09 Apr

Visualising time

During the last few months, I’ve been tirelessly recording episodes for my (German) podcast Zeitsprung. Fellow historian, friend and podcast co-conspirator Daniel now created a great timeline to visualize the times we usually jump back to, as well as the geographical locations of the stories. The tool he used for that is called TimeMapper.

It’s a great way to put the stories we tell into a horizontal timeline. More often than not when studying or just reading historical material, it would be great to take a step back and take a look at where we’re actually at, who the people or events we might have read about before are to be found in that timeline.

Tim Urban of “What but Why” has done a rather formidable job explaining the advantages of being able to do that. He also created visuals, displaying some of these connections in wildly informative ways in this blogpost.

Here’s the visualization for our podcast. You can always either come back to this posting or go to this dedicated URL to see what else we’ve covered and when it happened.

It’s interesting to see that the vast majorities of our stories take place after the 14th century. An indicator both of our interests and the fact that, well, primary sources for the period before that are either harder to come by or harder to parse. I’m quite sure though that in the future we’ll fill up these centuries quite nicely as well.

13 Dec

Creating fiction from history

In my last post on how much historical accuracy is actually needed for games, I very briefly touched upon the subject of creating something new by using an historical framework. I didn’t want the post to become unwieldy, so I decided to give a few of my favourite examples of what I mean in a separate post. Which is this one.

A prime example on how historicity can actually influence a piece of entertainment is a show like “Game of Thrones” (and of course the novels the show is based on). Very obviously set in a fantasy land where dragons roam and shadowy figures thrust shadowy swords in unsuspecting kings, it nevertheless draws upon a period in English history to create it’s basic framework of warring families. Earlier this year, this video was released, in which all the parallels of the historical events and the fantasy saga’s events were put side by side. It’s great and you should definitely watch it, so here it is:

And if you’re familiar with the show, you’ll surely have picked up that the Wall  is reminiscent of Hadrian’s Wall, ordered to be built by Roman emperor Hadrian in 122 to secure his Roman forces against what was then known simply as the barbarians.

So, even a fantasy story like Game of Thrones is deeply rooted in historical events. And while it’s definitely owed to George R. R. Martin’s finesse as a story-teller, I’m convinced that having the backdrop of the feuding families of medieval England helped in creating a world as riveting as Westeros.

Looking at video games, most fantasy games feed on the historical stories, architecture and armaments of medieval Europe. There’s the Elder Scrolls series, most notably Skyrim, which benefits from the architectural traits of a series of periods and of course armament and weaponry. Throw in a large portion of Norse mythology and you’ve got yourself a pretty solid fantasy game.

Just outside Whiterun in the mythical land of Skyrim. Note the references to medieval Scandinavian architecture.

But if you want to move away from this obvious kind of setting, there’s a genre sometimes referred to as speculative fiction. This is commonly found in literary works like Neil Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, but also Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass (which got the film treatment but was somewhat panned by the critics). That genre, which in the case of the Golden Compass could be further specified as Steampunk, in the case of the Baroque Cycle as alternate history , feeds on historical aspects but adds its own twist to the setting, thereby creating its own fictional world.

One of my favourite video game examples is Bioshock Infinite, which takes elements, mostly from US history, and incorporates them into the game. The way these elements enrich the narrative, characters and not least aesthetics of the game show how using historical references can greatly enhance the experience. To read up on some of these historical elements, here’s an interesting short article on IGN about it.

A machine called “The Patriot”. Having a sense of irony helps, if you want to create a successful instance of alternate history. Screenshot courtesy of Take-Two Interactive Software.

Now, would Game of Thrones and Bioshock Infinite work without incorporating these elements? Maybe, even though it’s ultimately impossible to tell. What we do know is that whenever we see an historical reference, it adds another layer to the character or the story, helping us to instantly read more into it than we could have without it. The same goes for using historical events, conflicts of power or interconnections to build your story on. You could re-invent the wheel or just simply use existing ones and fashioning them to your needs. And that’s just too convenient to not make use of, don’t you think?

Need help finding your next project’s historical framework? Then drop me a note

01 Dec

Eschewing trodden paths for new grounds

A question I get asked a lot, and which is undoubtedly one of the most pressing for many creators of history-based games: How much accuracy does a game really need?

And usually my answer is this: it depends. Which may be due to the fact that I’m not dogmatic about historical accuracy, but most of all because no game is the same, even if it might be categorized in the same niche as other games.

Let’s look at two examples:

Not from Assassin’s creed, but still depicting an assassination. The victim is French General Kleber.

Assassin’s Creed: This is a pretty obvious choice, not least because it’s not only based on historical events, it actually turns the process of learning about the era into the game’s mission. You’re actively encouraged throughout the game to learn, and even though you can get through the whole thing without actually committing to memory what you’re shown or told, it definitely helps.

Now, how accurate is Assassin’s Creed? Well, it sure does make an effort: things like buildings, factions, socio-cultural backdrops and dress are obviously researched well. But then, of course, the game draws on rather mythical aspects, like the role the Knights Templar played. While they did exist, their sinister motives and the hundreds of myths surrounding them aren’t exactly historical.

And the thing is, that’s exactly the point at which you have to decide what to sacrifice, what to keep and why. There’s no use in creating a world that is as historically accurate as possible (that too always depends on whether you can actually create something that even resembles an accurate recreation – see this post I wrote a few weeks back), when that accuracy in turn doesn’t afford you the freedom of creating a riveting or at least interesting narrative. In the case of Assassisn’t Creed, the Knights Templar are good foes and as every good story needs a good foe, you might have to sacrifice some accuracy in favour of the story.

But there are other examples where your historical accuracy shouldn’t ever be sacrificed. Let’s look at this example:

Hearts of Iron (1 to 4): This grand strategy game simulates the events of World War II. You can choose your faction and, depending on where you start, you build up your economy, your military power, your diplomatic ties. It’s rather crucial to keep this as close to what the historical sources tell us in order to satisfy your audience. Which is another thing your need to be historically accurate depends on: your audience.

The United States Army in World War II: deployment of troops Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The United States Army in World War II: deployment of troops
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

While there surely is an overlap between players of Assassin’s Creed and Hearts of Iron, you can expect the audience for a game like Hearts of Iron to be more interested in the historical accuracy of the game. The whole experience of spending tens of hours building up your side can only be as satisfying as it is when the underlying system is water-tight. That’s the appeal of simulators, which a game as complex as Hearts of Iron ultimately is.

And yes, that also means that you’ll have to sacrifice certain aspects to historical accuracy. Balancing, something which is hugely important to gameplay, might suffer, but hey, history just isn’t always fair and balanced.

So what now?

As we’ve seen above, the level of historical accuracy depends on the type of game you’re making and thereby the sort of audience you’re mainly targeting.

But yes, if there are no budgetary constraints (which, admittedly, is rarely the case), I’d definitely encourage everyone to pour as many resources as possible into getting the period right. Why? Because you’ll get two things for one:

You give those among your players who know their way around the period an opportunity to totally immerse themselves in it (and they’ll love you for it). And for those who aren’t as familiar with the period, you’re instilling in them appreciation for an era which will further their interest in history and ultimately your brand. It’s a win-win situation.

Finally, regarding the sacrifice of accuracy for the sake of a good story: those two are actually not mutually exclusive. There’s this writing exercise, where you deliberately write yourself in a corner. You remove as many options as possible, creating scenes or situations that force you to find unusual solutions. The outcome is often wildly creative, as you’re eschewing the trodden path for new grounds.

Consider the restraints of historical accuracy in a similar fashion: you might not have as many options as you had before, but that’s a chance to fire up your narrative in ways you’d probably not have imagined otherwise.

Still not sure about whether your game actually needs any historical accuracy at all? Then drop me a note and we’ll have a look together!

 

 

11 Nov

A uma hora incerta

A Uma Hora Incerta

Source: www.aumahoraincerta.com

The last two weeks, I was in the fortunate position to be on a jury for the Vienna Film Festival Viennale. We were a party of five and had to choose one among twenty films to be sponsored for Austrian-wide release.

If you’ve ever watched twenty films, more or less in a row, and then had to decide which one of those you found best, you’ll know how hard of a decision that was. We did finally choose one, and while it’s a period film, I have to say that that wasn’t the main reason (on my part at least).

It’s the second film by Portuguese director and screenwriter Carlos Saboga, called “A Uma Hora Incerta” (At an uncertain time).  It describes a rather unhealthy relationship between father and daughter, embedded in the framework of Portugal’s Salazar regime in the 1940s. It’s a very elegantly written script, which isn’t much of a surprise, considering Saboga penned many in his life, most noteworthy probably the one for “Mystérios de Lisboa” by director Raoul Ruiz.

The film is filled with characters that don’t explain more than they need to, as does the script in general. Many insinuations are clear, others are just touched upon. It creates a great base for a film that ends as much shrouded in mystery as it has started.

It also works well as a period piece. The Salazar regime in Portugal lasted from the 1930s until 1974, 36 years of which António de Oliveira Salazar was the head of state. It was a dictatorship (even though there are those who regard Salazar as a saviour of Portugal), and the film’s framework builds upon this atmosphere of secrecy, unchecked police power and the omnipresent danger of informants selling you out.

The film’s budget was constrained, so a lot of the things that take us back into the time, apart from costumes, are archival footage and radio broadcasts. They’re placed strategically throughout the film, giving us an idea of the time we’re in without being overbearing.

It is the sort of period film that excels at using an historical backdrop to tell a timeless story. The historical backdrop is important to explain the more obvious motivations of the characters, but the inner conflicts happen without it.

I’m happy we were able to help this film out. Ideally, soon a wider audience in Austria will get to see it, and if you happen to have the chance to catch it at a theater near you, do take it. You won’t regret it!

19 Oct

Introducing a podcast about history’s stories

A few weeks ago I launched, together with fellow historian Daniel Meßner, a podcast about the stories buried within history. We called it “Zeitsprung”, which translates rather well into “time leap”.

It’s currently in German only, but it’s quite possible that we’ll be doing the same in English sometime in the near future.

The stories are often little anecdotes, rarely heard of episodes or simply tales too strange not to talk about. It’s an entertaining little thing, if you don’t mind me saying so.

If you’re using iOS, we’re on iTunes too, otherwise you’ll find all the latest episodes at Zeitsprung.fm.

If you like getting all the latest episodes in your Facebook newsstream, there’s also a Facebook page.

Finally, if you have any feedback or story ideas, don’t be shy to write an e-mail to feedback@zeitsprung.fm.

 

 

09 Oct

Preserving the past: Aspern Museum

My last “Preserving the past” instalment took us to Graz, Austria’s second largest city.

In this one, we are in Vienna, Austria’s capital, but we’re focusing on a small part that wasn’t incorporated into the city of Vienna until 1904. It’s called Aspern, and while it’s a tranquil little part of the 22nd district now, a bit more than 200 years ago it was the center of one of the bloodiest confrontations of the Napoleonic Wars.

The Background

It’s the year 1809 and Napoleon’s adversary is Archduke Charles, commander of the Austrian forces.

Following the capture of the city of Vienna, Napoleon decided to cross the Danube river near the island of Lobau in order to confront the army of Archduke Charles. What he didn’t know was that the Archduke’s army was already far nearer than suspected, that is in the then suburb of Vienna Floridsdorf, and not, as Napoleon thought, still near Brünn in Bohemia. He therefore didn’t put much emphasis on securing the area or getting his army across the Danube as fast as possible.

As first parts of the army had crossed over the Danube, they quickly occupied the rather undefended villages of Aspern and Essling, where they were soon surprised by the first formations of the Austrian forces.

The battle raged for two days, and after the Austrian forces had driven the French back onto Lobau island, more than 27,000 French men had lost their lives, among them famous French Marshal Lannes, close friend and confidant of Napoelon. Even though the battle ended in a victory for the Austrian troops, they too lost around 23,000 men.

Still, it was the first time in a decade that Napoleon had been defeated and therefore an important reminder to both him and his adversaries that under the right circumstances, even he could be beaten.

The Museum

The stony lion in front of the museum

Commemorating the event, the Aspern Museum is set in an old chapel in the center of the little town. It’s tiny, by any standards, and it’s open only on Sundays from 10am to 12am.

The lion on the square in front of the museum is by artist Anton Dominik von Fernkorn. It symbolizes a lion dying on top of French symbols like the imperial eagle and various other insignia. The statue was built in remembrance of all soldiers who lost their lives in the course of the battle.

The museum itself is one room into which you descend down a few steps and features mostly artefacts from the battle. Coins, buttons, rusty guns and various insignia fill the display cases.

The walls are adorned with many paintings, contemporary and from the period, depicting the battle or their various commanders.

IMG_20150906_111110

They also display a number of weapons: both originals (some from the battlefield) and newer replicas.
2015-09-06 11.08.01

Even though the museum is tiny, it’s a lovingly preserved and at times rather eclectic collection of remnants, giving you an interesting glimpse into this short period of the past.

Two more things: the museum is only open from April until October. So either be very quick to go there or wait until April. Also, it’s free to visit, but I have the feeling they’re quite happy if you buy a couple of their postcards and photographs.

But that’s not all: when you’re done with the museum, there’s yet another way to walk in the footsteps of the soldiers from 200 years ago. Quite literally, actually.

 

The Napoleon Track

After the French forces were pushed back by the Austrians and had to retreat, they did so to the island from which they had come, Lobau island.

What exactly did Napoleon do there, once the initial shock of having been defeated had worn off? This, according to David G. Chandler in his book “The Campaigns of Napoleon”:

First, he evacuated all the army save Massena’s corps from the island of Lobau and set about turning it into a regular entrenched camp, with good roads, strong fortifications armed with 129 guns and, above all, reliable links with the south bank. Before the end of June, two good bridges had been built linking Kaiser-Ebersdorf with the Schneidergrund islet, and beyond that point were three more onto Lobau itself. Solid stockades were piledriven into the river bed upstream to ward off floating obstructions; a flotilla of gunboats manned by the Marines of the Guard was brought into service to patrol the approaches, and a vast quantity of material was stockpiled on the island for bridging the last channel.

Walking twenty minutes from the Aspern museum towards the Danube will lead you straight to this little island.

Vienna’s forestry service has mapped out the “Napoleon Wanderweg” (Napoleon track), which leads you around the island and marks interesting spots with little obelisk markers. You’ll have to look closely, though, because you might miss one or two hidden inside the dense underbrush.

One of them marks the head of the bridge built by the French where they crossed the Danube onto the island, another marks the spot where Napoleon probably had his headquarters.

2015-09-06 14.05.25

While you won’t find any exciting remnants of Napoleon’s troops there, it’s a nice way to look back into the past, imagining what the island might have looked like 200 years ago, teeming with French troops building, recovering and living there for roughly six weeks.

Today, the whole island is rather tranquil (and known to be a rather popular spot for nudists during summer).

Finally, after the roughly two hours it takes you to walk across the island, you might be kind of hungry. Why not dine at Napoleon’s Schnitzelhaus? Considering that Napoleon preferred his food on the simpler side, I tend to think he might have liked that.

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26 Sep

The pleasures and pitfalls of recreating the past

Knights in shining armor at Jedenspeigen medieval fair.

Knights in shining armor at Jedenspeigen medieval fair.

A few weeks ago we spent a scorching hot summer day looking at knights jousting, men-at-arms hitting each other and their shields with swords and maces and doing it all in a sort of commemoration of the Battle of Dürnkrut and Jedenspeigen, also known as the battle on the Marchfeld.

This battle that took place on a similarly scorching summer’s day in 1278 between Premjsl Ottokar II., King of Bohemia and Rudolph I. of Habsburg, German king and commander of the Imperial army. It is known as the beginning of the more than 600 year rule of the house of Habsburg in the region, as Rudolph crushingly defeated Ottokar (it should be noted that he was aided by King Ladislaus IV. of Hungary, whose bowmen played quite a pivotal role in the defeat of the Bohemian forces).

Now, seeing these guys up on their massive horses doing jousts, battling it out with swords and just generally showing a remarkable deftness was great but of course nowhere near historically correct. It was entertainment and what was needed was  a story that framed the show. Some of the riders played actual historical persons (like Ottokar himself or his bastard son Nicholas), others were in there to put some diversity into the story. But all in all, it was meant to keep the hundreds of people watching at the edge of their seats (which were actually bails of hay, of course).

Not always an exact science

So, when it comes to recreating an event like a battle that took place some 700 years ago, limits are not just the constraints of wanting to tell an entertaining story, there’s also very real problems concerning the actual sources of the events that should be depicted.

Incidentally, in 1982, a bit more than 700 years after the battle took place, Austrian historian Andreas Kusternig published a very thorough book that discussed the problems of reliable narrative sources. His example was the above mentioned battle on the Marchfeld, and reading it, it becomes clear how intricate and sometimes frustratingly complex the study of these sources are.

It starts with a very simple question: who were the people that decide to write down accounts of what happened at this battle? Were they simply anonymous clerical writers or were they tasked by royalty or aristocracy to pen down the events chronology for posterity?

Then the question of the sources’ sources: where did they get their information from? Actual contemporary witnesses of the battle? Maybe just some hearsay?

And one other major question to ask: when was it written? Relatively shortly after the battle or maybe a couple of years later?

After looking at and answering these questions, there’s a plethora of other issues that might come up: Who were the writers of the source loyal to? What was the writer’s interest in the story? Whom was their account written for?

It’s often more or less impossible to answer all of these questions without a shred of doubt, so it’s often a matter of taking an educated guess. Once you’ve done that you’re able to dissect the source and glean from it what you think is reliable information, or what might just be propaganda.

And then it becomes even more complicated…

Imagine you’ve answered all the above questions, deduced what’s a reliable source and what isn’t and then, if you want to be really sure, you take a look at the different versions of the texts you went through. Because, unfortunately, it’s not as clear cut as you might have thought.

Of the sources Kusternig discusses, all of them came to us in various shapes and forms. Historians then had to go ahead and through various methods decide which copy of their source is the most recent, the most complete, ultimately the most reliable. A task that is quite monumental.

Which is actually a pretty bad segue to tell you about the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, a collection of primary sources of the German middle ages (we’re using the term German here rather loosely). It’s a great undertaking that was started in the 19th century and it’s actually a task so monumental, it’s not finished yet. The results are big tomes that themselves need quite a bit of an introduction to make sense of (a fact I found out about during my own studies). The good news is, the MGH, as it is often abbreviated, can be found online as well. So  don’t take my word for it, go ahead and take a look at what medieval sources look like.

Anyway, the story doesn’t end here. The thing is, historical studies are subject to change as much as any other scientific field. In the case of editing old sources into an easily readable format, the problem was that most of the historians who did this adhered to the so-called positivistic approach, which focused on what was the apparent meat and potatoes of a source, expecting it to adhere to some sort of naturalistic law of writing history. In the course of that approach, many of those questions weren’t ever asked, the result of which happened to be a bit frustrating. As Kusternig puts it (translation my own):

Only in the Codices themselves do we find the text in its immediate completeness, while its context within the edition is often critically hacked to pieces and found in various Continuationes, Auctaries, versions or other edition-formats devised by the editors. Only by looking at the original can we get an idea of what it actually looks like.

Basically, all the sources that talk about the battle on the Marchfeld were carefully edited, but in such a way that modern historians have to go back, look at the various originals (which themselves are often copies of copies of copies) and then decide for themselves whether maybe even more salient information could have been gleaned from them.

So what does that all mean?

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog-post about “filling in the gaps”. What I was talking about then was how most accounts of historical events or people leave open gaps of interpretation. There is a lot of guesswork involved when it comes to what dresses, hairstyles, food, drinks and many other things looked like. We will never be able to go back in time and have a look ourselves (unless you’re Bill and Ted, in which case you can do whatever you want), so we depend on educated guesses first and then the ability to pour what little we have into the moulds that become our historical films, novels or video games. Which is exactly the point where what I do comes in, facilitating the process of discerning between the wild and the educated guess in order to create a convincing and ideally educational piece of entertainment.

But even before we can do that, there is considerable groundwork to be done by historians to make sure that the foundations on which these guesses are based are solid. Just like any other science, it is all based on collaborative efforts. As we saw above, certain types of historiographic ideology might keep us from seeing parts of sources that weren’t deemed important. Only later generations of historians, who went ahead and took another look at these sources, made sure that certain elements of a source got the reception and scholarly scrutiny they deserve (and need).

In the case of above mentioned Renaissance fair, though? I’d say as long as it gets some people to look up what (probably) really happened on that fateful scorching summer’s day in 1278, their time is well spent.

 

27 Aug

Preserving the Past: Styrian Armory

The Styrian Armory - just look at the scale of this place.

The Styrian Armory – just look at the scale of this place!

So, what is it about history on film or in games that fascinates people? At least for me, it’s about the idea of creating a connection with a time that is invariably gone. The same thing holds true for museums or historical buildings. Whenever I look at objects on display, I can’t help but letting my mind wander, thinking who those people might have been who held, wore, created these things.

So, with that in mind, this new category I chose to call “Preserving the Past”. It will be all about places that, well, preserve the past. Being in the fortunate position of living in the centre of Europe where there’s plenty of history wherever you go, I will be showing pictures of the places we visited while telling you a bit about them.

First off: The Styrian Armory. Situated in the heart of Graz, the second largest city in Austria, the armory holds the title of the largest, still existing historical armory in the world. That is no mean feat! It boasts 32.000 individual pieces, all on display on three floors.

Growing up near the city, I first visited the armory when I was a little kid, but I returned with my girlfriend at the beginning of this year. We were lucky, because we visited the city shortly after their winter break (during which you can only go in with a guided tour – for some reason I always prefer walking through places like that at my own pace).

