable to express ourselves in as subtle, nuanced and precise a manner as we might like.

This is where Save the Words comes in. By encouraging people to adopt an endangered word, making a commitment to use it as often as possible in their daily lives, they hope to keep the word in use, preventing its ultimate disappearance from the dictionary. And so has adopted “historiaster”. I will be working on a new mission statement that will include it, and of course I will use it as often as possible here on the blog and in my daily life. So please remember when you are reading these pages: pay attention to your language, and do not be an historiaster!

(historiaster = “contemptible historian”)

Save the Words [via Lifehacker]

historiaster: certificate of adoption

historiaster: certificate of adoption