Monday, June 16, 2014

Who Cares About Historical Authenticity? I Do

A few days ago I (Helen here), posted about "Games of Thrones," and why people care if it's really 'medieval' or not. I'd always planned to do a follow-up post, but have been kicked into writing it sooner than I intended originally by something I read on Tumblr over the weekend.
I've written before, here on my own blog, and here in the Year's Work in Medievalism, about what I call the 'monochrome Middle Ages,' the assumption that everyone in Europe (including travellers) during the medieval period was white. Usually tacked onto this is the idea that there was no concept of 'race' then either. Of course, none of this is true, but it's used right across the spectrum of media fandom and production to exclude characters of colour from medievalist texts, even when they are fantasy and include, say, ice zombies and dragons. Similar concepts of 'historical authenticity' are variously used to justify representation of  violence against women, offering only limited roles for women, lack of representation of queer characters, and exclusion of disabled characters. There are, of course, medievalist texts that don't do any of these things, and that specifically try to work against them. The Dragon Age franchise from Bioware has included queer characters and attempted to work against sexism, and to be more racially inclusive, albeit in limited ways.

Academics aren't the only ones who challenge assumptions about what 'medieval' means when it comes to race, gender, sexuality and the rest. There's an incredible resource on Tumblr: "People of Color in European Art History,"which is here. It links a social justice agenda with reams of historical evidence about the represenation and presence of people of colour in Europe in the Middle Ages.

I joked in my previous post about 'which anachronism in Game of Thrones irritates you most' being a good conversation starter at conferences, but when it comes to questions like racism and sexism, these kinds of issues are serious, and can go beyond even issues of representation on screen (or in the pages).

Back in January this year, Warhorse Studios ran a crowd-funding campaign to support their game Kingdom Come: Deliverance (which is not out yet as far as I can tell from Australian outlets, which are often behind). They made a lot of its historical accuracy; the creative director, Daniel Varda, has been quoted as saying:
you can think of it as a Braveheart-game – majestic castles, armoured knights, large-scale battles, political intrigues – all set in a large medieval open world. We want to make the experience as authentic as possible: real locations, real castles, period-decorated costumes and armour, combat and fencing designed by the best swordsmen around, and a story based on real historical evidence.
I read about this because a post on the "People of Color in European Art History," responded to a reader question about it which asked if characters of "other-than-white" descent might be realistically included, and for academic resources. The person who runs the blog (who is often referred to as 'medievalpoc' as s/he chooses to be anonymous) responded with an array of academic texts, and some artwork, suggesting that they could indeed be included without breaking the 'accuracy' conceit, and also remarked that representation of women and racial minorities was not a priority for the developers. The post was re-blogged around Tumblr (more than 1 200 times as I write this), but was also linked to on the social media site Reddit under a provocative headline. As a result, medievalpoc received an absolute wave of terrible abuse, which was covered on The Daily Dot here (this makes for disturbing reading).What I didn't realise at the time but has recently been posted about on the Tumblr, is that the abuse went as far as death threats, and threats against medievalpoc's family. This is an extreme instance of where the 'monochrome Middle Ages' ideas, and its variants on other issues. can lead.

This kind of extreme, potentially violent reaction is ultimately another reason that historical authenticity, and whether a media text is really 'medieval' or not is important. We can joke about, or be genuinely annoyed by inaccuracies, but there's far more to them than that. Academic versions of the Middle Ages have, historically, contributed to incorrect assumptions about them, and we've now got a responsibility to do something about that. I'm not so naive as to think that someone who writes death threats over the mere suggestion that a game might be more inclusive, or that there were people of colour living in Europe in the Middle Ages, will stop or have their views shaken by any amount of op-ed pieces. But we still have a responsibility to point out when things are wrong, because ultimately if we don't, we allow those same ideas to be perpetuated. The notion that "that's just how it was" is one that I've heard time and time again. Which is one of the reasons that writing op-eds, or blog posts, or articles with variants on "that's NOT how it was," matters.

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