So why the need for an armory of that scale? Well, between the 15th and 17th century Styria was a frontier province and it was vital that equipment was always at hand when needed against threats from the east.

In 1699, when the conflict with the Ottoman Turks officially ended, Hungary was ceded to Austria and Styria’s unique position as a frontier province ended. Apart from providing weapons during later conflicts in Hungary, the armory’s role was not nearly as vital as it used to be. This was reflected in Empress Maria Theresa’s decision to decommission and break up the Styrian Armory in the mid-1700s. Fortunately for us, the Styrian people had grown attached to the armory and petitioned for it to be kept intact, not least as a testament to Styria’s wild history. The Empress granted their wish, and while the armory was (partly) decommissioned, it was in fact kept intact.

Today it houses pieces that range from suits of armor to pistols, ammunition, halberds, pikes, swords, artillery and a slew of other most interesting pieces of equipment.

It’s definitely worth a visit, not least because its upkeep is exemplary. And hey, where else do you get to see row after row of 16th century pistols? (it’s a rhetorical question, but in case you’re wondering, the answer is “nowhere”).

So, on to some pictures. Enjoy!

07 Aug

Of skeptics or Why we fill in the blanks

Yet another not quite contemporary drawing of William Wallace. Also, not historically correct.

Yet another historically (and anatomically) inaccurate depiction of William Wallace.

If you’re reading this, you have probably seen the film “Braveheart”. You might even be aware of the various problems regarding the film’s historical accuracy. I won’t regurgitate them here, but you can have a look at the main points of contention here.

It seems like a clear-cut example of carelessness on the side of the filmmakers, but if you dig a bit deeper, it becomes more complex than just the story of Hollywood blindly trampling all over history.  As William Guynn in his book “Writing history in film” paraphrased French historian François de la Bretéque, a fervent critic of historical films and novels:

[…] the “internal” codes of filmic representation—particularly, one assumes, codes of mise en scène—ultimately are more decisive in the production of a historical film than concerns for accuracy, and the advice of a film’s historical consultants is often overridden.

The above example of Braveheart seems to illustrate that. After the film’s release, many academics were in fact displeased with the result, to put it mildly. On the other hand, Elspeth King, director of the Stirling Smith Museum and Art Gallery, wrote a piece in response to such criticism, in which she explained how even this uneven portrayal of William Wallace wasn’t detrimental but rather beneficial to the interest of the general public in Scottish history. To quote from her piece, regarding the museum’s 700th year exhibition:

The mood of visitors to the exhibition has been celebratory, and devoid of the racist and violent tendencies with which its detractors would like to dismiss the cult of Wallace. Most are intelligent and discerning enough to know that the film is not factual in every respect but it has excited and inspired them, and they want to know more.

The lesson here: don’t underestimate your audience and the effect of films on public history. Which in turn brings me back to the views of French historian François de la Bretèque, as Guynn recounts them:

Moreover, historical films rarely restrict themselves to what is known. Rather, they attempt to “fill in the blanks” of history: historical narrative in film is permitted to say anything that cannot be contradicted: “You could almost say that, by definition, the historical
film situates itself exactly at the spots where one cannot know what really took place.”

As Elspeth King points out in her piece, the basis for Braveheart’s script was an epic poem by Blind Harry, a poet who lived in the 15th century and wrote his account of the hero roughly 170 years after Wallace’s death. As opposed to the rather scarce academic sources about William Wallace, the poem did fill in the blanks. Moreover, according to King, had that poem not been written and retold countless of times, Wallace would have probably been dismissed by academics “as mere figments of anglophobic fantasy”.

It’s interesting to see that François de la Bretèque’s criticism could be applied to Blind Harry just as well, for what he did was fill in the blanks. Had he not created his poem by filling in the blanks, there would not have been a whole lot to say about this William Wallace.

The irony of François de la Bretèque’s criticism is, that it can in turn easily serve as justification for creating historical films, games or novels. While there are many eras or events in history where sources are abundant, many have to make do with others filling in the blanks (that is, after all, what historians do).  And while it’s not an easy task to walk the tightrope that is creating a piece of entertainment while trying to remain true to its historical base, the result of those efforts can be very rewarding. A film, game or novel that takes itself seriously enough to do its homework, therefore capturing the imagination of its audiences, can stir up discussion and debate, not only but especially in classrooms, therefore raising awareness and interest in areas that might have otherwise been lost to whole generations.

That said, I wonder what François de la Bretèque makes of the Horrible Histories.