Saturday, June 21, 2014

Continuing with the Issue of Historical Authenticity

The accuracy of ideas of the medieval carried forward in popular culture is one that seems to have been on the minds of contributors to this blog of late, as Helen Young's "Who Cares if Game of Thrones Is Authentically Medieval?" and "Who Cares about Historical Authenticity? I Do," and my "About a Popova Piece...and a Bit of Rebuttal" indicate. Given this, when I ran across Robert Krulwich's NPR piece, "Wrong! Deconstructing 5 Famous History Stories," I found myself interested. I continued to be so as I read the piece, in which Krulwich reports on the YouTube efforts of CGP Grey, who makes a habit of putting together internet videos that deconstruct and seek to correct cultural commonplaces. The piece is short and is badly titled ("history stories" seems awkward and unpolished, which I do not expect from an NPR writer), but there is a point of interest in it (aside from the links to Grey's work, which is not bad overall, although its condemnation of poets and artists is unpalatable).

That point is Krulwich's assertion that the repeated assertions of scholars do not change people's attitudes. He remarks additionally that those who teach are aware of the difficulty of getting people to change their preconceptions, and I can attest to the truth of that statement in my own life and teaching. (I am aware that individual anecdotes are not terribly convincing evidence.) Comfort, though, is more important than feeling smart, it seems. Identifications and interpretations of data that are more inclusive and leaner, that work better at producing desired results and determining what results are most to be desired, are set aside in favor of others that require less cognitive work. Even when those less effort intensive understandings lead to error and problems, they are held, not infrequently more tightly because of the problems; persecution complexes are easily developed. To borrow another (somewhat) popular medievalism and its correction, the idea of Chaucer as the representative of Middle English and standard from which to judge all other Middle Englishes, is a faulty one, as Tim William Machan correctly notes. Yet it is the idea that is transmitted forward in many surveys of early British literature, and even in higher-level courses to and by those who really ought to know better. That it is is depressing for those who agree with Young's assertion in "Who Cares about Historical Authenticity? I Do" that those who will study the medieval (and that must include those who will study its appearances in later periods) are obliged to work to correct misconceptions; if even those who ought to know better, working to help those who want to know better come to know better, perpetuate wrong-headed beliefs, then there is little hope for the many who are content to be wrong so long as they do not need to work to change their beliefs. (And they are beliefs. They are choices. So they are not "facts."*)

The notion of teaching's difficulty intersects with Grey's assertion in "5 Historical Misconceptions Rundown" that poets and artists are to blame for historical misconceptions. Artistic endeavor does not purpose to report "facts" as such, and to castigate it for failing to do so is to impose a rubric upon it that it does not claim for itself and does not deserve. Artistic endeavor purposes, among others, to prompt examination and reexamination not only of the "facts" but of the contexts in which those "facts" are gathered and disseminated, as well as those who will gather, disseminate, and interpret them. The problem in misunderstanding history is not the fault of the artist, who does not seek to produce "true history" so much as to offer an alternative understanding of world and self, but of the teacher who misreads art as what it is not and presents the results of that reading as "fact." It is the fault of the student who follows the banking model and sits quiescent, accepting what is given in the hopes of regurgitating it successfully so that it need not be retained. Some of it will always remain, though. Some will have been metabolized, however quickly it is spewed back again, and the little that remains is not likely to be the best bit to retain. That which is eaten earliest is most likely to be digested, to be taken and incorporated into the undiscriminating eater, true of teaching as of dining; it is the ideas inculcated early that take the most to overturn, and it is unfortunately those ideas that are most frequently wrong. Not simplified (for there is sense in scaffolding knowledge, and people do not react as adversely to the complication of things as to the overthrow of them), but wrong. Grey points out the example of Columbus, and in the comments on his video as well as in the Krulwich article that discusses it, there are defenders of the notion that the Italian "discovered" the New World despite the earlier travels of Icelanders to the continent and the older presence of indigenous peoples throughout the landmass. The oft-cited adage that "ain't" is not a word is maintained despite the presence of the word in such dictionaries as Oxford's and Merriam-Webster's.** Other examples abound, and many of them--perhaps even most--go to the issue of early teaching skewing all future understanding, rather than the artists being to blame for how their works are used in years they never see and cannot foresee.

If there is to be the kind of palliative for which Young calls in "Who Cares about Historical Authenticity? I Do," it has to come not only from the scholarly community, whose reach is limited by social factors that themselves need to be addressed (and that this blog seeks to address, albeit in a small way), but from those in the broader community who are positioned such that others will listen to them. Teachers of younger students are among them, as are the artists whom Grey identifies as contributing to the problem. The Society has been fortunate to host one such in a presentation at the 2014 International Congress on Medieval Studies, but there needs to be more such work done. Making works of popular culture more consonant with "how things really were" has to be a shared endeavor if it is to be successful--and it needs to be successful.

*The concept of "fact" is fraught, of course, given that selecting what data count as "facts" and which "facts" are worth reporting are interpretive decisions. This is entirely aside from the physical limitations on perception that necessarily limit access to information.

**Using presence in major dictionaries as an indicator of "being a word" is somewhat suspect, admittedly. It does function as a useful shorthand, however, and is deployed for that purpose only.

Works Cited
  • "Ain't." Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford UP, 2014. Web. 21 June 2014.
  • "Ain't." Merriam-Webster, 2014. Web. 21 June 2014.
  • Elliott, Geoffrey B. "About a Popova Piece...and a Bit of Rebuttal." Tales after Tolkien: Travels in Genre and Medievalism. Tales after Tolkien Society, 17 June 2014. Web. 21 June 2014.
  • Grey, CGP. "5 Historical Misconceptions Rundown." YouTube. Google, 18 April 2012. Web. 21 June 2014.
  • Krulwich, Robert. "Wrong! Deconstructing 5 Famous History Stories." NPR, 20 June 2014. Web. 21 June 2014.
  • Machan, Tim William. "Chaucer and the History of English." Speculum 87.1 (January 2012): 147-75. Print.
  • Young, Helen. "Who Cares if Game of Thrones Is Authentically Medieval?" Tales after Tolkien: Travels in Genre and Medievalism. Tales after Tolkien Society, 12 June 2014. Web. 21 June 2014.
  • ---. "Who Cares about Historical Authenticity? I Do." Tales after Tolkien: Travels in Genre and Medievalism. Tales after Tolkien Society, 16 June 2014. Web. 21 June 2014.


  1. As a bit of a follow-up to one of the ideas I note in the post, there is a comment reported by Susannah Locke, who quotes Sarah Richardson as saying "textbooks are a really critical place to look because you see how knowledge gets crystallized, and once it gets there it can take decades to be removed." This is part of what underlies the educaiotnal issue I note above.

    The Locke article is here:

  2. Following up further, there are a couple of articles dealing with sexism in appropriations of armor: