Historical Inaccuracies: How Much is Acceptable?

Solomon Kane had so many historical inaccuracies. wegotthiscovered.com

For the last year or so, I have had an idea in my head of a novel set in a historic location. My completed novel is a medieval society but it is set in the future so I have a lot of leeway with regard to what I can get away with technology wise. For example, I describe (not in great detail) the protagonist arriving back in England on a tall ship – the narrative describes a vessel fitting closer to the Golden Age of Piracy than the 14th century. Most of the rest of the technology feels 13th-14th century. For example, there are no cannons at the only siege battle in the novel.

“My name is Gladiator and I’m here to hunt Aliens.” wikispaces.com

My new idea is definitely set in the past. It is 1st century Rome, during the reign of (at least at the moment) the Emperor Vespasian. As he was responsible for commissioning the building of the Colosseum, I thought that using a group of retired/freed Gladiators would be most apt. The story will centre around this ragtag group of gladiators sent on a private Imperial mission into the forests of Germania. A fortress (or series of small forts) has been attacked and destroyed with no confirmed survivors. An entire legion has been lost. I will most likely need to invent a legion and their fortress in order to stretch actual Roman military activity in the area during the Flavian era (very little was going on in Germania in reality). I might have to invent a “secret” mission beyond the Limes (Lee-Mays – the term for the boundary of the Imperial borders) for a reason for so much military activity there. When they arrive, the fortress will have clearly suffered a massive amount of damage with no survivors to be found anywhere.

This will be science fiction or fantasy related, so expect a sort of “Romans Vs Aliens” premise in the early stages with a lot of leeway to change it if it doesn’t feel right.

Romans Go Home!wikimedia.org 

I don’t intend it to be an educational piece along the lines of Harry Sidebottom or Lindsey Davis’ entertaining method of imparting her knowledge in the Falco series, but I am looking for a decent level of credibility that only experts on the Roman Empire would feel a slight niggle – and even then would understand the necessity for my artistic license. As readers, we do allow for a certain amount of leeway in historical accuracy but their comes a point where you are asking your reader to stretch their credibility too much. The 14th century “Unusually Emancipated Woman” has become a stereotype in itself and is therefore part and parcel of modern historical fiction writing. But what about other things? To what extent are we prepared to forgive a writer and to what extent should we pull them up for lacking credibility?

For me as an archaeologist, I cringe at seeing window glass in a medieval house. I cringe at seeing more roofing tiles than thatch in the same film. I also cringed at the mish-mash that was the Solomon Kane film. Please indulge me, some of these might seem anal to the untrained mind:

  • Solomon Kane retreats to a monastery in the early 17th century (a period when there hadn’t been one in England for 75 years and wouldn’t be one for almost another 200 years)
  • The clothing is anything between 50-100 years too early
  • The firearms are at least 100 years too early – they feel very pirate era
  • The ships are at least 200 years too early
  • The Union Jack as displayed in this film would not appear for another 200 years

Most of this will irritate the history buff but will not impact the enjoyment for most people so from a certain standpoint, they might be forgiveable – only when they create logical or situational errors that are relevant to the plot could they prove to be problematic.

I think the true issue here from the perspective of the general readership is plausibility. The wrong type of ship in a film like Solomon Kane might be invisible to most people but no doubt we would all feel it was a stretch too far if he carried an uzi into some of his battles. We accept Lord of the Rings as being in a fantasy setting but we do expect a certain plausibility – otherwise we’d have no problem with Frodo using a SatNav to guide him to Mordor.

Are you annoyed at historical inaccuracy? When do you permit artistic license and when does anachronism become too much?

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5 thoughts on “Historical Inaccuracies: How Much is Acceptable?

  1. That’s a good question. Really, I think it has to do with the skill of the writer and how well a reader gets immersed into a story. And, as you said, whatever is used (whether inaccurate or accurate) has to make sense for the story. I know I forgive a lot (too much) as long as I am enjoying the ride. 🙂

    1. In the end that’s all that matters – that people are enjoying it. Those of us who spot and are critical of anachronisms are never going to change what is an enjoyable book or film. I love the Assassin’s Creed video games. They are largely set in historical settings – the first in the Holy Land during the Crusades and the most recent set in Revolution era USA. The plot is very silly at times but I thoroughly enjoy them.

  2. Pingback: NaNoWriMo 2013 | Sweat, Tears and Digital Ink

  3. Purely on a film front, anything which pulls me out of the movie with a ‘Oh seriously? Did you even have a researcher?’ comment is going too far. The same for books really. If I know it, and I’m only interested in history, not trained, why couldn’t your research turn up that same fact for a multimillion budget movie? Arrrrgh! (That’s an authentic pirate curse btw 😉 )

    1. When I saw that film when it was on at the cinema, my ex turned to me with a frown and said “in a monastery during the Stuart reign?” that even jarred for her, though in defence of the film she knew for a while in my degree I lived and breathed monasteries and she learnt how widespread and important the Dissolution was. Most people would not pick up on something like that though, so that would be the most forgiveable from a lay perspective, even if it was a crass error to a historian.

      Thanks again!

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